The Hill of Tara
This site was included on our 2005 Most Endangered Sacred Sites List. Please help by joining in our Urgent Action Letter-Writing Campaign for this site. You will find the names and addresses of officials to write to at the end of this article.
The Hill of Tara, called Temair in Gaelic, is the sacred ceremonial and mythical center of Ireland. The place-name being derived from the Greek temenos or sacred enclosure, tells us that this site was an important sanctuary and prehistoric sacred axis. Temair, in many ways constitutes a physical manifestation of Irish identity that is rooted in the sacred land. It is a large circular earth mound, symbolizing the mother earth, with two large circular forms crowning its brow along with a number of specific monuments like the Lia Fail commonly known as the Stone of Destiny used in pre-Christian coronations. It is considered to be the sacred center of Ireland and is part of a larger sacred landscape in the Skyrne Valley and nearby sites of Loughcrew, Four Knocks, Uisneach and the Boyne Valley (Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth), all filled with historic archaeological treasures. It has been suggested that all these hills and others in Ireland were connected through an ancient custom of lighting bonfires atop them to be seen from the other hills, thus creating a double-ring of fire around the entire island.1 Yet, despite the significance of the Hill of Tara, its proximity to Dublin, 30 kilometers away, puts it at danger from a massive development and road-building program slated to bring a freeway inappropriately close to this sacred site.
First we will look at the history and usage of Tara before examining the preservation challenges of the site. The story of Temair, like that of many sacred sites, is a misty blend of ancient history and sacred stories. Dating from the Neolithic period (4,000 – 2,000 BC), the hill, was a henge monument, like Stonehenge and Woodhenge, used for ritual and/or astronomical observations. Excavations on the hill done in 1950 and in 1997 have uncovered an extensive rockcut ditch with postholes suggesting the hill was surrounded by a wooden palisade or fence. The place-name, Temair, may refer specifically to this enclosed sacred space built upon the hill. Objects uncovered at the site indicate a prolonged usage throughout the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, Early Christian times and during the time of the fall of the Roman Empire and into present times. The Irish archeological organization, Discovery Programme, estimates there are between 140 and 1,000 unexcavated archaeological sites in the immediate area of the hill and in the surrounding valley.
The Hill of Tara has played a significant role throughout history as one of the Royal Seats and is considered to be the site of the inauguration of the Sacral King. This should not be construed to mean a territorial kingship, but rather, a sacred kingship bestowed in a place considered to be the center of the world – or a portal between the temporal world and the world of spirit. Being inaugurated at Tara bestowed the highest honor upon a king and accorded him a special dominance over other kings with a title of King of Tara.
Despite its pagan history, Temair continued to play a central role in the construction of a national history and the kings of Ireland continued to use the title King of Tara into the eleventh century. Important military campaigns and political movements were launched from the Hill of Tara, as well, contributing to its position as a spiritual center for nationalist Ireland.3
Specific Sites associated with Tara Hill
There are many megalithic monuments and earth structures on the Hill of Tara. More than thirty monuments can be seen in, on and around Tara and archaeologists who used non-invasive techniques and aerial photography have detected numerous others. The 1997 investigations of Tara discovered an immense temple comprised of over 300 wooden posts and measuring 170 meters.4 Only two of sites on Tara have been excavated, The Mound of the Hostages and the Rath of the Synods.
The Mound of Hostages, dates from 2500 BC and is located at the site of the earliest settlement on Tara. Its name is derived from the practice by the kings of Tara in using it as a holding cell to ensure loyal submission from people of the surrounding kingdoms. The mound isa small, short passage grave designed to catch the rising sunrays on significant calendric days. It is aligned towards the sun for the Celtic festivals of Samhain, on November 8 and for Imbolc on February 4. It is also believed that the passage would be illuminated by the full moon at certain times within a 19-year cycle, specifically the minor standstill rising position.
The mound is also aligned with another earthwork, the so-called Banqueting Hall. This rectangular earthen construct may have been the ceremonial entrance to Tara, a point of convergence for all major roads in ancient Ireland. Between the Mound of the Hostages and the Banqueting Hall is the Rath of the Synods, a ringfort or earthen fortified structure, where excavations uncovered objects from the Roman era dating from the 1st to 3rd centuries.5
Numerous other earthworks are located on Tara. South of the Mound of the Hostages, inside the bank and the ditch of what is known as the Royal Enclosure, stand two related ringforts: the Royal Seat and the Forradh. At the center of the Forradh is located one of the most famous monuments on the hill. This standing stone, made of granite, is known as the King’s Seat or Lia Fail, the Stone of Destiny. A myth tells of it being brought to Ireland by the legendary Tuatha DÈ Danann, a race of godlike pre-Celtic people. According to another legend, the stone was the Pillow of Jacob where Jacob laid his head when he had a vision of the ladder. The stone came to be used as the coronation seat for the High Kings of Tara; it is said that the stone would roar three times when the rightful king touched it. Despite the mixture of fact and stories, the stone on Tara is accepted by many as the true Stone of Destiny. There are, however, those who still believe the real stone is the Scottish Stone of Scone, the coronation stone used by British kings at Westminster.
Sacred geography links Tara and its features to numerous other important archeological sites. South of the Royal Enclosure are the remains of another circular earthwork called the Fort of King Laoghaire, where legend tells of the king being buried in an upright position so that he could see advancing enemies coming. To the north of the Royal Enclosure are other round earthworks, two of them are known as Sloping Trenches and one called Gr·inne’s Fort, named for the daughter of King Cormac’s daughter who was featured in the tragic love story of Diarmuid and Gr·inne. Even further South of Tara is another hill-fort called Rath Maeve, named for the legendary goddess-queen Maeve or Medbh. This site is 230 meters in diameter and part of its bank and ditch are well preserved near the road.
Tara Hill is connected to significant landscape and monumental sites because it was, in medieval times, part of an extensive kingdom whose vast domain extended from the River Dee to the River Liffey and eastwards to the coast. Within this kingdom were sites that still remain as part of the modern landscape: Dunshaughlin, Lagore, Trevet, Tara, Skreen, Navan Teltown, Phoenixtown, Oristown, Emlagh and Kells. The landscape historically extended to the Hill of Skyrne, according to scholar, Edel Brhreathnach in a draft for a forth-coming article in the Journal of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society. Brhreathnach has done extensive scholarly research on medieval texts that link the two hills through the kings of Tara as an important early religious and ritual center. The Hill of Skyrne, still houses the 12th century Skyrne Castle, which is a national monument.
Other scholars point to the fact that all four counties can be observed from Tara Hill, thus establishing that the hill in part of a unified landscape that includes, for example, the Boyne Valley and its significance as a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is a movement underway to nominate Tara Hill and the Skyrne Valley to World Heritage status. The question is, “Will such a nomination come in time?”
It is hard to imagine that the Irish government could threaten Tara Hill because the hill embodies concepts that are fundamentally part of the Irish character such as truth and justice. But that is exactly what is happening. The M3 Motorway Scheme is a four-lane roadway that is planned to cut through the Tara-Skyrne Valley with an interchange immediately north of the Hill of Tara. The M3 Motorway is part of a massive development program that is rapidly replacing the sacred green countryside of Ireland with big box housing developments, strip malls, superstores and suburban sprawl all connected by new roads – 900 kilometers of them, making Ireland the leader in European road-building. Landmarked monuments, archaeological sites, historic places and sacred landscapes have no power when they are in the path of the new roadways.
When such sites are in the pathway, there might be investigative archaeology, but then they are bulldozed. Such was the case of Carrickmines Castle and its medieval chapel. It is considered an extremely important medieval site and has produced over 100,000 artifacts during archaeological exploration. None of this has impressed the Irish government and the National Road Authority in charge of building the roadways. Even though a group of preservation minded citizens occupied the site for half a year to protest its proposed destruction, a high court ruling ordered the demolition of the site. The only thing that will remain will be a single piece of gatehouse standing like an island between two huge intersections.
Sometimes, bulldozers are sent in right away, as the photo on page _ indicates, despite promises to do so only after careful archaeology has been undertaken. The project speed seems to be accelerating perhaps to avoid the costs of archeological investigation, perhaps to stop the growing public disenchantment with the M3 Motorway Scheme.
Ireland has adopted the American love affair with automobiles and the American model of suburban sprawl making them the most car-dependant country in the Europe. According to the Guardian Weekend, in “The Concrete Isle”, written in December 2004, the roads coupled with the large-scale development and building projects has made “Ireland’s per capita greenhouse emissions the highest in Europe and the fifth-highest in the industrialized world.”
It is this dependence on cars that is creating the “need” for more roadways and threatening Tara Hill despite public proposals to utilize more rail transportation. The M3 Motorway will impact at least 28 archaeological sites according to the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society. The M3 will put a brightly lit intersection closer to Tara than the existing road. The Archaeological and Historical Society has been joined by scholars from around the world in protesting the inappropriateness of the M3 pointing to the noise and pollution that has been recently created by the roadway passing alongside Stonehenge. Tara is viewed not only as a national treasure but also as a world-class archaeological site that should be preserved for future generations unharmed by the noise and pollution. “The Concrete Isle” quoted Conor Newman as saying, “How [Tara] is managed by us will become the yardstick against which our reputation as guardians of cultural heritage will be judged.”
The M3 Motorway threat could be eliminated if the international community and the Irish government were to recognize international heritage conventions, the European Landscape Convention and the Irish cultural preservation policies that are being breached. UNESCO could intervene and designate the site as a World Heritage Site offering another level of recognition and oversight.
A proposal exists to reroute the M3 around the Skyrne Valley along with a suggestion for more limited and less-intrusive access to Tara Hill. Given the rapid development of the Irish countryside there is a danger that Tara could become part of a new commercialized landscape subdivisions spilling out into malls with big-box stores and their attending parking lots and bright lights. The bulldozers have arrived and are tearing up the land only a few hills away from Tara so time is of the essence in staging massive international protests against this travesty.
Urgent Action Letter-Writing Campaign:
Please write polite letters to the following officials immediately asking them to stop the M3 Motorway Project because of the sacred, historic, and archaeological landscape features present at Tara Hill and the Skyrne Valley. Time is of the essence since bulldozers have arrived several hills away from Tara.
Irish National Commission for UNESCO
Minister Mary Hanafin T.D.
Clerk of the Joint Committee on Transport
Nancy and Leonard Becker are co-founders of Sacred Sites International Foundation.