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Why was the kingship of Tara important?

Why was the kingship of Tara important?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Ciarán Ó Braonáin. Originally submitted for BA International at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr Elva Johnston in the category of Historical Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Ciarán Ó Braonáin. Originally submitted for BA International at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr Elva Johnston in the category of Historical Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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02/18/2014

 
Why was the kingship of Tara important?
Upon uttering the words ‘Hill of Tara’ a vast expanse of imagery isevoked. High-kings and druids, Fionn and the Fianna, pagan gods andeven the embodiment of Irish Christianity, Saint Patrick himself, are allinextricably linked to this mysterious site. It is a site which has longcaused much debate among historians as it is so difficult to definitivelydraw the line between pure myth and historical fact in relation to it.Despite the problems in separating fact from fiction there is no doubt thatthe Hill of Tara holds a unique and significant role in ancient Irish history. This essay will attempt to highlight the reasons for which the title ‘King of  Tara’ was so highly prized in ancient times as well as the complicationsassociated with assessing the real meaning of the banner.On a purely geographical and physical level the midland territoryaround Tara was of a very high value, as Michael Slavin says, the king of  Tara would have ruled over “the most valuable grazing in the country.”
1
Despite today’s remnants of the structure not appearing to be overlygrand or imposing, the view from the hill is astonishingly wide and farreaching. Sitting in this rich arable land, at the heart of the island, with acommanding view over all five provinces it is little wonder that the king of  Tara would have made lofty claims to all Ireland sovereignty.
2
 In terms of symbolic value few sites in Ireland could have rivalled Tara. Tara embodied Ireland’s heroic and legendary past, “in myth Tara is
1
Michael Slavin,
The Book of Tara
(Dublin, 1996), 71.
2
Francis John Byrne,
Irish Kings and High-Kings
(London, 1973), 56.
1
 
a stage whereon some of the major dramas of the Irish heroic age wereplayed out, when Irish men and women sparred with the gods andtouched immortality” and as a result it was seen as a “bastion of humankingship.”
3
As this location was the “focus” for so many of the conflictswith the otherworld in ancient Irish saga, it has been argued by somehistorians, like Carey, that the Hill of Tara “could be taken to representIreland as a whole.”
 4
This could be the root of the perceived synonymitybetween the titles ‘King of Tara’ and ‘High-King of Ireland.’ In a land and atime where symbolism was of immense political importance this cannot beunderestimated. There was an inherent spiritual element to Tara and its kingship. The divine right to rule has been a universal trait in legitimisingmonarchies throughout history. Considering this, the sacred statusafforded to Tara by the pagan gods would have been eminentlyadvantageous to its occupiers. This religious side of Tara can be seen inthe tales of the legendary ‘priest kings’, the divine intervention of godssuch as Lug in the appointment of monarchs as well as the role of Medbthe sovereignty goddess in validating them.
5
To be king of Tara was tohave a sacredly ordained right to rule. Again, the importance of thiscannot be underestimated. The vital role of divine approval is highlightedstrikingly in the accounts of Gormfhlaith of Leinster. Gormfhlaith was a
3
Conor Newman,
Tara: An Archaeological Survey 
(Dublin, 1997), xi.John Carey, ‘Tara and the Supernatural’, in
The Kingship and Landscape of Tara
, ed. EdelBhreathnach (Dublin, 2005), 48.
4
Carey, ‘Tara and the Supernatural’, 35.
5
Newman,
 Archaeological Survey 
, xi.
2
 
genuine historical woman who appeared to have embodied the role of sovereignty Goddess. She was taken as wife by three different kings, withtwo of them, Malachy II and Brian Boru, effectively ruling as high-kings of Ireland. The fact that these two powerful warrior kings felt it necessary towed the ‘goddess of sovereignty’ in order to be fully recognised as rightfulrulers, illustrates how essential the spiritual element was in legitimisingkingship.
6
 The importance of the kingship of Tara is best exemplified throughdiscussion of those who promoted it most. The powerful Uí Néill dynastywas “above all others...wedded to the royal Hill of Tara.”
7
The Uí Néilldominated Ireland between AD400 and 1022, all the while claiming theirright to the kingship of Tara and synonymously the high-kingship of Ireland.
8
The tremendous lengths to which they went to intertwine theirlineage with the history of the sacred site serves to highlight just howvaluable the title of Tara was.Poet-historians of the Uí Néill re-wrote both history and legend to tietheir ancestors to the roll of Tara’s kings. This adopted heritage added adimension of apparent legitimacy to their constant military attempts tospread their rule over all Ireland. The Uí Néill traced their Tara lineageback to pre-historic kings, such as Túthal Techtmar, Conn Cétcathach andNiall Noígiallach. Not only did they create their own ancestral ties to Tarabut in some cases they even adopted other kingdoms’ genealogies,
6
Slavin,
The Book of Tara
, 115-117.
7
Slavin,
The Book of Tara
, 91.
8
Slavin,
The Book of Tara
, 91.
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