‘You don’t come to Ireland for the weather’ they say but sometimes the inclement weather actually adds to the experience. On Sunday I was part of a group of trainee tour guides who were led by Vincent Butler on a tour around the Boyne valley. We visited some of Ireland’s top attractions including the early Christian foundation at Monasterboice with its tall round tower and striking High Crosses, the visitor centre at Brú na Boínne and the iconic Hill of Tara.
We had a great time exploring and learning but it was wet and by the time we reached Tara it had gotten even wetter. Vincent had arranged for us to visit Michael Slavin’s bookshop located close to car park below the Church at Tara, which is the access point out on to the hill itself. The small bookshop is overflowing with books and when we had all squashed in Michael treated us to a slide show about Tara which will live long in my memory. It was a multimedia presentation in its purest sense and he started with a song.
With the sound of the old 35mm slide projector whirring in the darkened room Michael then brought us on a wonderful journey touching on the history, archaeology and folklore of the hill.
Three short snippets from the presentation give some feel for the natural storytelling rhythm of Michael’s delivery and also the special mix of history, archaeology, myth and legend which all combine to make Tara such a fascinating place.
The Lia Fáil is a standing stone located on top of a Bronze Age ring barrow known as An Forradh. The Lia fáil or the stone of destiny is associated with inauguration and fertility rituals and as Michael relates it was reputed to roar when touched by the rightful king. The earth mother goddess Maeve is also associated with Tara and feasts, banqueting and festivals particularly at Bealtaine (Spring) are all part of the rich mythological lore associated with this hill.
A mere one hundred years ago a group of Israelites from Britain were convinced that the Ark of the Covenant was buried at Tara and Michael told us about the delegation of leading Irish nationalists including; Arthur Griffith, Maude Gonne and W.B. Yeats who eventually persuaded them to stop digging on the sacred hill.
An even more recent story is the reappearance of the statue to St Patrick which now stands just off the path leading up the church at Tara. It is the story as Michael puts it of a short, ten year long argument.
The Hill of Tara is a special place with a range of earthen monuments spread across a rounded plateau which looks out across the central plain of Ireland. The earliest monument on the hill is a Passage Tomb known as the mound of the hostages, which was built in the Neolithic period and has been dated to around 3,000 BC. It is most famously associated with the legendary High King, Cormac Mac Airt. St Patrick is also said to have visited Tara in an effort to convert the High King, Laoire. With the advent of Christianity Tara lost its religious significance and became simply the seat of the High King. The hill was also the location of a skirmish during the 1798 rebellion and Daniel O’Connell the great liberator held one of his monster meetings here during his campaign to repeal the Act of Union.
During the 1990s the Discovery Programme led by Conor Newman completed an in depth study of the monuments on Tara and undertook a comprehensive survey of the monuments using the latest field recording techniques including a suite of geophysical surveys. The results of these surveys were spectacular and showed that that the entire plateau was covered by the remains of denuded and weathered monuments which can no longer be seen by the naked eye. In tandem with the field surveys Edel Bhreatnach completed a history of the mythology and history relating to Tara and of kingship, and High kingship which ultimately resulted in the publication of the comprehensive Kingship and Landscape of Tara.
On a visit Tara can be a difficult place to get to grips with as in many ways it is only from aerial photographs and geophysical images that the scale and complexity of this landscape of earthen mounds can truly be grasped. More so than other sites it requires a little background reading and knowledge but on a clear day the rewards are great as it allows us to let our imaginations free and conjure a place where people gathered to proclaim their kings and celebrate with elaborate feasts and festivals the continuous cycles of life.
Because of the weather we never managed to get got out on to the hill to explore the monuments or take in the views. We all left however laden down with great books and happy in the knowledge that due to Michael’s slide show we had a deeper understanding of the central place the Hill of Tara holds in the multi-threaded and multi-layered story of Ireland.
Slideshows can be organised for groups in advance by contacting Michael Slavin proprietor of the Old Bookshop on the Hill of Tara (email@example.com and 087 2554473)