John L. Stoddard 1901
, easily reached from Dublin in a day, proved a most weird and interesting place.
Leaving the jaunting-car which had brought me from the railway station a few miles away,
I found myself confronted by what seemed to be merely an ordinary hill about seventy
feet in height, covered with bushes, grass and trees. In reality, however, like the
Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico, it is almost entirely artificial, and its green mantle
covers an enormous cairn of stones, occupying nearly two acres, and estimated as weighing one hundred and eighty thousand tons.
Formerly a circle of thirty monster stones surrounded it, but all save twelve have disappeared.
On reaching the entrance of this tumulus, I noticed that the huge stone threshold was carved with spirals,
coils, and diamond-shaped figures in regular designs, which seemed like reproductions,
on a gigantic scale, of the ornamentation wrought in gold filigree on some of the specimens
of Celtic art preserved in the Dublin National Museum.
A narrow passage, sixty feet in length and lined with enormous blocks of stone, enabled me to go,
without much difficulty, to what I found by lamplight to be a rotunda, whose dome-shaped roof,
about twenty feet in height, was built by means of slabs which overlap one another toward the centre,
like a flight of steps.
What most surprised me here were the mysterious carvings which the lamplight showed
on every portion of the walls from floor to ceiling. Why were they wrought here with such care,
when it was known they would remain in total darkness, without an eye to note their beauty
or significance? The hieroglyphics in the secret halls and apartments of Egyptian temples,
such as Denderah and Edfou, though never greeted by the light of day, were seen at least
by priests as they passed through those corridors with lamps; but this old Celtic tomb
was closed designedly forever; and, like the Pyramids, would probably never have been
disturbed but for the sacrilegious greed of man.
Did the devoted labor of those mound-builders spring from affection for the king who
was to be buried here? Or did they hope that he would recompense them from the spirit
world? The royal tombs of Egypt are immeasurably grander, and display decorations worthy
of the art and civilization of the Pharaohs; but they resemble Celtic burial-mounds in this,
that the motive for their construction was the same, - the old, old longing to rest undisturbed.
Among the mighty ones of earth, in view of death, the dread of desecration has at times
proved greater than the fear of being forgotten, and has caused their graves to be made
both as secret and as strong as possible. It is, however, pathetic to recall how seldom
this desire has been realized. "The Scipios' tombs contain no ashes now."
Where is the body, where even the superb sarcophagus, of Alexander the Great? Whither
did Father Tiber bear the ashes of the Roman emperors, flung by the Goths from the
imposing Mausoleum of Hadrian? Even the Pyramids, the oldest, mightiest and most-enduring
structures ever reared by man, could not retain within their chambers, hidden with such
skill, the bodies of their royal builders.
So, in this Celtic cairn, plundered by Danes
eleven hundred years ago, no trace remains of him who was in all probability buried
here with pomp and pageantry, characteristic of the Irish kings.
Whether, indeed, it was the tomb of one king, or of many, who can tell? From
its shrouded solitude there comes to us no whisper, even of a name.
Hill of Tara
The sight of several of these prehistoric relics of old Ireland gave me a keen
desire to visit Erin's ancient capital, Tara
. I knew from
what I had been told that very little was to be seen there,
but experience had taught me that there are places where
historical associations are so powerful that the localities
themselves, although retaining scarcely a vestige of their
former greatness, suffice to fire the imagination and to touch the heart.
Some previous reading is of course essential for
the enjoyment of such scenes, just as the preparation of a
camera is necessary for the making of a photograph, for no
amount of subsequent study on the subject, or late perception
of what ought to have been felt on some abandoned stage of
the world's drama, can ever take the place of an emotion
experienced at the time of viewing it. Moreover, the recollection of inspiring sentiments, awakened on a spot of world-wide
fame, will often outlast that of the site itself, and make life
richer till its close. It is in the afterglow of such memories that
many of our sweetest pleasures lie.
Such thoughts had occupied my
mind, one lovely summer morning, during a railway ride of twenty-seven miles from Dublin; but these
gave way to anticipations of immediate enjoyment, when, on
leaving the train at a little station, I started in a jaunting-car
for the Hill of Tara
, plainly visible three miles away. It is
not a precipitous elevation, as I had supposed, like Edinburgh
Castle or the Acropolis at Athens. On the contrary, the road winds
up to it without a single steep ascent; and though the driveway could be easily continued
to the summit, it ends at a small farmhouse on the eastern flank of the hill. Leaving the vehicle at that point,
I walked on for five minutes over grassy slopes to reach the crest. Once there, the
advantage of the situation is perceived. On every side the country falls away in
gentle undulations to the distant horizon, and one looks off on an unbroken circuit of
as soft and beautiful scenery as even Ireland can reveal.
The Hill of Tara was in ancient times the glory and the pride of Erin. Here stood the palace of her early kings;
and here, too, was their grandest burial-place. On this historic eminence laws were made, justice was administered, and
by one sovereign three schools were established, to teach respectively law, literature and the art of war. On every
third year a national convention assembled on this hill, to which the lesser kings with their subordinate chiefs came to
pay homage to their Ard-righ, or Supreme Ruler. From this point also, as a centre, five roads went forth in different
directions through the island; as, on a grander scale, the highways through the Roman Empire started from the Golden
Milestone in the Forum. Today, however, the Hill of Tara is, as the Roman Forum was for centuries, a cattle-pasture!
Stripped of its old-time splendor, it lies exposed to sunshine and to storm, as naked and uncared for as has often been the
land of which it was the crown. This fate is preferable to that of being covered with incongruous buildings ; but why do not
some Irish patriots buy the hill, deed it to the Historical Society, and rear a monument upon its summit commemorative
of its glorious past?
I spent the greater part of a long summer day on this impressive height, reading, reflecting, or looking off
upon the charming landscape that surrounded me.
But during all that time not a single individual intruded on
my reveries, nor did I hear a human voice, save that of the
young driver of the jaunting-car, who at the appointed hour
brought me my basket-lunch. There was in some respects
a sadness in such solitude; and yet those lonely hours spent
in communion with the past drew me more closely to the heart
of Ireland than any other experience could have done. What
though some grassy mounds and a mysterious stone are all
that now remain to tell of Tara's triumphs?
It is not difficult to recreate those scenes, if only mind and heart respond to the
memories that the place evokes. The history of Tara stretches
back to a remote antiquity, upon whose legendary background
we discern, illumined by the glint of romance or the fire of
tragedy, some shadowy figures, magnified by the twilight into
huge proportions. According to Irish chroniclers, there
reigned here more than one hundred and forty Master-Monarchs,
to whom the adjoining province specially belonged, that
they might have the means of keeping up their Court with
Besides this, they claimed tribute from the subordinate
kings of the other provinces. One of the sovereigns of
Tara, Laegaire, whose grave is marked by a mound four hundred
feet in length, was buried, as he had asked to be, standing
erect and fully armed, his face turned toward the territory
of his foes. Another king, the famous Cormac, who reigned from
227 to 266 A.D., having met with the accidental loss of one of his
eyes, was obliged, in accordance with the law of Tara, to abdicate
and leave his palace, since no king might reside here who was
marked by any personal blemish.
What Erin's early capital was like is partially
disclosed by passages in ancient manuscripts. Thus,
one on them describes the Banquet Hall as being
more than seven hundred feed in length, and entered
by no less than fourteen doors. This vast
apartment had, on each side rows of seats and tables, between which, in the centre of the room, stood
vats of liquor lamps and fires.
Here frequently a hundred guests were entertained at once.
At one end sat the king and his chieftains, below whom were
arranged according to their rank the Court's historians,
doctors, poets, priests, and minstrels, and finally its jugglers,
jesters, and servants. The king, in one of these accounts,
is represented as a handsome man of royal bearing,
with flowing golden hair. His costume was a crimson cloak,
held at the breast by a magnificent brooch, while his shirt
was interwoven with gold threads, and around his waist
was a girdle sparkling with precious stones.
That such decorations were by no means tawdry or barbaric
is proved by the articles which have come down to us from that
epoch, and which are now preserved in the National Museum at Dublin.
Among these is the celebrated Tara brooch. This remarkable ornament
resembles, in the style and exquisite delicacy of its workmanship,
the Ardagh chalice; and, like that beautiful memorial, it too was
found by accident, discovered in 1850 by a child among the
pebbles of the seashore. Composed of white bronze, it shows
no less than seventy-six different patterns of filigree work,
similar to those used by the copyists in their illumination
of the Irish manuscripts. To appreciate the fineness of the
metal traceries, a magnifying glass must be employed,
and even the fastenings used to keep the patterns in place
are hardly visible to the unaided sight. It is worthy
of remark, too, that in this case also the reverse side is as
elaborately and conscientiously finished as the front.
On one of the mounds that crown the Hill of Tara stands
a statue of Saint Patrick, which, though possessing little value
as a work of art, recalls a memorable episode. It was on
Easter morning, in the year 428 A.D., that Saint Patrick came
here to the Court of King Laegaire, to expound the Christian
faith before the Irish sovereign, his chiefs and courtiers, and
the Druid priests. The Saint and his assistant missionaries
are said to have advanced into the royal presence, arrayed in
white, and carrying crosses in their hands ; and such was the
impression produced by their appearance and their words
that, notwithstanding the opposition of the pagan priests,
Laegaire permitted them to preach the new religion through
Close by the statue of Saint Patrick, which is of recent origin,
stands a mysterious stone, possessing great antiquity.
It is a roughly shapen monolith, undoubtedly connected with
the early history of Tara. In fact, Professor Petrie, the
distinguished Irish archaeologist, who devoted his
life to the study of Celtic antiquities, believed this to be the
famous "Stone of Destiny," on which for many generations
the kings of Ireland were crowned. We know that there
was such a stone, and if the supposition of Professor Petrie
be correct, it would be hard to over-value this souvenir of Irish
The customary belief, however, is that the original
stone was removed from Tara to Scotland in 503 A.D., to
solemnize the coronation there of the Irish prince, Fergus, who
then became the first king of Scots. It is further believed that
this remained in Scotland more than seven hundred years and
was the block on which all Scottish sovereigns were crowned; and it is
well known that, in 1297, it was taken by King Edward I to
London, where it has ever since been used in the coronation
ceremonies of all English monarchs, and where it still rests
under the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey.
If, then, the Irish stone was actually removed
to Scotland, as seems to me most probable, the lonely monolith on Tara Hill is not
the "Stone of Destiny."
It is impossible, however, to regard it as an ordinary object.
Its solitary situation, shape and size prove that it must
have played some part in Ireland's history, even if not so
prominent a one as that connected with the crowning of her kings.
Standing erect, as it now does, I could but fancy it a nameless
monument marking the tomb of Erin's former greatness, which
has been buried here for fourteen hundred years. Hence,
as I stood beside this mute memorial of departed glory,
I realized, as I never could have done elsewhere, the pathos
of Moore's touching lines :
The harp that once through Tara's halls
The soul of music shed,
Now hangs as mute on Tara's walls
As if that soul were fled.
No more to chiefs and ladies bright
The harp of Tara swells;
The chord alone, that breaks at night,
Its tale of ruin tells.
Text and photos from the John L. Stoddard's Lectures published in 1901.
John Lawson Stoddard (1850-1931) was an American writer and lecturer, famous for his travelogues.