The Feis of Tara

John Healy
Tara, Pagan and Christian | start of essay


One hundred and twenty kings of the Scotic or Milesian race reigned in Erin from Heremon to the cursing and desolation of Tara in A.D. 565; and it may be regarded as fairly certain that all these high-kings kept their court (at least for a time) on the Royal Hill. The history of Tara would, in fact, during all this time, be the history of Ireland. So we can only refer to a few of the most noteworthy events in its annals specially connected with the place itself.

Ollamh Fodhla, the fortieth in the list of Irish kings, after a reign of forty years, died, we are told by the Four Masters, “in his own house at Tara. He was the first king by whom the Feis, or Assembly of Tara, was instituted; and by him also a Mur Ollamhan was erected at Tara.” The king’s real name was Eochy—the term Ollamh Fodhla, or Doctor of Erin, being given to him as an agnomen on account of his learning. There are not wanting critics who doubt of the existence of this ancient king; but the entry proves at least one thing, that the “Feis Tara” was in popular estimation of very ancient origin. Reference is frequently made to this famous assembly in all our ancient literature, both sacred and profane. It was, in fact, the national parliament of the Celtic tribes in Ireland, and as such must have exercised a very great influence on the national life.

It was held triennially for one week at Samhaintide, that is three days before and three days after November Day. It is probable that in fine weather the chiefs met in council on the green of Tara in the open air; but if the weather were inclement then the meeting was held indoors, and most likely in the great banqueting hall, which was the largest building in Tara. Its object was to discuss all matters of national importance, especially the enactment of new laws, the assessment of tribute, the examination and purification of the national annals, the settlement of tribal disputes, and the maintenance of a militia for the preservation of the peace and the protection of the nation.

All broils between individuals or factions during its sessions were punishable with death, without the option of an eric, and it would seem that it was forbidden to bear deadly weapons, or engage in martial exercises, lest they might lead to strife amongst the champions. The place of every king and chief was fixed by the public heralds with the greatest exactness, and his arms and shield hung above the head of the chieftain, but were not worn in the hall. When the day’s work was done the revels were begun, the feasting and drinking being often prolonged to a late hour of the night; and no doubt they sometimes found it convenient to sleep beneath the couches on which they sat.

The next famous reign in connection with the history of Tara is that of Tuathal Teachtmar. In regard to Tara his most important proceeding was to take a portion from each of the old provinces to form a mensal kingdom for the high-king. These united together formed the new province of Meath, which henceforth was reserved for the maintenance of the royal court and the royal guards of the high-king. The ancient Feis of Tara was preserved; but Tuathal directed that yearly assemblies should be held in each of the four parts of his dominions taken from the other provinces. So he ordained that at Tlachta, near Athboy, a religious festival should be held at Beltane; that a great fair should be held at Usnach about mid-summer; and that a marriage-market with sports and games should be established at Taillteann on the first Sunday of August, called in consequence Lughnasa; but this last was probably of far earlier origin. He also required an oath from the kings and chiefs assembled at the Feis Tara, that they would be loyal to his house for ever, and never set up a king from the Attacots, or even from any rival house. These were all just and wise regulations, which tended to concentrate and consolidate the royal authority over the whole nation in a single royal family—a thing greatly needed and much to be desired in Erin. But he was also partly responsible for another institution, which caused much bloodshed in Tara and much strife in Erin for many centuries, and contributed long afterwards, at least indirectly, to bring it under foreign domination. This was the establishment of the celebrated Borrumean Tribute.