The Cursing of Tara

John Healy
Tara, Pagan and Christian | start of essay


The high-king at the time was Diarmaid, son of Ferghus Cearrbhoil, an able and accomplished prince, who was resolved to maintain the king's peace, order, and discipline, throughout the land. His purpose was certainly good; and it is greatly to be regretted that in enforcing his authority he acted in a very high-handed way, which brought him into conflict with the saints of Erin, who triumphed over him.

In the first place there is strong evidence that Diarmaid, though generous to Clonmacnoise, kept Druids in his court and army, and was still secretly attached to the druidical rites. Then, again, he was high-handed in carrying out his laws, without counting the consequences. This led him into conflict with his own cousin, the great St. Columcille, whose person he insulted at Tara by tearing from his arms a youth who fled for refuge to the saint and who was not really a criminal, but, accidently, a homicide. This outrage raised all the north against the king, and led to his defeat in the bloody battle of Cuildreimhne; but this was not, it seems, warning enough for him. He sent his herald and his high steward over the country to see that the king's peace was duly kept and the royal authority duly respected. This official, to show his own consequence, carried his spear crosswise before him; and if the entrance to a chief's dun were not large enough to admit his spear thus crossed before him, he caused it to be pulled down, and made wider for the king's courier and for all others. In this manner he came down to the south of the Co. Galway, near the place now called Abbey, in Kinelfechin.

The chief of the district who was going to get married and bring home his bride, had a short time before strengthened his dun, and raised a strong palisade of oaken posts over the earthworks. But for security sake, the entrance was narrow, and the king's bailiff could not carry in his spear cross-wise. “Hew down your doors,” said the bailiff. “Do it yourself,” said Aedh Guaire, and at the same moment he drew his sword and with one blow struck off the man's head. It was treason against the king, and Guaire knew it well, so he fled for refuge, first to Bishop Senach his half-brother, and afterwards to St. Ruadhan of Lorrha, who was also his relative. But Ruadhan also feared the king, and advised the criminal to fly for safety to the King of Wales. But, even there, the king demanded his extradition; so that, in despair, he came once more to Ruadhan. Then Ruadhan hid him in a hole under his own cell, afterwards called poll Ruadhain. Whereupon the king, hearing that Guaire was at Lorrha, came in person to demand the criminal. “Where is he?” said the king. “Give him up to me at once.” “I know not where he is if he is not under this thatch,” said Ruadhan. As the king could not find him, he departed; but reflecting that Ruadhan would not tell a lie, and that he must therefore be on the premises, he returned and discovered the unhappy fugitive whom he carried off to Tara.

Now, this was a violation of the right of sanctuary, i.e., monastic sanctuary, which, if it were ever defensible, would be most defensible in that lawless and sanguinary time. So Ruadhan, summoning to his aid the two St. Brendans, his neighbours, and many other saints whom he had known at Clonard, in the school of St. Finnian, followed the king to Tara to demand the fugitive. The king refused them; but they were not to be put off. They fasted on the king, and it seems the king fasted on them. One old chronicler says that for a full year “they anathematised Diarmaid, and plied him with miracles, he giving them back prodigy for prodigy.” This would seem to imply that there was once more conflict between the druids and the saints. But in the end the saints were completely victorious. “They chanted psalms of condemnation against him, and rang their bells hardly against him day and night ” and several of the royal youths of Tara died suddenly, without apparent cause. The king, too, had a dream, in which he saw a great spreading tree on Tara Hill hewn down by strangers, and the mighty crash of its fall awoke him. “I am that tree,” said Diarmaid, “and the strangers who chop it are the clergy cutting short my life. By them I am overthrown.” So when he rose he yielded to the clergy, and gave up the prisoner; but, at the same time, he said: “Ill have ye done to undo my kingdom, for I maintained the righteous cause; and may thy diocese,” he said to Ruadhan, “be the first one that is ruined in Ireland, and may thy monks desert thee.” And so, says the old tale, it came to pass. Then upon the royal hearth Ruadhan imprecated the blackness of ruin—“that never more in Tara should smoke issue from its roof-tree.” This certainly came to pass; the king died a violent death before the year was over; and no king after him, though they were called Kings of Tara, ever dwelt on the Royal Hill.

This, in substance at least, is authentic history; but it is clear that there is more beneath this story than appears at first sight. The conflict really was not between the king and the saints so much as between the saints and his counsellors, the Druids; and it was for that reason that the king was excommunicated, and that Tara was “cursed,” or interdicted. Yet we cannot help feeling some sympathy for the king, and greatly regretting that “never more in Tara should smoke issue from its roof-tree.” The curse has been marvellously accomplished; but what a pity that the home of a hundred kings, the royal house of Tuathal and Cormac and Niall should be desolate; that the grass should grow in its empty courts; that the cattle should herd where the sages and warriors of the Gael once held high revel. It is surely a sad thing, and it was, moreover, a fatal blow at the unity and power of the nation. With a high-king ruling in Tara there was some chance of welding the tribes of Erin into one great nation; but when Tara fell it might be said that hope had disappeared for ever.

Yet, though Tara was deserted by its kings—for none of them would risk the penalty of dwelling in the accursed site—it was later on chosen by St. Adamnan and others as a place to hold great ecclesiastical synods. It may be that Adamnan, wiser than Ruadhan, wished to undo the ancient curse, and prepare Tara to become once more the seat of the monarchy. He certainly held a synod there of the prelates and chiefs of Erin, about the year 697, in which women were formally and authoritatively exempted from military service, so that they became non-combatants, entitled to the protection of all true Christian soldiers on either side.