Gaels and Irish Identity: Past and present
Tara, Hill of Tara, Ireland, Gaels’ High Kings, Gaelic world
The Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, is the ancient seat of power in Ireland. The remains of twenty-five monuments are visible and many more have been discovered through geophysical surveys and aerial photography. The complex is a prehistoric necropolis but has acquired the reputation in early documentary sources as seat of the so-called High Kings of Ireland.
Plans to extend a national motorway through the Tara-Skrene valley, near the Hill of Tara, threaten to damage the historical and archaeological significance of this ancient site. A campaign to ‘Save Tara Valley’ echoes environmental and cultural concerns within Ireland and abroad to protect what is a unique part of Ireland’s ancient heritage.
Past and present
The name Tara means, variously, a ‘lofty height’ and a ‘meeting place of darkness and light’. At 500 feet above sea level, the Hill of Tara commands a panoramic vista of the North Central Plain. A huge corpus of medieval literature is associated with Tara where archaeological work continues through recent times.
Today, great deep ring-forts or raths on the Hill of Tara still mark the home of the early pagan Gaels’ High Kings. Such High Kings, while claiming eventually to be ‘rulers of all Ireland’, were not so in any modern centralized sense and they had no law-making powers. In fact they spent much of their time defending the semi-sacred symbolic title they claimed against the many other kings and over-kings of their society’s constantly warring tribal groups.
The first shock came when the traditional pagan rites of the Gaelic world were finally driven from the Hill of Tara and eventually out of Ireland altogether by Christianity with the assistance of a self-appointed Romano-British missionary, later to be canonized St. Patrick. A rather crude nineteenth century statue of St. Patrick now stands on the Hill of Tara. It marks not just the triumph of Christianity over paganism, but something more subtle and specifically Irish: the triumphant fusion of Christianity with the Gaelic world.
One of the remarkable features of Gaelic society was to be its resilience. Within the framework of Christianity, Gaelic culture flourished as never before. In turn, Christianity shone from Gaelic Ireland through the dark ages after the fall of Rome like a beacon in Europe. There has ever since remained an especially close relationship between Irish identity and the Christian Church.
Royal Hill of Tara
History documents a series of ‘Monster Meetings’ held by political leader, Daniel 0’Connell (1775-1847), known as ‘Ireland’s uncrowned monarch’. The greatest of these took place on 15 August 1843 on the Royal Hill of Tara and its ancient Gaelic earthworks. A writer in the Nation newspaper claimed ‘without fear of exaggeration’ that there were three quarters of a million people there that day.
Archaeologists who have found bones 4,000 years old at the bottom of one of the mounds there have also found, under the grass at the top, braces of wooden platforms and bits of clay pipes and whiskey bottles from 0’Connell’s meeting.
Ancient seat of power in Ireland, with later links to Daniel 0’Connell who ranks amongst the greatest figures of modern Irish political history, the campaign to ‘Save Tara Valley’ seeks to protect Gaels and Irish Identity: Past and Present.
Ita Marguet, October 2007
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources of information used in preparation of this article. It follows a text entitled Ireland: A poignant and turbulent history by Ita Marguet (April 2004).