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Irish Times article , 26 May 2007

Historical fact competes with legend and folklore in the landscape around Tara, one of the world's most important heritage sites, which is now under serious threat from the proposed M3 motorway, writes Eileen Battersby

On Christmas Day 1900, two figures are to be seen walking across the Hill of Tara, in Co Meath.


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Five Roads from Tara    


attempted timeline for some of the sites at Tara - with Irish , British and some World History and Legend - approximately -

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Early Bronze Age battle-axe (c.1800 BC). From the Mound of the Hostages, Hill of Tara.

Early Bronze Age battle-axe (c.1800 BC). From the Mound of the Hostages, Hill of Tara. The battle-axe made from stone, was found with cremated human bones underneath an upturned urn and has been vitrified by the heat.

Neolithinc vessel (c.3300 BC), known as Carrowkeel Pot, from the Mound of the Hostages, Hill of Tara. Also seen in photograph beads, balls and fragments of bone and antler pin.

Neolithinc vessel (c.3300 BC), known as Carrowkeel Pot, from the Mound of the Hostages, Hill of Tara. Also seen beads, balls and fragments of bone and antler pin.

Excavation findings from 3500 BC passage tomb at the Mound of the Hostages, Tara published





3-D image of Lismullin national monument, being partially demolished by the M3 motorway (click to enlarge)

A rear-view perspective of Tara from the M3

for Roads Ireland magazine – (forthcoming December 2007)

Joe Fenwick, Department of Archaeology, NUI Galway.

Tara retains a unique cultural resonance for Ireland and for people of Irish descent throughout the world. Though its archaeological legacy is of enormous significance, it is the wealth of early historical, mythological and legendary sources associated with Tara in addition to its singular importance to Irish language, folklore and place-names studies that truly sets this place apart. According to some of the earliest literary sources, Tara was chief amongst the ancient prehistoric royal centres of Ireland, serving as a major ritual sanctuary before (and after) the coming of Christianity, a place of royal inauguration and the seat of the high kings of Ireland. Indeed, a number of these documents record that Tara, in recognition of the central political and symbolic role that it continued to command well into the historic period, was the central focus of five major roadways (the Slige Asail, Slige Chualann, Slige Dála, Slige Mór and Sligh Mudlúachra) which were said to have radiated to the furthest reaches of the Island. Over the intervening centuries the political focus has shifted and today all roads lead to Dublin; like the spokes of a great lopsided wheel converging on the M50. Of these spokes, three major motorways (the M1, M2 and M3) will traverse Meath. The one currently under construction, the M3, will bisect the royal demesne of Tara.

Tara has been the focus of State-funded archaeological and historical research since the Discovery Programme was founded in 1992. This work has yielded a wealth of new and exciting material, the results of which are published in numerous peer-reviewed articles and books (e.g. Conor Newman’s book Tara , An archaeological Survey published in 1997 and Edel Bhreathnach’s edited volume entitled The Kingship and Landscape of Tara published in 2006, to name but two). The significance of Tara’s archaeological and historical landscape is undisputed amongst scholarly and academic circles; indeed it was recognised as such long before the current route for the M3 motorway was chosen as the ’preferred route’ option. It has been demonstrated conclusively, both archaeologically and historically, that the cluster of unusual earthworks on the hilltop of Tara is but the nucleus of a well-defined, integrated complex of archaeological monuments extending into the surrounding landscape, a place universally acknowledged as one of Europe’s foremost cultural landscapes. In an unbroken ritual continuum over the millennia, the Hill of Tara has served as a necropolis, ritual sanctuary and temple complex. This, in turn, served as the backdrop to ceremonial pageantry and royal inauguration which was to continue well into the Early Medieval period, long after its religious authority had been supplanted by Christianity.

From humble origins as a passage tomb cemetery (dating to the second half of the 4 th millennium BC) its importance grew with each successive generation to reach its zenith during the Iron Age – at a time when most of Britain and Europe was under Roman domination. In its immediate hinterland are the physical remains of related prehistoric barrows, cemeteries and ritual sites - such as the series of earthen mounds in the Gabhra valley, the barrow cemetery of Skryne, the unusual cemetery of mixed burial tradition at Collierstown (some 2000m to the southeast of the Hill), the vast embanked enclosures of Rath Maeve and Riverstown (situated 1600m and 1000m to the south and west of the hilltop summit respectively), or the post-built ceremonial enclosure with central temple at Lismullin (1600m to the northeast). The common settlements and high-status royal residences of those who lived in its shadow, who worshiped and ruled over Tara, were kept remote from the hilltop sanctuary. It appears, therefore, that Tara is quite literally a necropolis, a ’city of the dead’, and not a citadel as some had speculated. The complexity of conjoined enclosures noted from aerial photography at Belpere, for instance (situated approximately 800m to the southeast of the hilltop), or the extensive multi-period earthwork remains at Baronstown (lying midway between the Hills of Tara and Skryne) are likely to represent the remains of high-status settlements.

At some stage in late prehistory the western and northern limits of this broader surrounding hinterland were more clearly demarcated by a series of defensive earthworks and fortifications. The remains of a substantial double-banked linear earthwork, situated about 1000m to the west of the Hill of Tara, can be traced for a distance of some 1600m. Reinforcing this defensive earthwork is a semi-circular array of equi-spaced fortifications (among them Ringlestown Rath, Rathmiles and Rath Lugh) strategically placed to defend the western, northern and northeastern flanks of the Hill and control passage through the Gabhra valley. Together these monuments define a buffer-zone defending what was, at this stage, a major political, religious and symbolic powerbase from potential military incursion from the north. By the Early Historic period (from around the 6 th century AD) the limits of this zone had become more formally defined as the ferenn rí, or royal demesne, of the kings of Tara. As if proof were needed of the significance of the Gabhra valley and the connection between the Hill of Tara and its sister hill of Skryne, a charter dating to AD 1285 mentions the existence of a ’royal roadway that goes from the manor of Skryne to Tara’ ( regalem viam qua itur de villa de Scryn versus Taueragh).

Tara retained its pre-eminent political role as ’caput Scotorum’ (capital of the Irish) and centre of kingship in Ireland throughout the first millennium AD and beyond. For this reason it continued to serve as the backdrop to major political and military upheavals up until the present day. In AD 980, for instance, the battle of Tara witnessed a decisive defeat for the Vikings of Dublin at the hands of the Southern Uí Néill king, Máel Sechnaill II. As late as 1170 Roderick O’Conor was inaugurated here as high king of Ireland. In more recent centuries, Hugh (The Great) O’Neill was said to have rallied his troops on Tara before marching to engage in battle at Kinsale in 1601. Again the hilltop was chosen – as much for symbolic as strategic reasons – as the location for a military engagement with crown forces during the 1798 rebellion. It was also the setting for one of Daniel O’Connell’s monster meetings in August 1843, said to have been attended by a million people. It is this fascinating convergence of tangible archaeological remains illuminated by a very significant corpus of historical documents and the extraordinary and pivotal national events which unfolded here that sets this landscape apart. It is for this reason also, that it is entirely inappropriate to build a four-lane motorway and major floodlit interchange through it.



Tara and Lismullin


3.1 Archaeological and Historical Background

A general introduction to the archaeological background is provided below. It is a synopsis of the

information contained in EIS Vol. 4A carried out by Dr Annaba Kilfeather on behalf of Margaret

Gowen and Company Ltd. (with additions).


Human occupation in Meath dates to the Mesolithic period, approximately 7500 BC, when

communities of hunter-gatherers exploited the coastal, lacustrine and riverside environments. The

main indicators of Mesolithic activity in Ireland take the form of flint scatters and shell middens.

A general distribution map of known Mesolithic material shows a concentration of material in the

north Leinster area, second only to the dense clustering of material on the northeast coast of

Antrim and Down. Much of the island was impenetrable in this period due to the dense forest

cover which dominated the landscape; this included oak, alder, elm, pine and hazel. Mesolithic

communities made little impact on the natural environment. Where settlement occurred, it tended

to take the form of small seasonal camps such as those at Mount Sandel, County Derry and Lough

Boora, County Offaly (Waddell 2000, 23).

During the Neolithic period (c.4000–c.2400 BC), technological advances in the production of

stone axes and other tools allowed for the clearance of relatively large tracts of forest which

facilitated the development of the emerging farming culture which would arguably reach its zenith

in the Boyne Valley with the construction of the three passage tomb cemeteries (Newgrange,

Knowth and Dowth) at Brú na Bóinne. The cemetery as a whole comprises around forty known

passage graves ranging in date from c.3260–c.3080 BC. The cluster of around eighteen tombs at

Knowth contains the largest concentration of Neolithic art in Western Europe with some of its

finest examples.

The archaeological complex of the Hill of Tara covers the townlands of Castletown Tara,

Jordanstown, Castleboy, Fodeen and Belpere. The complex comprises at least seventy monuments

ranging from a Neolithic passage tomb to Iron Age ceremonial earthworks. The best known

monuments include Ráith na Ríg, Ráith Lóegaire, Tech Midchúarta (the Banqueting Hall), Ráith

na Senad (the Rath of the Synods), Clóenfherta (the Sloping Trenches), Ráith Gráinne, Ráith

Maeve (ME037:008), Tech Cormaic, the Forradh, the Lia Fáil standing stone and Dumha na

nGiall (the Mound of the Hostages) which is also a passage tomb. Many of these are mentioned in

ancient texts, poetry and oral lore. Outside the immediate environs of the hill itself are several

additional related monuments such as the linear earthwork in Castletown Tara and Riverstown

(ME031:040) and barrows such as that at Belpere (ME037:035).

Not all the monuments on the Hill of Tara are contemporary and there have been recent attempts

to describe the probable chronology and development of the hilltop monuments and their

relationship to one another. Newman has suggested eight broad phases for the monuments of the

hill (Newman 1997). Traces of a wooden palisade enclosure were discovered under the Mound of

the Hostages and may represent the earliest monument within the complex (c.3030–2190 BC).

The mound itself was constructed over a layer of burning which may represent the destruction of

the palisade. The Lia Fáil (the standing stone now located within the Forradh) may have been

located beside the passage entrance, similar to the location of the standing stone at the western

tomb at Knowth. The third phase of building at Tara is represented by the Banqueting Hall, a

linear earthwork which may have been a formal avenue or approach to the hill.

The Early Bronze Age saw the incorporation of a cemetery into the Mound of the Hostages and

the building of some of the barrows, which are dotted over the hilltop, probably including the

Forradh. These barrows continued into the fifth phase of building at Tara and the gold objects

found on the hill also belong to this phase. Ráith na Ríg was built in the Late Bronze Age in Phase

Six and some elements of Ráith na Senad also belong to this phase. This was further expanded

during the next building phase along with the construction of Ráith Lóegaire, Ringlestown Rath,

Rathmiles and Rath Lugh, outlying monuments which demonstrate a new relationship with

monuments outside the immediate confines of the hill itself. The eighth and final phase is

represented by the conversion of Ráith na Ríg into a defensive rather than ritual enclosure and the

construction of Tech Cormaic, the ringfort now attached to the Forradh.

By the third century AD, Tara had been adopted as the capital of Meath and, as the kingdom’s

power grew, it assumed the status of a High Kingdom, exercising authority over the entire island.

The first High King of Meath was Cormac Mac Art who is said to have reigned from AD 226 to

266. The first High King of Ireland was Niall of the Nine Hostages and, from AD 402 to 1169, his

descendants or those of his brothers are said to have reigned uninterrupted except for a short

period from 1002 when the title was usurped by Brian Ború (Coldrick 2000).

From the late twelfth century onwards, Tara formed part of the Anglo-Norman kingdom of

Meath. The land around Tara was held by the de Repenteni family while Skreen and the

surrounding area were controlled by their rivals, the de Feipo family. The church on Tara was

associated with the Hospitallers of Saint John of Kilmainham. The Hospitallers’ possessions,

including the church at Tara, were confirmed to them by Pope Innocent III in 1212. The church at

Tara continued to function as a parish church until the sixteenth century. The medieval church

was demolished in 1823 and replaced by the present building. Two standing stones are recorded

in the graveyard, one of which is carved with a sheela-na-gig. There are also some fine estates

and demesnes in the area; some of these have been adapted as golf courses or other leisure

facilities, but many still retain eighteenth and nineteenth century garden and demesne features.

The archaeological artefacts recorded by the National Museum of Ireland reflect the general

archaeological wealth of the area. A Neolithic mudstone axe (in private possession) is known

from Roestown; bronze axes from the Bronze Age periods are known from Jordanstown and

Skreen; and a number of inhumations and cremations from a number of sites throughout the area

are also recorded.

Archaeological Background

The concentration of known and identified archaeological sites indicates that the area within

Contract 2 has a very high potential for the presence of unknown archaeological sites and

features. The immediate area is dominated by the River Boyne and the Hill of Tara, which has

been the focus of extensive research projects in recent years by The Discovery Programme.


River Lismullin is recorded in O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Names Book as the River Gowra or

Gabhra (O’Donovan 1836, 473). The parish and townland name, Lismullin, is given as Lois

muillean (the Fort of the Mill) by O’Donovan. This small river rises in Strandton and joins the

River Boyne at Dowdstown Bridge. The river reputedly fed Ireland’s first mill built on the

Lismullin River close to the testing area. The mill was reputedly built by the High King of Tara to

relieve his concubine of the arduous task of grinding by quern stone. A miller was brought over

from Scotland and the descendents of Lismullin Mill on the river traced their ancestors back to the

original miller according to O’Donovan (OS Letters 1836). However, it is unclear where the mill

was located in this townland. Several mills are shown on the early Ordnance Survey maps

(Figure 2). It is also worth noting the course of the river has substantially altered since the early

twentieth century along the eastern half of this survey (Figure 2, 3).


Dates in Irish Myth and Legend

These are some of the high points of the legendary prehistory and history of Ireland, mainly from the Lebor Gabála (literally "The Book of Occupations"), The Annals of the Four Masters (17th century), The Annals of Ulster, The Annals of Clonmacnoise, The Annals of Tigernach, and Chronicum Scotorum.

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