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Ancient Celtic Centers — The Hill of Tara

Ancient Celtic Centers — the Hill of Tara

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher begins a series called “Ancient Celtic Centers”, taking a firsthand look at Tara, the hill of legend, the ancient seat of as many as 124 Irish kings.

Peering Back Into Time

When we peer back into Ireland’s distant past, what were the great centers of power, culture, and legend? Where did the kings of the provinces hold court? What was it like to walk among them? Today, we begin a series that proposes to go back in time to the earliest centers of Irish culture.

The Hill of Tara — the Rath na Riogh

The rain has stopped and the sun is out. So with a bit of imagination and guesswork, let us go back 1,600 years and climb the muddy trail to the Hill of Tara as a guest of the Rí Cóicid, the King of Brega, current ruler of the Laigin.

A sword-bearing warrior bows and introduces himself as Fionn mac Barra, in service to his lordship. He leads us up the well-traveled slope toward the Rath na Riogh, the Fort of Kings. At the top, an earthen wall ringed with wooden spikes greets us. Sweating from the climb, we follow him across a wooden drawbridge, through the high walls, and over another short bridge. Below us, hugging the inside earthen berm, is a deep, vertical ditch filled with rainwater and spikes.

“A drainage system?” we ask.

Fionn grunts and waves a hand. “Any clan foolish enough to broach the walls with sword in hand will meet with this.”

As if in confirmation, we notice temporary log bridges at various intervals, leading from the outside wall to the inner enclosure. Would the defenders pull them away if the walls were breached?

The Forradh, the Royal Seat

As we face the inner yard, our jaw drops. Before us rises the Forradh, the Royal Seat, of which we’d heard so much. Tall oaken pillars ring a massive circular structure the size of which we’ve never seen on Ériu, this land of farmsteads and tiny villages. The timbers support a structure at least sixty yards in diameter, faced with pine, and topped with a high thatched roof. Surely, within that building lies a great center of power and rule. No wonder the Kings of Tara fancy themselves as rulers over all Ériu. Though none of the other clans would ever agree with that claim.

Fionn leads us farther, toward a huge earthen ringfort even bigger than the Forradh. “Cormac’s fortress,” he says. He leads us up a series of wooden ramps to the top. From here, we look out over all of the Rath na Riogh, spreading nearly 950 yards across the hilltop. Nearby, a large conical, thatched structure rises beside the Forradh.

“The druid temple,” says Fionn under his breath. “Advisors to the king, keepers of law and tradition. Donna ever get on their bad side.”

Nodding, we look beyond the earthworks to the north and south. There, we find, still atop the hill, two other raths, or ringforts. Farther out, the countryside spreads green and hilly in all directions. Halfway to the horizon, smoke rises from four nearby ringforts. Sheep and cows from these small farmsteads dot the surrounding  pastures.

The Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny

The Stone of Destiny

Fionn touches my shoulder and leads me down the inside steps to a central yard. To one side stand two smaller roundhouses of timber and thatch. In the yard’s center, Fionn stops before an obelisk standing head high. “The Lia Fáil,” he says in a low voice, hinting of reverence. “The Stone of Destiny.”

I suck in breath and stare. Who hasn’t heard of this? In ancient antiquity, the Tuatha Dé Danann themselves brought this magic stone to our island. Every king since then has been crowned before it. Only the rightful king can strike it with his foot and make it sing with joy. All others are pretenders to the throne. But—we wonder, secretly—have any of them ever dared strike it in public?

“The king will see you now,” says Fionn. An open doorway leading into one of the roundhouses beckons. From within comes the smell of old furs, thatch, and pine smoke from the room’s central fire.

“Enter,” booms a commanding voice. We step inside.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of historical fiction set in ancient Celtic Ireland in the time of St. Patrick. (Click on the link above to find out more.)

Sources for this post were Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery, The Course of Irish History by T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin, and Wikipedia.