The supreme attraction of Tara is its antiquity. It must not, however, be thought that a visit to this famous hill reveals no beauties. It is not situated among mountains; hardly a lake is visible from its summit: yet the view from it is so fine that if there was no historic interest attached to it, the tourist in search of the beautiful alone would have his eyes feasted with as fair a scene from one of its grassy ramparts as could be gazed on in any part of Ireland. Eastward the view is obstructed by the hill of Screen, but on every other side it is superb. Westward the eye ranges over the fairest and most fertile part of Ireland, the great plain of Meath and West Meath, anciently called Magh Breagh, or the fair plain. And fair indeed it is in summer time, one great green sea of grass and wild flowers, reaching to the Shannon, sixty miles away. But it is southward that the view from Tara is most striking. The Dublin and Wicklow mountains are more imposing when seen from Tara than from any other place. They rise in a vast, blue rampart, and seem so colossal as to appear thousands of feet higher than they are. Those old, barbaric Irish kings and chieftains must have been lovers of the beautiful, for they almost invariably fixed their strongholds not only in the fairest parts, but in places commanding the fairest prospects. There are hardly two other places in Ireland the surroundings of which are more beautiful than those of Tara and Uisneach, or from which fairer prospects are to be seen. They were, from far-back antiquity, the seats of those by whom the country was supposed to be ruled, for it often happened that he who was styled chief king had but little control over his vassals.
There is no other spot of European soil the records of which go so far back into the dim twilight of the past as do the records of Tara. Before the first Roman raised a rude hut on the banks of the Tiber, when the place where the Athenian Acropolis now stands was a bare rock, kings, whose names are given in Irish history, ruled in Tara. When one gazes on those grassy mounds, that are almost all that remain of what our ancient poets used to call "the fair, radiant, City of the Western World," he can hardly believe that such a place could ever have been the abode of royalty, the meeting-place of assemblies, and the permanent home of thousands. Other desolated strongholds of ancient royalty and dominion bear ample evidence of their former greatness. Ruined columns of Persepolis yet remain. The site of Tadmor is marked by still standing pillars of marble, and vast piles of decomposed bricks tell of the greatness of ancient Babylon; but green, grassy mounds and partially obliterated earth-works are almost all that remain of Tara. It is so ruined that it can hardly be ruined any more. Time may yet destroy even what remains of the bricks of Babylon, but time can hardly change what remains of the ruins of Tara.
No other spot of Irish earth can compare with Tara in historic interest or in antiquity. Emania and Rathcroghan are little more than places of yesterday compared with it. It is over three thousand years ago since the first king reigned in Tara. Some may say that it is only bardic history that tells of what took place in Ireland in those very remote times, and that it is unworthy of credence. It is true that there is a great deal of fiction mixed with the early history of Ireland, as there is with the early history of all countries; but the ancient Irish chroniclers did not attempt much more than a mere sketch of the salient points of Irish history of very remote times, say from beyond the third century b.c. Some of the facts they mention have been verified in remarkable ways by what may be called collateral evidence. This evidence is found in place names, and in the names of persons and things. One of those proofs of the general correctness of what is related in Gaelic literature about far-back events of Irish history is so remarkable that it deserves special mention. One of the kings who ruled in Tara considerably over a thousand years b.c. was named Lugh, or in English, Lewy or Louis. He established the games that were held annually at Tailtean, near Kells, that were regularly celebrated down to the time of the Anglo-French invasion, in honour of his mother, whose name was Tailte. Those games were held in the first week in August, and from them the Irish name for the month of August is derived; it is Lughnasa. This is the only name known in Gaelic to the present hour for the month of August, except a periphrastic one meaning "the first month of autumn." This name for August is known in every part of Ireland and Scotland where the old tongue still lives, but it has been corrupted to Lunasd in the latter country. The meaning of the word Lughnasa is, the games or celebrations of this same Lugh or Lewy, who lived and reigned centuries before Rome was founded, and before a stone of the Athenian Acropolis was laid. It seems almost impossible to conceive that the Gaelic name for the month of August could have had any origin other than that given above on the authority of one of the most learned of ancient Irish ecclesiastics, Cormac MacCuillenan, Archbishop of Cashel, in the ninth century.
The descriptions of Tara given in ancient Gaelic writings have been verified in the most remarkable manner by the researches of modern archæologists. Dr Petrie's great work, "The Antiquities of Tara Hill," would go far to remove the prejudices of the most bigoted despiser of Irish historic records. He was one of the most learned and scientific investigators of antiquities that ever lived, and was not only a good Gaelic scholar himself, but had the assistance of the greatest Gaelic scholar of the century, John O'Donovan. Those two gentlemen translated every mention of Tara that they could find in prose or verse in ancient Irish manuscripts; they compared every mention they could find of the monuments of Tara with what remains of them at present; and they found such a general agreement between ancient descriptions of those monuments and the existing remains of them as proved what is said in Gaelic manuscripts about the extent and splendour of Tara in Pagan times to be well worthy of credence. Every one who visits Tara, and who is in any way interested in archæology, should have Doctor Petrie's map of it, which will be found in his minute and elaborate work on the "Antiquities of Tara Hill." That map is reproduced here. The book is very scarce, as only a small edition of it was printed, but it can be found in the "Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy." Armed with Petrie's map a visit to Tara would be one of the most interesting and enjoyable excursions that could be made from Dublin. Kilmessan Station can be reached from the Broadstone terminus in an hour, and less than two miles of a walk through a beautiful country brings one to the summit of "the Hill of Supremacy," as it was called of old when he who ruled in Tara ruled Ireland. No matter how confirmed an archæologist he may be who stands for the first time on this celebrated hill, his first feeling will be of joy at the beauty of the prospect that is spread before him. To know how beautiful Ireland is, even in those places that are not on the track of tourists, and that are seldom mentioned in guide books, one should see the view from the hill of Tara.
It would be hard to find any other hill in Ireland so well adapted for a place of assembly or for the dwelling of a ruler as Tara. Uisneach, in Westmeath, is, perhaps, the only hill in Ireland that possesses all the advantages of Tara. In ancient times, when war was the rule and peace the exception, it was imperative that a stronghold should be on a height. Athens had its acropolis and so had Corinth. Tara had the advantage of extent as well as of height, and could be made a permanent dwelling-place as well as an acropolis, for there are fully a hundred acres on what may be called the summit of the hill. It is unfortunate that some of the hill has been enclosed, planted with deal trees, and a church erected on the very track of some of the most ancient monuments. This plantation and church have terribly interfered with the picturesqueness and antique look of Tara. Planting deal trees and erecting a modern church amid the hoariest monuments, and on the most historic spot of European soil, was little less than sacrilege. If there had been a proper national spirit, or a due veneration for their past among the Irish, they never would have allowed a church or any modern building to be erected on the most historic spot on Irish soil; and even now they ought to have the church removed, the wall torn down, and the plantation uprooted. All Greece would rise up in indignation were any one to erect a church or chapel amid the ruins of the Athenian Acropolis.
The most interesting and best preserved of the antiquities of Tara is the track of the banquetting-house. It must have been an enormous building, for it was about 800 feet long and about 50 wide. It is wonderful how perfectly plain and well-defined the track of this once great structure appears after nearly fourteen hundred years, and in spite of the way this historic spot has been uprooted and levelled. But not a vestige of stone-work or of stones is to be seen near the ruins of the banquetting-house. It seems absolutely certain that there were no buildings of stone in Tara when it was at the height of its grandeur, and that seems to have been about the middle of the third century, during the reign of Cormac MacAirt. It must not be thought that buildings cannot be fine unless they are of stone; but buildings of stone were very rare in northern countries until comparatively recent times. Moore, in his "History of Ireland," says, speaking of wooden buildings and of Tara—"However scepticism may now question their architectural beauty, they could boast the admiration of many a century in evidence of their grandeur. That those edifices were of wood is by no means conclusive either against the elegance of their structure or the civilisation of those who erected them. It was in wood that the gracefulforms of Grecian architecture first unfolded their beauties." So the absence of stone buildings in Tara in no way proves that it was not a place of grandeur as well as of beauty; and the tenth century Gaelic poet may have been justified in saying of it,
"World of perishable beauty!
Tara to-day, though a wilderness,
Was once the meeting-place of heroes.
Great was the host to which it was an inheritance,
Though to-day green, grassy land."
Every mention of Tara in the vast remnant of Gaelic manuscripts of the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries that still exists shows it to have been, beyond all comparison, the most important place in ancient Ireland. Oengus the Culdee, author of the longest poem in ancient Gaelic, the famous Félire, recently translated by Mr Whitley Stokes, speaks thus of this renowned but now ruined spot:
"Tara's mighty burgh hath perished
With its kingdom's splendour;
With a multitude of champions of wisdom
Abideth great Ardmagh."
The poet contrasts the desolation into which the strongholds of the Pagans had fallen with the then flourishing condition of the centres of Christian teaching. Tara was the political as well as the social centre of ancient Ireland. It is in connection with it that the only mention made of roads having names is found in ancient Gaelic writings. Five great roads, as will be seen by the annexed map, led from Tara to the extremities of the Island. The Slighe Dala went southward; the Slighe Asail went north-west; the Slighe Midhluchra, went north-east; the Slighe Cualann went south-easterly; and the Slighe Mór went in a south-western direction. Traces of those roads may still be seen by the practised eye of the archæologist.
One of the most interesting things connected with Tara is the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny. It was upon it the over-kings of Ireland had been inaugurated from far-back antiquity. It is said to have been brought by Fergus, brother of the then reigning chief King, to Scotland, in order that he might be crowned king on it over the part of Scotland he had conquered. It remained under the coronation chair of the Kings of Scotland down to the time of Edward the First, who seized it and brought it to Westminster, where it is now, and the sovereigns of England have been crowned on it ever since his time. Petrie maintains that the Lia Fail is still in Tara, and that the pillar stone that stands over the graves of the men who fell in '98 is it. He adduces very strong evidence from manuscripts of high authority and of great antiquity to prove what he says. There is, on the other hand, strong testimony to prove that it was brought to Scotland by Fergus. The question will probably never be finally settled. The principal virtue supposed to be possessed by the Lia Fail was that it would bring political power to the country in which it was, particularly if its people were of Celtic stock. It is very remarkable that soon after the stone supposed to be the Lia Fail was taken out of Ireland, her political power began to decline, her over-kings lost a great part of their former authority, and in the long run she lost her independence. Scotland's political power and national independence vanished not long after she had lost the Lia Fail, and in a few centuries after England had got it she became one of the foremost nations in the world. The English claim to be Saxons, but it is now generally admitted that the Celtic element preponderates in the island of Great Britain, so that the prophecy attached to the Lia Fail seems to be fulfilled.
The Lia Fail is certainly the most extraordinary stone in Europe, if not in the world. The famous Rosetta stone, covered as it is with archaic writing, and verifying, as many suppose, the truth of Old Testament history, is hardly more interesting than the rude granite slab that lies under the coronation chair in Westminster, unmarked with a single letter. It is about 25 inches in length, about 15 in breadth, and 9 in depth. How such a rude, unshapely flag-stone could have such a history, and have been an object of veneration and interest for so many centuries, is what strikes with wonder those who see it. But if it is not the real Lia Fail, if it is a sham, and if the stone still standing in Tara is the genuine one, the wonder increases; for the fact of a spurious article having become invested with such fame and regarded with such veneration is the greatest wonder of all.
Doctor Petrie says, in his "Antiquities of Tara Hill," that "it is in the highest degree improbable that to gratify the desire of a colony the Irish would have voluntarily parted with a monument so venerable for its antiquity and considered essential to the legitimate succession of their own kings." He quotes verses from a tenth century poet, Kenith O'Hartigan, who says that the Lia Fail is
"This stone on which are my two heels";
and he quotes from an ancient tract called the Dinseanchus, another proof that when it was composed, and that time could not have been later than the tenth century, the Lia Fail was in Tara. It often happens, however, that Irish annalists and historians, so fond were they of looking backward to the past, make things appear as they had been, and not as they were when they wrote. The over-kings of Ireland were called Kings of Tara five hundred years after Tara had been abandoned, and when it was as waste and desolate as it is to-day. O'Dugan, in his topographical poem, written in the fourteenth century, tells of clans inhabiting the English Pale, when they had been banished westward by the invaders nearly two hundred years before he wrote. He prefaces his topographical poem by saying
"O'Maolseachlinn, chief King of Tara and Erin,"
but the last O'Maolseachlinn that was nominally chief King of Ireland and Tara had died three hundred years before O'Dugan wrote! Why those old Gaelic poets were so fond of describing things as they had been, and not as they were when they wrote, is hard to understand. They may have got their information from documents that were centuries old when they copied them. It seems a certainty that the men whose writings Petrie quotes to prove that the Lia Fail was in Tara in the tenth century, did what O'Dugan did in his topographical poem—that is, speak of things as they had been hundreds of years before. He never mentions the English at all. This partially accounts for Irish writers of the tenth century speaking of the Lia Fail being then in Tara. They intended to describe where it used to be, but not where it was. When Petrie says that the Lia Fail is spoken of by all ancient Irish writers in such a manner as to leave no doubt that it remained in its original situation at the time when they wrote, he makes a great mistake. Here is a quotation from the "Book of Leinster," a manuscript of the highest authority, compiled in the early part of the twelfth century, and mostly from writings of a much earlier date:—"It was the Tuatha De Danaans who brought with them the great Fal, that is, the stone of knowledge that was in Tara; from which [the name of] Magh Fail is on Ireland. He under whom it would roar was then [rightful] King of Ireland."