The Lia Fail or Coronation Stone of Tara

From The Wonders of Ireland by P. W. Joyce, 1911

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The third of Tara's wonders was the Lia Fail or Coronation Stone, on which the ancient kings were crowned; and the wonder of this was that it uttered a shout whenever a king of the true Scotic or Irish race stood or sat on it.[1] And it was from this stone that Ireland received the old poetical name of Inisfail, that is, the Island of the (Lia) Fail.

According to the old legend, the Dedannans brought the Lia Fail, along with certain other precious and marvellous objects, from Lochlann or Scandinavia, where they had sojourned for some time before they came to Ireland. And they placed it in Tara where it was used as a coronation stone, not only by the Dedannans, but also by the Milesian colony who conquered them.

If we are to believe the testimony of certain Scottish writers, this famous stone, after having been removed from Ireland, made a great figure in later ages in Scotland and England. But the story of its removal has been examined by Dr. Petrie, who shows that it is flatly contradicted by native Irish authorities; that it is nothing better than a fabrication; and that the Lia Fail was never removed from Tara at all.

It is a historical fact accepted on all hands that in the year of our Lord 503 and the following years the western part of Scotland was conquered by a colony of Irishmen, or Scots as they were then called, from the territory of Dalriada in the north of Antrim, led by Fergus, Angus, and Lorne, the sons of a chief named Erc. So far we have true history. But the Scottish narrative tells us that Fergus caused the Lia Fail to be brought over to Alban (Scotland), with the consent of the king of Ireland, and had himself crowned on it. For there was—the story goes on to say—an ancient prophecy, that into whatsoever land the Lia Fail was brought, there a prince of the Scotic or Irish race should reign. This prophecy is given by the Scottish writer, Hector Boece, in a Latin couplet:—

Ni fallat fatum, Scoti quoteunque locatum
Invenient lapidem regnare tenenter ibidem;

the sense of which is conveyed well enough in the following translation:—

If fate tells truth, where'er this stone is found,
A prince of Scotic race shall there be crowned.

And on account of this prophecy it is said to have received the name of "Lia Fail," which, according to these authorities, means the "Stone of Destiny"; but the word Fal, when examined critically, will bear no such interpretation.

Fergus's reason, then, for having himself crowned on the stone, was, in order that the prophecy might be fulfilled, and that his claim to the new kingdom might be acknowledged without dispute. For the Scottish people were merely a branch of the Irish, and had the same superstitions and legends. It remained in Alban and was kept at Scone till the thirteenth century, when Edward I. took it by force and brought it away to England, where it now lies under the seat of the coronation chair in Westminster.

That the stone now in Westminster was brought by Edward from Scone, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Alban, where it had been used as a coronation stone by the Alban Scots—of all this there can be no question; and so far, Mr. Skene, the latest and best and most clear-headed writer on Scottish history, traces it, but no farther. But that the coronation stone of Scone is not the Lia Fail will appear quite plain from a short examination of authorities.

The story of the removal of the Lia Fail to Scotland rests entirely on the authority of the Scottish historians. The oldest Scottish document to which it can be traced is the Rhythmical Chronicle, written it is believed at the close of the thirteenth century, from which it was borrowed later on by the two Scottish writers, John of Fordun and Hector Boece, and incorporated by both in their chronicles—those chronicles which are now universally rejected as fable. Our own countryman Geoffrey Keating, writing his history of Ireland in the seventeenth century, adopted the story after Boece (whom he gives as his authority for the prophecy); and it has been repeated by most other writers of Irish history since his time. But in no Irish authority before the time of Keating is there any mention either of the removal of the stone, or of the prophecy concerning it. If Keating had found either or both in any old Irish authority he would have been only too glad to mention so.

Why it was that this fable was invented, and why Keating adopted it, though he found it in none of his own native authorities—the motive of all this is plain enough. It was about the time when the Rhythmical Chronicle was put together that the dispute began touching the respective claims of the Scottish and English kings to the throne of Scotland, in which figure the great names of Wallace and Bruce; and the old Scottish writers invented the story about the removal of the Lia Fail and the prophecy concerning it, in order to strengthen the claim of the Scottish kings, all of whom had been crowned on the Scone stone, which according to this invented account was the Lia Fail itself.

For a like reason, Keating and other Irish writers eagerly caught up the same story, since according to their ideas it proved the right of their favourite monarchs, the Stuarts, to the throne—the Stuarts being descended from the Irish kings. Indeed Keating says what amounts to this when he affirms that "the prophecy of the stone has been fulfilled in our present King Charles and in his father James who both descend from the race of the Scots, since they were crowned kings of England [at Westminster] on the aforesaid stone."

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[1] Stones that uttered various sounds—even speech.—are sometimes mentioned in old Irish tales, just as we read about the Vocal Memnon, the colossal statue in Egypt, which uttered musical sounds when it received the rays of the rising sun. See "Cloghlowrish," the "Speaking Stone" in my "Irish Names of Places," vol. ii., and "The Voyage of Bran," by Dr. Kuno Meyer, vol. i.,p. 10, verses 17, 18, and p. 39, note 17.

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