The physical aspects of the Hill of Tara

John Healy
Tara, Pagan and Christian | start of essay


Tara is not a high hill, its elevation above the sea being only about five hundred feet. It is rather broad and flat-topped, with gently sloping declivities. Still it commands a far-reaching prospect of surpassing beauty. On the northeast the hill of Skeen rises to the sky-line, and shuts out a wider view of the swelling plains beyond; but on every other side the prospect from Tara, of a fine summer’s day, is one of enchanting loveliness. Nearly the whole of the great limestone plain of Ireland lies in view, with all its varied scenery of grassy plain, and deep embowering woods, and noble mansions peeping through their sheltering foliage. Then there are the towers of Trim, and the silvery windings of the Boyne, stealing serpent-like through sunlit meadows, with glimpses of the hoary walls of Bective and Columcille’s ancient shrine, whose sweet-toned bells once tolled across the fertile fields and populous villages, where herds of cattle now roam in what is almost a primitive, though still a rich and grassy wilderness. Then, far away to the south-east, the Wicklow mountains rise up like giant ramparts against the blue of the sunlit sky. The smoke of Dublin shrouds its spires in the distance.

Beyond Dundalk the hills around Cuchullain’s ancient home are distinctly visible. To the north and north-west the peaks of Cavan and Monaghan are well defined against the sky, while to the south and south-west the isolated hills of the great plain rise in solitary grandeur, with the immense range of Slieve Bloom on the southern horizon, which the men of old regarded as nature’s barrier between the Hy-Niall and the warriors of Leath Mogha. It is difficult to get anywhere else in Ireland, except, perhaps, from the Hill of Usnach in Westmeath—and that is somewhat similar—a prospect to equal the view from Tara Hill, in extent, in variety, in picturesque beauty, and historic interest. You may get grander and wilder scenes, but nothing more attractive to the eye, or more suggestive to the mind, than the matchless landscape revealed from the summit of Tara Hill.

It is no wonder, then, that the fertility of the soil, and the beauty of the prospect from Tara Hill, attracted the attention of even the earliest colonists in Ireland. Those ancient men of barbarous times, in one thing at least, showed far more taste and judgment than the cultured people of this nineteenth century. They chose for their dwellings and strongholds the breezy summits of fertile hills, which at once gave them health and security, and above all a far-reaching vision of picturesque grandeur. No doubt it was necessary for them to see the country far around them, so as to be able to notice the approach of the foe, and take measures for their own defence in unsettled times. But I think there was something else in their minds besides this idea of self-defence. They appreciated, in their own simple way, the manifold beauties of their island home; they loved to see them and enjoy them, and the vision gave them loftier thoughts and bolder hearts. They would not dream—no, not the smallest Irish chief—of building his dun in a swampy plain or secluded valley. You will not see, in any part of the country, an ancient rath occupying such a site. No; they were in their own land, and they built their homes on the windy crests of the swelling uplands, where they could see their wide domains, their flocks and herds, the approach of the foe, and the gathering of the warriors to defend their hearths and homes.