Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.

The Lia Fail at Tara.
The Lia Fail at the Hill of Tara. Photo by W. A. Green © National Museums of Northern Ireland.

The Mythology of Tara

There is a vast abundance of mythological material relating to Tara, and it is mentioned in many of the Irish stories, when events often occur at Samhain. The hill is said to be named after Tea, a goddess. The hill is also associated with Queen Maeve, a landscape goddess, probably imported from Connaught during the medieval times.

The hill is said to be a residence of Lugh of the Long Arm, one of the chief deities of the Tuatha De Danann and hero of the Second Battle of Moytura by Lough Arrow in County Sligo. One of the monuments at Tara is a huge ringfort called Rath Lugh, now partially ploughed out and destroyed, is named after Lugh.

An episode from the Second Battle of Moytura takes place at Tara, when Lugh comes to visit and offers his services to the Tuatha De Danann. To gain entrance he undertakes a series of challenges and tasks, and eventually bests every champion in the hall. Nuada, the king asks Lugh to lead in his place and take over the directin of the Dananns for the coming battle.

The Forrad from the air.
The Forrad or Mound of Assembly and Teach Cormac from the air.

Cormac Mac Art, the most famous of the kings of Tara was born by the Caves of Kesh in County Sligo. Cormac, who was raised by wolves, came to Tara as a youth, and became king by ousting his father's killer when he made a fair judgement in a legal case.

A large barrow, Rath Grainne is named after Cormac's daughter Grainne, who was engaged to Fionn MacChmhal, but famously eloped with a handsome young warrior, Diarmuid instead. Outraged, Fionn gave chase resulting in a whole cycle of tales, and many megalithic monuments being called 'Leaba Dairmuid agus Grainne', as the fleeing couple had to sleep in a different place each night.

Petrie's map of Tara.
Petrie's map of Tara.

Fionn, Ireland's famous mythical warrior had one of his first adventures at Tara. Applying for membership of the Fianna, he was given the task of keeping guard over Tara at Samhain. Every year, a maolvolent fire-breathing member of the Tuatha De Danann named Ailill would emerge from the Sidhe mound (presumably the Mound of the Hostages) and burn Tara. Fionn defeats the fire breathing Sidhe-dweller and joins the Fianna, before long becoming its most famous leader.

The Forraid at Tara.
The Great Mound of Assembly or Forraid at the Hill of Tara.

St Patrick is another figure who looms large in the history and mythology of Tara. The fifth century saint had a stand-off with the High King, Laogharie at Tara in 433. Patrick tried to convert the King, using a shamrock to explain the Trinity (they could have gone to nearby Newgrange and looked at the Entrance stone, the earliest expression of the Trinity on these shores). Patrick bested the Druids of Tara in a series of magical feats (not unlike Lugh before him) had to flee for his life. He further angered the King and broke the law by lighting his Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane before the royal fire at Tara.

Sunrise, November 5th, 2017, photo by John Condon
Sunrise, November 5th, 2017, photo by John Condon

Tara was cursed by the christian saints sometime around 650. There was a dispute between the High King Dairmuid and Saint Ruadhan: a messanger of the King had been slain by the chieftain Aedh Guaire, and the King wanted him executed. Saint Ruadhan was protecting the murderer, and in the ensuing stand off a number of Ireland's most famous holy men laid siege to Tara, fasting against the King

Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator, held his largest monster rally at Tara in 1843; attendance numbers vary from 100,000 to one and a half million people, certainly one of the largest gatherings ever held in Ireland.

British Israelites   digging
            up the Rath of the Synods in 1899
Raiders of the Lost Ark: the British Israelites digging up the Rath of the Synods in 1899 during their search for the Ark of the Covenant.

Between 1898 and 1901 a group called the British Israelites dug into several monuments during their search for the Ark of the Covenant. This caused huge offence to the Irish natonalists, such as Maude Gonne, W. B Yeats, A. E. and Arthur Griffith, who campaigned to have them stopped. They left the Rath of the Synods in the mess we see today. A local tale impshly notes that all the British Israelites found at Tara were coins placed in the trench each night by mischievious locals.

W. Y. Evans-Wentz

EVIDENCE FROM KILMESSAN, NEAR TARA

John Boylin, born in County Meath about sixty years ago, will be our witness from Kilmessan, a village about two miles from Tara; and he, being one of the men of the vicinity best informed about its folk-lore, is able to offer testimony of very great value:--

The Fairy Tribes.--'There is said to be a whole tribe of little red men living in Glen Odder, between Ringlestown and Tara; and on long evenings in June they have been heard. There are other breeds or castes of fairies; and it seems to me, when I recall our ancient traditions, that some of these fairies are of the Fir Bolgs, some of the Tuatha De Danann, and some of the Milesians. All of them have been seen serenading round the western slope of Tara, dressed in ancient Irish costumes. Unlike the little red men, these fairy races are warlike and given to making invasions. Long processions of them have been seen going round the King's Chair (an earthwork on which the Kings of Tara are said to have been crowned); and they then would appear like soldiers of ancient Ireland in review.'

The Fairy Procession.--'We were told as children, that, as soon as night fell, the fairies from Rath Ringlestown would form in a procession, across Tara road, pass round certain bushes which have not been disturbed for ages, and join the gangkena (?) or host of industrious folk, the red fairies. We were afraid, and our nurses always brought us home before the advent of the fairy procession. One of the passes used by this procession happened to be between two mud-wall houses; and it is said that a man went out of one of these houses at the wrong time, for when found he was dead: the fairies had taken him because he interfered with their procession.' 

Death through Cutting Fairy-Bushes.--'A man named Caffney cut as fuel to boil his pot of potatoes some of these undisturbed bushes round which the fairies pass. When he put the wood under the pot, though it spat fire, and fire-sparkles would come out of it, it would not burn. The man pined away gradually. In six months after cutting the fairy-bushes, he was dead. Just before he died, he told his experiences with the wood to his brother, and his brother told me.'

The Fairies are the Dead.--'According to the local belief, fairies are the spirits of the departed. Tradition says that Hugh O'Neil in the sixteenth century, after his march to the south, encamped his army on the Rath or Fort of Ringlestown, to be assisted by the spirits of the mighty dead who dwelt within this rath. And it is believed that Gerald Fitzgerald has been seen coming out of the Hill of Mollyellen, down in County Louth, leading his horse and dressed in the old Irish costume, with breastplate, spear, and war outfit.'

Fairy Possession.--'Rose Carroll was possessed by a fairy-spirit. It is known that her father held communion with evil spirits, and it appears that they often assisted him. The Carrolls' house was built at the end of a fairy fort, and part of it was scooped out of this fort. Rose grew so peculiar that her folks locked her up. After two years she was able to shake off the fairy possession by being taken to Father Robinson's sisters, and then to an old witch-woman in Drogheda.'

 

The Tara brooch
The beautiful Tara brooch. This wonderful work of art has no real assosiation with Tara, having been found on the beach at Bettystown, Co Meath.