The Lia Fail or Coronation Stone of Tara

Patrick Weston Joyce

But we have decisive evidence that the Lia Fail was in Tara four centuries after the time of its alleged removal by Fergus. Tara was abandoned as a royal residence in the sixth century; and after some time fell gradually into decay. In the tenth century and early in the eleventh, certain Irish antiquaries visited the place in its ruin, and having examined it very minutely—as antiquaries of the present day are wont to examine historic sites—wrote detailed descriptions of its several ancient monuments as they found them, which descriptions are preserved in some of our very old manuscripts to this day. Not a word have they about the removal of the Lia Fail; but on the contrary they distinctly affirm that it was then in Tara, and that they themselves saw it, among many other ancient monuments.

The distinguished poet and scholar, Kineth O'Hartigan, who died in the year 975, visited Tara with the object of describing it. After mentioning in detail the several monuments, he states that he was actually standing on the Lia Fail:—

The stone which is under my two feet,

From it is called Inis Fail;[2]

Between two strands of strong tide,

The Plain of Fal (as a name) for all Erin.

Cuan O'Lochan, another writer equally distinguished, who was Arch-Poet of Erin and died in 1024, has left a poem in which he describes with great minuteness the positions of the various objects of interest at Tara. It is worth mentioning here that O'Lochan's description is so detailed and correct, that Petrie and O'Donovan when they examined Tara sixty or seventy years ago, with the poem in their hands (aided by O'Hartigan's previous description) were readily able to recognise nearly all the monuments pointed out by the Arch-Poet.

In one passage he correctly states that the Rath of the Synods (one of the forts at Tara) lay to the north of the Lia Fail:—

The Rath of the Synods of great powers,

[Lies] to the north of the Fal of Tara.

And a prose account which follows the poem is even more circumstantial:—

“Fal lies by the side of the Mound of Hostages [3] to the north, i.e. the stone that roared under the feet of each king that took possession of the throne of Ireland.”

So far we have mainly followed Dr. Petrie's reasoning and deductions (in his Essay on Tara) which are incontrovertible. But he goes farther. There is now a tall pillar-stone, 6 feet over ground, standing on the mound called the Forradh [forra] where it was placed by the people about 1821, to mark the grave of some rebels killed there in 1798: and Petrie asserts that this was brought from the Mound of Hostages (where the old writers place the Lia Fail) and that it is the Lia Fail itself. Here we cannot go with him.

For in the first place the identification of the real old Lia Fail with the present pillar-stone is quite unsatisfactory and unconvincing. Fifty years ago I had a talk with one of the men who helped in the removal, and I have good reason to believe that the pillar-stone now on the Forradh was brought by the people in 1821, not (as Petrie states, writing many years after 1821) from the Mound of Hostages which lies about 50 yards off, but from the bottom of the trench surrounding the Forradh itself, where it had been lying prostrate for generations.

In the second place the coronation stones used so generally by the Gaelic tribes all over Ireland and Scotland, were comparatively small and portable, like that now under the Coronation chair at Westminster which is a flag 25 inches by 15 inches by 9 inches thick. But the present pillar-stone at Tara is 12 feet long by nearly 2 feet in diameter. It would be very unsuitable for standing on during the ceremonies of installation and coronation; and seeing that the stone weighs considerably more than a ton, it would be impracticable to bring it about, as the legends say the Dedannans carried their Lia Fail in their overland journeys in Scandinavia, Scotland, and Ireland, and in their over-sea voyages in their hide-covered wicker boats. For even legends are consistent when dealing with ordinary everyday matters of common sense. No legend could be wild enough to tell us that the Dedannans brought with them in their wanderings, lasting for generations, the massive stone now standing on the Forradh.

The following conclusions drawn from the preceding statement are I think indisputable:—

1. The stone now under the Coronation chair at Westminster is the very one brought from Scone in the thirteenth century, but it is not the Lia Fail.

2. The present massive pillar-stone on the Forradh in Tara is not the Lia Fail.

3. The Lia Fail was never brought away from Ireland, but remains still in Tara, buried and hidden somewhere in the soil; probably in the position where the old writers place it, on the north side of the Mound of Hostages.

Giraldus Cambrensis and the Kongs Skuggio relate some other Irish wonders; but I will pass them over as they are of no great consequence; and the reader will probably think with me that we have had enough of wonders for the present.


[2] Fal was the proper name of the stone of which the genitive form is Fail as it appears in "Lia Fail." The word lia means a stone, and Lia Fail is literally the "stone of Fal."

[3] The features mentioned here as well as all the others that have been identified may be seen on the map of Tara in my Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland.