Contributed by Anne Mac Lellan
A tapestry of green and brown fields guarded by haw-laden hedgerows unfolds on all sides. The summit of Tara, reached via a muddy path through squelching wet grass, rewards with views of twelve of Ireland’s counties. Under the mud, further treasures abound. However, without interpretation, it can be difficult to appreciate the significance and richness attached to Tara’s series of grassy ditches, mounds and dips.
A new audio guide infuses the landscape with meaning as the voice of broadcaster Mary Mulvihill guides the listener on a meandering journey through the site. Standing in front of the Mound of the Hostages, the story of ‘Tara boy’ unfolds. A robust 14-year-old, gender unknown, was probably the last person buried in the mound. He or she was the only person not to be cremated. The skeleton was adorned with a necklace of faience, bronze and amber beads while a dagger lay nearby.
Visitors are taken all over the hill, with stops in front of the well-known and some of the less well-known monuments. To walk up the ceremonial avenue known as the ‘Banqueting hall’, is to walk in the footsteps of Kings. At the top of the avenue, there is a slight dip in the ground, which was revealed in 1998 to be the oldest Pagan sanctuary on Tara. The Discovery programme, using geophysics, found a great circle with post holes that may have held large timbers.
Another timber structure may have crowned Ráth na Ríg, the largest monument on Tara. The positioning of a ditch inside the bank implies the enclosed area was a place for ceremony. The ditch would have been outside if the structure was defensive. It is thought that a tall timber palisade stood on top of the ditch, screening ceremonies, such as the proclamation of the High King, from the common gaze.
Onwards through time, to 433 A.D. when Saint Patrick visited Tara, dispelling the snow and mist conjured up by the Druids and thereby convincing the Pagans to convert to Christianity. Tales of the 1798 massacre, Daniel O’Connell’s mass meeting, and the attempts by British Israelites to unearth the Ark of the Covenant make the hill seem to come alive, peopled by heroes, villains, Royalty and ordinary folk, in addition to large dogs and sacrificial horses. From Paganism to Christianity to Nationalism, Tara has been appropriated and remade many times. This new guide provides the visitor with a key to unlock the palimpsest.
There are one or two quibbles – why not start the tour at the bottom of the Banqueting hall rather than at the summit? Why not put the section on Skyrne at the end? The podcast can be downloaded from the Internet (Euro 9.95) or the souvenir box set may be purchased for Euro 12.99 (P&P extra). The box set can also be purchases at Tara Gift Shop. The extra three Euros buys a small player and earphones. The player is attractively made and easy to use however the headphones suffer from the disadvantage of all cheap headphones – they have a tendency to fall out just when you’ve got to the interesting part.
Advised by NUI Galway archaeologist Conor Newman and UCD historian Edel Bhreatnach, and supported by a grant from the Heritage Council, this audioguide is outstanding in its approach, rendering a visit to Tara a delight for both newcomers and those who have visited the hill in the past. It would also make a lovely Christmas present for any history or archaeology buffs among your relatives.
For more information and to listen to an abstract from the recording, see Ingenious Ireland.
Anne Mac Lellan grew up in the Tara-Skyrne valley, and is currently in the final year of a PhD in the Department of History and Archives in UCD.