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Hill of Tara Review

In legends and in the popular imagination, the "seat of the High Kings of Ireland" has taken on mythic proportions. As with much of the Celtic past, it was the 19th-century revival led by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory that was responsible for the near-religious veneration of this site, set at the junction of the five ancient roads of Ireland. Today, its ancestral banqueting hall and great buildings (one was the former palace of the Ard Rí, or High King) have vanished except for a few columns. Still, the site is awe-inspiring.

From the top of the Hill of Tara—it rises more than 300 feet above sea level—you can see across the flat central plain of Ireland, with the mountains of east Galway visible from a distance of nearly 160 km (100 miles). In the mid-19th century, the nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell staged a mass rally here that supposedly drew more than a million people—which would be nearly a third of Ireland's current population. At the Interpretative Center, housed in an old church on the hillside, you can learn the story of Tara and its legends. Without this background it will be difficult to identify many of the earthworks outside. After systematic excavations in the 20th century, archaeologists have concluded that the largest remains are those of an Iron Age fort that was ruined in the 19th century by religious zealots searching for the Ark of the Covenant. The "Mound of the Hostages," a Neolithic passage grave, most likely gave the place its sacred air. During the hill's reign as a royal seat, which lasted to the 11th century, a great feìs (national assembly) was held here every third year, during which laws were passed and tribal disputes settled. Tara's influence waned with the arrival of Christianity; the last king to live here was Malachy II, who died in 1022. But as with so many other prominent sites of the pre-Christian era, Christianity remade Tara in its own image.

Today a modern statue of St. Patrick stands here, as does a pillar stone that may have been the coronation stone (it was reputed to call out in approval when a king was crowned). In the graveyard of the adjacent Anglican church you'll find a pillar with the worn image of a pagan god and a Bronze Age stone standing on end.

Updated: 04-29-2014

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