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What is currently know about the site of Tara and the kingship that is associated with it?

What is currently know about the site of Tara and the kingship that is associated with it?

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This essay uses both historical and archaeological sources to reconstruct the activities at Tara during the Iron Age. The landscape itself can give insights into the ancient past and from the historical period there is a wealth of tantalising material, myth and fact, which when unraveled can be overlain on this landscape.
This essay uses both historical and archaeological sources to reconstruct the activities at Tara during the Iron Age. The landscape itself can give insights into the ancient past and from the historical period there is a wealth of tantalising material, myth and fact, which when unraveled can be overlain on this landscape.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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What is currently know about the site of Tara and the kingship that is associatedwith it?
This question looks for a knowledge of the results of excavations and surveys of royalsites (detail is not expected just an overview). Show an awareness of the high-kingship and the scholarly argument associated with it. If possible give someindication of the nature of this kingship in an international context. Use the materialhanded out in class in particular and any other you find in the library.
‘Tara is a word that conjures up what they call in Irish ‘dúchas’, a sense of belonging, a sense of patrimony, a sense of an ideal, an ideal of the spirit if you like,that belongs in the place, and if anywhere in Ireland conjures that up, it’s Tara – it’sa mythical site of course. I mean, the traces on Tara are in the grass, are in the earth – they aren’t spectacular like temple ruins would be in the Parthenon in Greece, theyare about origin, they’re about beginning, they’re about the mythological, spiritual  source – a source and a guarantee of something old in the country and something that  gives the country its distinctive spirit’. (Seamus Heaney, Archaeology Ireland Spring,2008).
The above quotation demonstrates how successful king Mael SechnaillI (d1022), whose ‘royal demesne’ was at Tara and his predecessors from the seventhcentury onwards were in taping into the ‘potent symbol of kingship’ that Tararepresented (Ryan 2005, vii). Byrne (1973) makes the point that ‘Irish kingship wasrooted in the soil, and this particularism, this attachment to ‘one dear perpetual place’has left its mark on Irish literature’ (Byrne 1973, 3). The ‘palimpsest landscape’ atTara today incorporates monuments from many periods in the past, going back to the Neolithic (O’Sullivan 2006, 1). Tara is ancient and still retains sufficient monumentstoday from which events in prehistoric times can be interpreted as will bedemonstrated in this essay with particular reference to the Discovery Programme project conducted in the nineteen nineties. Therefore, the landscape itself can giveinsights into the ancient past and from the historic period there is a wealth of tantalising material, myth and fact, which requires unravelling to overlay on thislandscape.The essay is requested to show awareness of high-kingship, however, the high-kingship referred to in this essay is not that defined by scholars such as Binchy (1970)Byrne (1973) or Ó Cróinín (1995). Byrne (1973) maintains that there was no high-kingship in reality in Ireland until Máelsechnaill in 862
(Byrne 1973, 257) anddismisses entries in the later annals for earlier high-kings as propaganda by Adomnán(Byrne 1973, 257); he also attributes the development of the concept of high-kingshipto influences from the church and the arrival of the Vikings, and that ‘the realisationwas due to the prowess of the Uí Neill’ (Byrne 1973, 260). This concept of high-kingship was reflected in the ability of the Uí Neill to extract tribute from the King of Leinster, which contradicted the law tracts as does the concept of a high-king (Byrne,1973, 261). Ó Cróinín (1995) maintains that there ‘may never have been a high-kingin the early period, who ruled over the whole country’ (O Cróinín 1995, 84). Binchy(1970) maintains that the king of Tara as king of Ireland had ‘no more basis in lawthan it had in fact’; he supports this by the evidence that there is no such high office1
mentioned in the law tracts (Binchy 1970, 33). This type of high kingship is whatscholars sought in the past in the historic records, and are what I would callmonarchical, defined by territorial prowess. The high kingship referred to in thisessay, is that which ties in with the monuments at Tara and other sacral sites in Irelandsuch as Emain Macha, Dun Aílinne and Cruachain all of whom contain monumentswhose latest dating is the Iron Age. For the purposes of this essay, it is preferred toaddress high-kingship as ‘sacral kingship’, therefore it avoids the debate in terms of the non presence of the word ‘high kingship’ in the law tracts, and will draw mainlyfrom the narrative literatures which give fascinating insight into this kind of kingship.The essay will focus on the archaeological evidence and will endeavour todemonstrate that there is a definitive link between the sites mentioned above and theconcept of ‘sacral kingship’ a special inauguration confined to great kings. The essaysupports the theory that Tara was the capital of exceptional kingship often defendedfrom the aggression of the Otherworld, that the hilltop is where the ‘Feast of Tara’took place and that the king of Tara was ‘ruler both of the whole island and of theworld’ (Bhreathnach 2005, xiii).In developing the concept of ‘sacral kingship’ it is worth looking at thename Tara (Temair) itself. Edel Bhreathnach points out that this name in addition tothe traditional translations of ‘a woman who was buried there’ and ‘a height, a placewith a view’, that linguistically it is derived from Indo-European *tem-r-is (to cut)and refers to a place cut off, a ‘sacred space or sanctuary which was enclosed’ whichcan be seen at the Ráith na Rí at Tara (Bhreathnach 2005, xiii). Up to 1990s, verylittle archaeological investigations had taken place in Tara. Excavations in the 1950scentered on the Mound of the Hostages, with some excavation work on the Ráith naSenad and the northern boundary of the Ráith na Rí (O’Sullivan 2006, 3). The moundis a Neolithic passage grave, which continued in use until the late Bronze Age(O’Sullivan 2006, 5). The Discovery Programme in the 1990s re-excavated thecuttings across the ditch of Ráith na Rí and in addition detailed geophysical surveyswere conducted across the Tara site. The geophysical survey showed that there wasan earlier enclosure dating to the Bronze Age which incorporated the Ráith na Senadand The Mound of the Hostages (Newman 2005, 378), this demonstrates that peoplewere reconfiguring the monuments for particular purposes as today we see the IronAge Ráith na Rí enclosure incorporating The Mound of the Hostages.Ráith na Rí, a large oval shaped earthen enclosure, is estimated to have beenconstructed in the Late Iron Age, dates vary from 100BC (O’Sullivan 2006, 2) to 250-500AD (Newman, 2005, 379). This monument is important as it is similar toearthworks on other ‘sacred sites’ namely Emain Macha and Dún Ailinne (Mallory2000, 22). The enclosure at Emain Macha has now been shown to be contemporarywith the forty meter ceremonial mound at site B dated to 94/95BC based ondendrochronology (Mallory 2000, 27). All enclosures have an outer bank and internalV shaped deep fosse with inner palisades and a funnel shaped approach (Newman2005, 62, 66). This has been interpreted as non-defensive and indicating ceremonialactivity, the funnel shape directing people (Newman 2005, 66). The type of construction of the enclosure has been interpreted as the division of the natural worldfrom the supernatural world, a ‘sacred centre requiring demarcation’ (Warner 2000,39). The king can also incorporate this role, Jaski (2000) states that ‘the image of the‘sacral king’ is evident from the narrative sources, he acts as a mediator between the2
human and divine and between society and nature, is strongly connected with themain ideological aspects of Irish kingship, it is believed that this is a continuation of  pre-christian ideas about sacral kingship and as such the king occupies a special position and is equipped with extraordinary powers’ (Jaski 2000, 57). The mound atsite B on Emain Macha shows a ritual construction of circular rings of wood, then theinsertion of large boulders and finally an earthen cover of sods. The post in the centrewas massive and the other posts left marks of radials across the surface. This has been interpreted as representing the tree of life and the radials ‘spokes’ as the wheelrepresenting a ‘world king’ like the Indian ‘cakravartin’ (Doherty 2005, 20). Thismound is similar to the Mound of the Hostages which was deliberately incorporatedinto the Ráith na Rí enclosure as was Dumha na mBó (Newman 2005, 63). Theexcavation of the northern ditch produced ‘the highest incidence of horse and dog bones from an Irish prehistoric site’ (McCormick 2002, 106). This is significant, a‘belief-system’ is at play here, and Bhreathnach (2002) points out that in early Irishliterature there are links between the ‘cult of horses, kingship rites and goddesses’(Bhreathnach 2002, 120). In Celtic cults we have the goddess Epona and her Irishreflex Macha (Bhreathnach 2002, 120). The ‘horse sacrifice’ called ‘Asvamedha’ is present in Indian sources and only the greatest of kings can partake which they diduntil the eight century
(Doherty 2005, 17, 19). ‘Horse sacrifice ritual has notable parallels with royal inauguration ceremonies among other Indo-European speaking peoples’ (Jaski 2000, 59). There is also the reference by Giraldus Cambrensis to aking’s inauguration involving a mare which he may have found in written sources(Doherty 2005, 18). It is interesting that in a text from Lec 305b22 ff Saint Patick isdescribed as going to Tara to meet Lugaid and offered him ‘good fortune with dogand horse and queen’ (Mac Eoin 1968, 39). The ‘royal sites’ and one can includeRathcroghan appear to be recording in the landscape a change in ceremonial behaviour, a possible new expression of belief and ideology during the last centuriesBC (Mallory 2000, 35).Another monument at Tara, the Lia Fáil generates considerable debate as to itsinterpretation and location (O’Broin 1990, 400). Some scholars believe it to be the‘screaming stone’ associated with the inauguration of a king and that it is a phallicsymbol (Ibid, 393). O’Broin (1990) makes a good case in supporting his view that theLia Fáil is no longer at Tara, that it was a flagstone on a mound, with the imprints of two feet that the king must step onto during his inauguration to confirm his eligibility(O’Broin 1990, 396). Based on the
 Baile in Scail 
text O’Broin interprets the Lia Fáilas a female goddess and the Tara king’s otherworld spouse (Ibid, 396). He also believes that the monument was so explicitly pagan that the church in 800
removedit (Ibid, 400). However, Carey (2005) states that in the text
 Baile in Scail 
that thestone was moved to Tailtiu (Telltown) which ‘alludes to the traditions of theabandonment of Tara in the sixth century (Carey 2005, 38).The ‘Banqueting Hall’ is mentioned in a number of the historical texts.Muirchú in describing the life of Patrick says that he entered the Banqueting Hall atTara (Mac Eoin 1968, 36). There are plans of the Banqueting Hall in the
 Book of  Leinster 
(O’Riordain 1954, 16). However, until further excavation takes place itreally is unsure where this hall was located. I personally have walked this cursus andit slopes from south to north which in my view would not be the best place to locatean eating establishment. Jaski (2000) disagrees with Colman Etchingham’s belief thatthe ‘Feis Temro’ continued after the sixth century, which symbolised a supreme3

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