Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
The Mound of the Hostages
Excavations in 1955 at the Mound of the Hostages, the neolithic chambered mound at Tara.

The Hill of Tara

On the ancient Hill of Tara, from whose heights the High Kings once ruled all Ireland, from where the sacred fires in pagan days announced the annual resurrection of the sun, the Easter Tide, where the magic of Patrick prevailed over the magic of the Druids, and where the hosts of the Tuatha De Danann were wont to appear at the great Feast of Samain, to-day the fairy-folk of modern times hold undisputed sovereignty. And from no point better than Tara, which thus was once the magical and political centre of the Sacred Island, could we begin our study of the Irish Fairy-Faith.

Though the Hill has lain unploughed and deserted since the curses of Christian priests fell upon it, on the calm air of summer evenings, at the twilight hour, wondrous music still sounds over its slopes, and at night long, weird processions of silent spirits march round its grass-grown raths and forts. It is only men who fear the curse of the Christians; the fairy-folk regard it not.

Evans-Wentz, Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911.

The Hill of Tara is one of Ireland's most famous and mythical ancient sites. This low and not particuarly imposing hill rises to 155 meters above sea level, but offers a majestic view across the Plains of Meath and much of the centre of Ireland. There are many ancient monuments spread across the hilltop ranging from the early neolithic to early Christian times. Tara is probably best known as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, and is frequently mentioned in various mythological texts.

Map of Tara.
Map showing location of principal monuments on the Hill of Tara.


The oldest monument on the Hill of Tara is the Mound of the Hostages, a neolithic passage-grave which saw continued use for burials throughout the bronze age. The Mound of the Hostages has a short passage, which contains a fine example of neolithic carving. This chamber is oriented to capture the sunrises around Samhain and Imbolc, in harmony with chambers at Carrowmore and Loughcrew.

Surrounding the Mound of the Hostages is a huge rock-cut ditch dating from the neolithic, which was discovered during O'Riordan's excavations in the 1950's. There is evidence for a huge pallisade or henge feature constructed from massive treetrunks. These are the oldest features at Tara, with many more later monuments visible as lines and bumps radiating out across the hilltop. There are thirty monuments visible on the surface at Tara, with at least another thirty under the ground and not visible to the naked eye.

The Mound of the Hostages
The Mound of the Hostages, a neolithic chambered mound, is one of the oldest visible monuments at the great multi-period site of Tara. The Loughcrew Hills can be seen to the left of the photo.

The view from Tara

The view from the Hill of Tara is widely regarded as one of the best in Ireland. The hill is about 40 kilometers from the east coast, located just where there is an extensive view to the west across the midlands and into the heart of Ireland.

Standing at the top or southern extremity of this remain, and bearing in mind the various prose and bardic histories of the Irish annalists, one cannot help reverting to ancient heroic times, and again, in imagination, peopling it with its earthly occupants. Here sat in days of your kings with golden crowns upon their heads; warriors with brazen swords in their hands; bards and minstrals with their harps; grey-bearded ollamhs; druids with their oak-leaf crowns.....

Sir William Wilde.

The main monuments at Tara consist of barrows, raths, ringforts and enclosures, which are spread across the 2 km long hill. Like most other ancient sites in Ireland, the neolithic people arrived here first. The oldest building at Tara is a small chambered cairn on the summit of the hill which is known as the Mound of the Hostages. This mound, dating to about 3000 BC, lies just within the northern edge of a massive enclosure known as Rath na Rig, The Fort of the Kings. Within this great enclosure are a pair of cojoined ringforts, the Forrad and Teach Cormaic, and within the Forrad is the famous Lia Fail or Stone of Destiny.

    interior of the Mound of Hostages.
The interior of the Mound of Hostages.

Just north of the Mound of the Hostages are the tumbled remains of the Rath of the Synods, which is cut into by the grounds of the modern church. Just north again is a long, linear earthwork, Teach Midchuarta, the so called Banqueting Hall, which is probably the remains of a cursus, or ceremonial pathway. West of the hall is Rath Grainne and the Cloenfherta, the Sloping Trenches. To the south of Rath na Rig is Rath Loegaire, and about one kilometer further south on the other end of Tara ridge is Rath Maeve, a massive enclosure.

The Well of the Dark Eye
The Well of the Dark Eye, also known as The Healer, on the east side of the Hill of Tara.

In addition there are several wells at Tara. Local lore says there were seven wells on the hill; some have been destroyed and filled in. The best known of the wells lies just east of Rath na Rig and has many names: The Well of the Dark Eye, Well of the White Cow, the Physican and the Healer. The water is delicious and as some of the names suggest, it is said to have healing powers. In the graveyard are two pillar stones, one tall and thin, one short and stumpy, which are said to be part of the kingship ritual at Tara. The taller stone has a carving of a Sheela-na-Gig.

" Tea, daughter of Lugaidh, son of Ith, whom Eremon married in Spain, was the Tea who requested of Eremon a choice hill as her dower, in whatever place she should select it, that she might he interred therein, and that her mound and her gravestone might be thereon raised, and where every prince ever to be born of her race should dwell. The hill she selected was Druim Caein, i.e. the hill of Caen, i.e. Teamhair. It is from her it was called, and in it she was interred."

Annals of the Four Masters

The British Israelites

Between 1899 and 1902 a group known as the British Israelites went digging on the Hill of Tara, looking for the Ark of the Covenant. You can find a detailed account of their activities and beliefs on the excellent Voices from the Dawn website. The diggers rummaged through the Rath of the Synods. digging a huge and deep trench.

Excavations in 1952 and 1953

A series of exvavations

A MAN I praise that once in Tara's Halls
Said to the woman on his knees, 'Lie still.
My hundredth year is at an end. I think
That something is about to happen, I think
That the adventure of old age begins.
To many women I have said, ''Lie still,''
And given everything a woman needs,
A roof, good clothes, passion, love perhaps,
But never asked for love; should I ask that,
I shall be old indeed.'

Thereon the man
Went to the Sacred House and stood between
The golden plough and harrow and spoke aloud
That all attendants and the casual crowd might hear.
'God I have loved, but should I ask return
Of God or woman, the time were come to die.'
He bade, his hundred and first year at end,
Diggers and carpenters make grave and coffin;
Saw that the grave was deep, the coffin sound,
Summoned the generations of his house,
Lay in the coffin, stopped his breath and died.

William Butler Yeats

Du Noyer's illustration of the carving on what he called St. Adomhnan's Cross at Tara.
Du Noyer's illustration of the carving on what he called St. Adomhnan's Cross at Tara.
Rath Maeve
Rath Maeve, a massive earthen henge 1 kilometer to the south of the main monuments at Tara.