March 2023

The Rooks at Tara

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

A broom is drearily sweeping

Up the broken pieces of yesterday's life;

Somewhere, a queen is weeping,

Somewhere, a king has no wife.

—Jimi Hendrix, "The Wind Cries Mary"


Among the many lucky perks of going to graduate school in Ireland, attending Trinity College in Dublin put me in close proximity to my grandmother and uncles in County Cavan, a mere 90-minute bus ride northwest. I'm happy to say I took full advantage of that tangential boon; I'd met my mother's mother only a few times prior, so the afternoons and evenings we sat by the hob sipping tea, talking and laughing remain more precious to me than any Master's parchment.

One winter day, my uncle Philip, my mom's youngest brother, rang me up to say that he'd be in Dublin on the Friday and that we could drive back to Cavan if I wanted to visit for the weekend. We met for an obligatory pint at Fibber Magee's, a fine old pub on Parnell Street on Dublin's North Side, and then got on the road. A short while into the ride, Philip said to me: "There's an interesting spot I thought we might visit. It'll only take us a little out of our way. Have you ever heard of a place called Tara?"

One county separates Dublin from Cavan: Meath. It's nicknamed "the Royal County" because of Tara, or the Hill of Tara, though you'd be hard -pressed to understand why if someone dropped you there. Tara is not a town. The only habitation is the visitor's center, originally a small church built in 1822. (It was locked that day.) There's no castle or the ruins of one to be seen. But for an unusual dimple of a hillock, a 3-foot stone monument of some sort, and curious bumps and berms here and there, it looks like just another verdant pasture.

In ancient times, this green sward where sheep now graze was the seat of kings, its 5,000 year-old granite monolith, the Lia F谩il, a coronation stone also known as the Stone of Destiny or Speaking Stone upon which eight centuries of Ireland's high kings were crowned. Irish legends ascribe its origin as one of the four enchanted treasures brought to 脡ire by the Tuatha D茅 Danann, a race of demigods who had travelled to the four mythical cities of "the Northern Isles," bringing a talisman from each one.


And the dimple—about 15 meters in diameter and 3 meters tall—is the Mound of the Hostages, a passage tomb which also goes back five millennia with perhaps as many as 500 people interred within. Its entrance is positioned such that the rising sun shines directly down the passage twice a year, on the mornings of Samhain and Imbolc. Samhain was a Gaelic festival held on November 1 which marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter; Imbolc, February 1, celebrated the start of spring. (Each of the four Gaelic seasonal holidays is positioned halfway between the astronomical demarcations of equinox and solstice.)


Tara's significance, which began in the late Stone Age as a place of burial for rulers and other elites, only increased through the Bronze Age, Iron
Age, and down into the early Christian era. 脡ire had several kingdoms—Br茅ifne, Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster—but only a king crowned at Tara could be called High King.

For centuries, Tara was essentially the capital of Ireland.

Even in more recent times, Tara remained linked to Irish sovereignty. In the Irish Rebellion of 1798, most likely thousands of rebels died fighting the English at the Battle of Tara Hill. After they had disemboweled the dead bodies of 350 Irishmen left on the field, the English buried the mutilated corpses in a mass grave—another tomb lately arrived in Tara's hallowed precincts.

All roads led to Tara. Five ancient roads, in fact, converged there, linking every far-flung corner of 脡ire to this sacred spot. I'd say Tara was Ireland's Rome, but it's really the reverse: Rome is Italy's Tara as the Eternal City is only half as old at 2,774 years.

Tara is a site of astonishing archaeological, historical, and cultural value. It's really a complex of sites with over 60 ancient monuments, some of which only discovered by geophysical survey or aerial photography. Alas, still more archaeological finds were unearthed and lost with construction in the early 2000s of the M3 motorway.

Tara's palpable sense of ancient purpose, its origins in—truly—the mists of time, can beguile you. It bewitched a bunch of crackpot adherents to British Israelism who dug up parts of the hill between 1899 and 1902 in the belief that the Ark of the Covenant lay buried there.

Aerial photos often depict Tara illuminated by golden sunshine; certainly such light brings into better relief the henges and other Neolithic topographies buried beneath the rich grass. But the day in 1996 Philip and I walked above the remnants of this once vital ancient hub, a leaden sky hung like a vault over Tara and the rest of Meath.

Philip gave me a good sense of the history of the place, telling me what he knew about Lia F谩il, the Mound of the Hostages, and the surrounding earthworks. But for the most part, we regarded Tara in silence, both of us tacitly acknowledging the solemnity the place deserved.

And it was eerily quiet. We didn't see another visitor the whole time. Only a few sounds met our ears: a light wind rising and falling, an occasional sheep bleating, and the harsh calls of rooks in the gaunt trees. All of a
piece, I realized. The wind forlorn. The plaintiff "bah." But the rooks' cawing contained some deeper eloquence, like a reprimand or a warning.

I suppose an authentic soundtrack would've been a mournful melody played on the uilleann pipes by the likes of that wee titan Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains. Still, I can't help thinking of "The Wind Cries Mary" by Jimi Hendrix.

But on that chill gray afternoon, the minstrels were up in the trees, the high kings all along.



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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2023 Patrick Walsh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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