Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

Taking the tourist trail to the ancient landscape of Tara

The Hill of Tara has been entwined with Irish history since the first settlers arrived there 6,000 years ago
The Hill of Tara has been entwined with Irish history since the first settlers arrived there 6,000 years ago
Joe Barry

Joe Barry

It is a well-known phenomenon that people like to travel abroad to view ancient monuments and sites of great historical importance.

Hordes of Irish citizens have walked the Camino De Santiago, visited the great cities of Europe and trekked across Peru to gaze in awe at the Inca site of Machu Picchu.

Each year, other tourists in turn come from abroad to Ireland to visit Newgrange and the Hill of Tara. Yet, to my eternal shame, although I live some 20 minutes' drive from Tara, I had never walked around this ancient and world renowned site until a few weeks ago.

February 1 was a cold but sunny Sunday marking the beginning of spring and it was then, without thinking of Tara itself, I decided to revisit Michael Slevin's wonderful book shop that sits on the roadside, right at the hill.

It's a splendid location and many visitors to Tara also call in to browse among the great selection of books, many of which are now out of print and chat to Michael about the area's history.

Having written several books on Tara, Michael has an extensive knowledge of the locality. While sitting warming himself at his wood burning stove, he can point visitors to shelves brimming with books on Irish history and folklore as well as other subjects including hunting, fishing, biographies and material.

Hours can slip by browsing through such fascinating material. But with the sun shining brightly outside, and after a lengthy time spent reading happily, I purchased what I wanted and decided it was high time I visited the hill itself.

The name Tara is synonymous with the history of ancient Ireland and the myths and legends associated with the Tuatha de Danann, the Milesians, the High Kings, the druids and the mystical warriors of old.

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Michael had given me one of his booklets The Tara Walk. As I strolled around each of the sites I read their history. I was reminded that Tara is not only a royal place but also a sacred and Celtic place which dates back 6,000 years to when settlers first arrived there.

One doesn't fully appreciate the impact of the landscape until walking around the edges of the hill. The view on the eastern side reaches all the way to the mountains of Mourne and it is claimed that features of Tara can be seen from half the counties of Ireland.

No wonder it was chosen by those early settlers. Part of its attraction now is that, other than a small deconsecrated church which is now used as an interpretive centre, there is a merciful lack of buildings and signage to detract from the site's impact.

It always makes me proud when visiting our places of national importance that admission is still free to so many of them. Few other countries have such an enlightened policy and our Office of Public Works do not receive enough praise for the work they carry out in managing and restoring places of national and historical interest.

Tara is unique and its pre-Christian links with the druids are fascinating. Sadly, much of the history of the ancient religions has been lost thanks to the overzealous efforts of Christian historians, and the deliberate destruction of old writings and monuments.

Tara was actually cursed by the Christian church in 560AD because of the manner in which the kings of Tara clung to the old ways.

In the legends of St Patrick, he is said to have come to Tara in order to confront the ancient religion at its most powerful site. WB Yeats' epic poem The Wanderings of Oisin illustrates clearly this divide between Christianity and the earlier beliefs, but also gives a rich description of the Faerie world and the glories of the past.

Moving on to more recent times, in the early 1900s a group of devout Israelites arrived at Tara, convinced that the Arc of the Covenant was buried there. They dug for days but went home empty handed.

Tara is well worth a visit but following on Druidic advice, you must always travel anti clockwise around the hill. I did so purely by chance but then perhaps a voice from the otherworld was guiding me.

Indo Farming