Perhaps more than anywhere else in Ireland, the Hill of Tara, on the west side of the N3, is loaded with both historical and mythical significance. It’s best known as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland in the early centuries after Christ, but had been a major ritual site since the late Stone Age, giving it plenty of time to accrue prehistoric legends. The aura of this long, grass-covered hill, covered with mostly circular mounds and ditches, is unmistakable, and the views of the surrounding countryside are magnificent.

Some history – and myth

It’s likely that the site started out in the Neolithic period (c.3500 BC) as a place for burials and for ritual gatherings, with no resident population. Around sixty monuments, mostly barrows, have been discovered on the hill, the latest probably dating to the late Iron Age (c.400 AD). So much for the archeology, but mythology, literature and propaganda have imbued Tara with a far greater significance, as the ritual seat of kings – who did not have to be based here, but derived their authority from association with this revered place.

The earliest Irish sagas portray the hill as the home of the master-of-all-trades Lug, the greatest of the Celtic gods and the divine manifestation of Tara’s kingship, and the goddess Medb (Maeve), who could also legitimize a king, sometimes by getting him drunk and sleeping with him – if she couldn’t find a suitable candidate, Medb would rule herself. Of these legendary kings, the greatest were Cormac Mac Airt and Conaire Mór, semi-divine embodiments of peace, prosperity and righteousness. On somewhat firmer ground, seventh-century historical texts tell of recent struggles between the dynasties of Leinster, Ulster and the Uí Néills (pronounced “Ee-nails”; based in the northwest and the midlands) for the kingship of Tara. The Uí Néills came out on top, but while the title rí Temrach (king of Tara) would have given them special status over the other kings, territorial control over the whole island was not a possibility until the ninth century, when the island became less politically fragmented. In the eleventh century, however, geopolitical reality bit, and Tara lost out to the big city, Dublin.

Tara’s significance continues into modern times: during the 1798 Rebellion some of the United Irishmen made a dramatic last stand on the hill, while in 1843 Daniel O’Connell harnessed the symbolic pull of the site to stage his biggest “monster meeting” here, attended by up to a million people, as part of his campaign to repeal the Union with England.

The site

Hard up against the wall of the church’s graveyard, the first of the mounds you come to is the 83-metre-wide ring fort known as the Rath of the Synods, the reputed location of ecclesiastical synods in the sixth century. It’s the untidiest of Tara’s mounds: not only has it been partly destroyed by the church graveyard, but between 1899 and 1902 members of a cult, the British Israelites, dug up the rath, believing they would find the Ark of the Covenant. It’s a particular shame that they kept no record of their efforts as this site went through many functions over the centuries: from early Bronze Age barrow, through palisaded ceremonial building, back to cemetery, and finally to ring fort. A Roman seal and lock have been found from this last phase, evidence of contact with the Roman world (probably Britain) in the fourth and fifth centuries AD.

The next tumulus to the south is the earliest on the site, the so-called Mound of the Hostages. It takes its name from the primitive medieval peacekeeping practice of exchanging hostages with neighbouring kingdoms, who were supposedly imprisoned within the mound by Cormac Mac Airt. Built around 3000 BC, it’s actually a Neolithic tomb with a four-metre-long passage that was reputed to have given entry to the other world. Access is no longer possible, but you can admire the typical concentric circles and zigzag patterns carved on one of the portal stones. No fewer than two hundred cremated late-Neolithic burials were found here, to which were added around forty from the Bronze Age, some cremated, some inhumed, the latter including a high-ranking teenage boy wearing a necklace of jet, amber, bronze and exotic faïence beads.

A kilometre-long circular bank, the Royal Enclosure, surrounds the Mound of the Hostages, and two larger, conjoined earthworks: the Forrad, a Bronze Age burial complex, and Cormac’s Residence, an Iron Age ring fort to the east. In the centre of the Forrad is the Stone of Destiny (the lia fail), a phallic standing stone used in the coronation of the High Kings. Tradition states that the royal candidate had to drive his chariot wheel against the stone, and the gods, if they approved, would screech out his name. To the south of the Royal Enclosure lie the crescent-shaped remains of the Enclosure of King Laoghaire, who is said to be buried here standing upright and dressed in his armour, facing his enemies, the Leinstermen.

To the north of the church, the so-called Banqueting Hall is actually two low banks of earth running parallel for over two hundred metres. Though traditionally held to have been an enormous hall into which thousands of men from all over Ireland would have collected on ritual occasions, this was in fact probably Tara’s ceremonial entrance avenue, aligned with the Mound of the Hostages and flanked by tombs and temples.

West of this avenue stands Gráinne’s Fort, a burial mound surrounded by a circular ditch and bank. Like many ancient sites throughout Ireland, it has become associated with the tale of “The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne”: the daughter of Cormac Mac Airt, Gráinne is betrothed to the king’s elderly commander, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, but falls in love with one of his young warriors, Diarmuid, and elopes with him from Tara, with Fionn and his warriors in hot pursuit.

Beyond a line of trees to the west of Gráinne’s Fort, two ring barrows known as the Sloping Trenches cling to the hill’s steep western slope. To explain their unusual location, legend has it that the “trenches” were created when the palace of the bad king, Lugaid Mac Conn, collapsed, after his judgments were shown to be false by a young Cormac Mac Airt.