This series explores Ireland’s ancient prehistoric roots. Here, we delve into the Hill of Tara, ancient burial mount, place of ritual, and coronation site of Ireland’s high kings.
The extraordinary age of the Neolithic Era can sometimes be hard to grasp. The “new stone age” in Ireland lasted from about 4,000 BCE to roughly 2000/2500 BCE when the Bronze Age began, though as always, these dates are somewhat flexible as new evidence comes in.
This era is characterised by settlements and establishments of farming and livestock. Leaving the hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind, establishing farms and domesticating animals meant that ancient peoples could start building. Most of what is visible today are their tombs and ritual monuments.
The Bronze Age began between 2,000 and 2,500 BCE and denotes the era during which humans first developed and used metal for weaponry, jewellery and tools. In Ireland, this lasted until about 500 BC.
This led to the Iron Age, from 500 BCE to 400 AD. In Britain and other parts of Europe, this period also corresponds with the Roman Empire. Though the Romans never colonised Ireland, their interest in the island holds some of the earliest written information about Ireland. The Irish Iron Age period accounts for the building of thousands of ringforts (Ireland is said to have had as many as 60,000 in its heyday, and though many are from the 4th – 7th centuries AD, some were built in the late Iron Age). This is an era of settlement and community, of building, of ceremony, ritual and discovery.
The Hill of Tara is located in County Meath, about 45km from Dublin. The easiest way to get to the Hill of Tara is by car, but there are also options by bus. The Hill of Tara is just off the N3. Check their website for specific visiting times.
The visit to the Hill of Tara generally takes about 2 hours, so it is possible to do as a day trip from Dublin. However, the Hill of Tara also works well as a place to visit while heading to the northwest or Northern Ireland.
Some visitors might like to combine the Hill of Tara with the country’s largest Neolithic passage tomb, Newgrange.
The story of Hill of Tara begins in the Neolithic Era, during which time a passage grave was built. Called the Mound of the Hostages, this passage tomb dates back to 3350 – 2800 BCE and shares characteristics with the huge passage tomb of Newgrange, displaying extraordinary architecture as well as beautiful art. As with other sites, it is aligned with the sun – the passage and chamber are lit up on the mornings of Samhain (known today as Halloween) and Imbolc, Feb 1st (St Brigid’s Day).
This tomb was used as a communal burial site up until 1600-1700 BCE, the final resting place of at least 300 cremated individuals from the surrounding community. It was likely this was a place of ritual and regular gathering, though the details of these rituals and traditions are lost to time.
Why the “Mound of the Hostages”? This place received its name much later in the medieval era, when it was used as the place for a symbolic exchange of hostages took place.
During the Bronze Age, the Mound of the Hostages was reopened and used to bury another 30 or so cremated high-status individuals before it was closed permanently. It was around this time that a timber ‘henge’ (circular structure) was erected around the monument, along with six more burial mounds, all of which are gone or nearly gone today.
The Iron Age saw the building of raths, or circular, semi-defensive structures. There are a few ringforts within the complex, all likely built later in the Iron Age.
The most prominent is the 1st century BCE Rath a Ríogh, which translates to the Enclosure of the Kings and measures 1,000 m or 3,300 feet in circumference, built to include the Neolithic era Mound of the Hostages. It’s interesting how at the Hill of Tara, new cultures built their monuments to encompass the old, as if they still revered the older monuments, even if they no longer used them in the same way. It is within this large rath that the ancient peoples built two round, double-ditched enclosures which together form that iconic figure-of-eight shape as seen from above.
One of these two mounds is called The Royal Seat. Atop this mound is an impressive standing stone called Lia Fáil, translating to the Stone of Destiny. It is here that ancient high kings of Ireland would have been crowned, though it’s likely that the standing stone once stood on or near the Mound of the Hostages and was moved to suit the purposes of later groups. It’s said that 142 kings reigned in the name of Tara. It was here, too, that kings held their great inaugural feasts to celebrate a new era.
There’s a lot to see at this ancient site that once saw the crowning of kings and the burial of nobles. But you have to remember that this is an archaeological site dating back thousands of years. While the site is in decent shape for its age, a lot of what made up the site is lost to time. Good historical knowledge and some imagination is required!
So, it’s great to visit the site with a knowledgeable guide. If you’re visiting the Hill of Tara as part of a larger private or custom trip, your guide will provide invaluable knowledge, bringing this ancient place to life and comparing life in Ireland 5,000 years ago with life today. On-site, there is an audiovisual exhibit in the deconsecrated church, and there are also guided tours available on request.
Visiting the site is free – but this wasn’t always so. Until the 1970s, visitors were required to pay the local farmers six pence to get access to the site.
There’s a local cafe/tearooms on-site to procure a steaming cup of tea, warming soup or a chocolatey pick-me-up after your visit – even a little used bookshop in case you’re looking for something to read on the rest of your trip!