There and Back Again (Part 4): The Hill of Tara


To catch up on my journey to Ireland, click here: Part 1 (New York City), Part 2 (Wicklow and Cabra Castle), Part 3 (Newgrange).


Tara hill

As I mentioned before, one of the best parts about my trip to Ireland was discovering places along the way that I have heard of for years, but never expected to get to see them myself. Such was the case for Tara.

I hadn’t even realized Tara was so close to Newgrange, but thankfully I came across the name on a map inside the Newgrange visitor center and the next stop of the day was thus quickly determined.

Two awesome locations in the same day? I was in heaven.

literally: Hill of the King

literally: Hill of the King

One piece of advice I would give: If you happen to visit Tara around March (as my husband and I did) when it is still quite cool, be sure to dress warmly. And if possible, take a hat. It was extremely windy on the hill and my ears were frozen stiff by the time we left.

But it was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Once I was actually there, standing on its grounds with my own two feet, I wasn’t about to leave until I had seen it all.

What’s so interesting about a hill, you might ask?

This is not just a hill like any other, I would answer.

hill of tara

Tara (or Teamhair) was the seat of the high kings in ancient Ireland. It is believed some 142 kings ruled from this site. In addition to its political significance, it also held spiritual signficance in two ways. First, in celtic mythology Tara was believed to be a dwelling place of the gods and an entrance to the otherworld (their version of heaven). Second, according to legend, this was the first place St. Patrick visited in Ireland, in order to confront the ancient religion at its most powerful site.

St. Patrick

St. Patrick

It is not hard to see what makes Tara so different, because it is far from just a bare hill with an interesting background. The history is visible, preserved and recorded on the hill’s very face. The place is teeming with ancient monuments and structures, including standing stones, mounds and passage tombs, and, perhaps most spectacular of all, the famous Stone of Destiny. The views of the countryside alone make the trip worth while. I can say that it was quite literally breathtaking without any fear of cheesiness.

Tara landscape 4

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The land is now government owned, and free to visit. That’s always a plus in my book. At the entrance gate, you’ll find several informational signs giving a quick history of the place and the significance of the various monuments you’re about to encounter.

The entrance to the hill is unassuming to say the least, thus somewhat misleading. You can’t see anything from there, other than a few tourist shops and, on the other side of the fence, an old church from the 1800’s and its graveyard. Plus, there’s no sign or anything telling you “this way to Tara.” We just assumed the gate was the entrance, given it was surrounded by the information signs. But it did kind of feel like we were about to trespass on someone’s private property. Mental images of an angry old farmer chasing us away with a pitchfork may have run through my mind. It probably didn’t help that while we were reading the signs, and older gentleman who was obviously a local walked past us and through the gate like he lived there. So I was a little wary about following him.

Fortunately, there were no pitchforks involved.

The old church has been converted into a visitor’s center, which it bears mentioning doesn’t open until sometime in May if I recall correctly. You can still visit the hill itself and enjoy all the views it has to offer, but you’re on your own. That did little to deter my husband and me, since we get along just fine exploring on our own. But if you prefer a little more structure and information, or perhaps guided tours and whatnot, you should probably wait until summer. Just expect the place to be much busier. The nice thing about being there before the tourist season is that it is relatively empty of people.

Tara church

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The remnant of a wall from an older church that once stood here, sometime after the 13th century.

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One could spend hours walking around the hilltop and never run out of things to see (as we undoubtedly would have if I hadn’t lost all feeling in my ears by the time we decided to leave). I will quickly cover some of the points of interest on the hill, at least the ones we saw.

First is the churchyard. It is obviously quite old with some interesting gravestones. Plus, there are a couple of standing stones there, remnants of a time long past clinging to their mostly forgotten history.

Copyright Anthony Murphy 2000

Walk past the church and continue over the hill, and you will encounter some unexpected sights. The hill isn’t particularly steep. You can basically see all the way across it, and the hiking isn’t all that exerting for the most part, except when you’re climbing the mounds. The interesting thing about the hill is that there are several places where the ground suddenly dips down maybe seven or eight feet, then shoots right back up. The result is these old mounds dotting the hilltop that are ringed all around by little narrow pathways. It’s really cool.

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Proably the most famous of these structures is the Mound of Hostages. It’s a passage tomb, like Newgrange, dating to around 2500 B.C., and derives its name from the common practice of the kings of holding important people from subject kingdoms hostage to ensure their submission. One famous king of Tara was called Niall of the Nine Hostages, in recognition of the fact that he held hostages from all the provinces of Ireland. He sounds lovely.

I don’t know if the bars were put into the entrance afterward to keep tourists out (most likely), or if they were already there, but they certainly fit the name.

taramound3

The Mound of Hostages

There is another area on the hill called the Rath of the Synods, which was at various points in history the location of a temple, then a burial ground, and even a Roman residence.

Apparently, at the turn of the twentieth century a group of Jews excavated this site under the belief that the ark of the covenant was buried there. They didn’t find anything apart from a few Roman coins. And everybody knows that Indiana Jones discovered the ark’s true location shortly thereafter, and it now resides somewhere deep inside a warehouse safe from the clutches of the Nazis.

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The Rath of the Synods

The most exciting place on the hill of Tara, however, is the King’s Seat, or Foradh (also spelt Forrad).

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This is the location where the high kings of Ireland were crowned. On top of the mound stands the coronation stone known as the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny. Technically, the English name isn’t really related to the Irish name. In Gaelic, “lia” means “stone” or “pillar stone,” but “fail” just means “ring” or “enclosure.” But hey, Stone of Destiny sounds pretty freakin’ awesome so who am I to argue?

The Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny.

The Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny.

It was believed that the Lia Fail, a small pillar-shaped stone about four feet tall, was brought to Tara by the godlike people known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. And according to legend, the stone would roar when touched by the true king, thus confirming his right to rule.

This legend caught my curiosity when I first read it, so much so that I even wrote a song about it. So, needless to say, I was over the moon about getting to see and touch the Lia Fail.

Ignore my crazy hair...did I mention it was windy?

Ignore my crazy hair…did I mention it was windy?

There is also a gravestone on top of the Forradh, standing just a few feet away from the Lia Fail stone. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it was for. It was quite weathered and worn, making it difficult to read.

While we were up there, a group of school kids came long, on a field trip from the looks of it. Their teacher led them around and described everything. Being the curious person that I am, I inconspicuously hung around near the Lia Fail a few feet away from the group, hoping to overhear what the gravestone was for.

To my amusement, and slight consternation, the teacher spoke entirely to her students in Gaelic. I didn’t realize the language was spoken that much in schools, but apparently it is–at least at whatever school they were from. It was cool to hear a native speaking the language, but it did little to solve the mystery of the gravestone, as I am nowhere near fluent enough to understand what she was saying. 😉 I probably could have just asked the teacher, but I was too chicken.

The mysterious gravestone

The mysterious gravestone

I did learn later that the Lia Fail originally stood next to the Mound of Hostages, and was moved to the top of the King’s Seat in memory of the men who lost their lives at the Battle of Tara during the Irish rebellion of 1798. My best guess then is that’s what the gravestone is for as well. Still, if you are reading this post and you know its true purpose, please comment below and rescue me from my agony. Thank you in advance.


That wraps up my trip to the Hill of Tara. If you are ever in northeast Ireland (that is, the Republic of Ireland) near the Boyne valley area, I highly recommend that you leave room in your schedule to visit both Newgrange and Tara. You will not be disappointed. The sights, the history, the legends are all captivating and will stay with you long after you return home.

Slán go fóill! Bye for now!

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9 thoughts on “There and Back Again (Part 4): The Hill of Tara

  1. Pingback: There and Back Again (Part 6): Ireland’s West Coast | The Gathering Fire

  2. Pingback: There and Back Again (Part 5): Glencar Waterfall | The Gathering Fire

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