I find the Celtic kingships of old extremely fascinating, especially the concept of the ‘high king’, the self-proclaimed ruler of all the land of Éire. Two weeks ago I went on a bus trip to Newgrange and the Hill of Tara, and on the way there our tour guide spoke of how any powerful man could proclaim himself king and would go to push his foot against the Stone of Destiny on the top of the Hill of Tara, and supposedly if the stone made a noise of approval, the man become recognized as high king. What I find really interesting though is that as a primary duty as high king, the king had to bind himself to the earth goddess called Maeve, making sure that the land stayed fertile and the crops plentiful. If a dry spell or a crop failure were to affect the kingdom, the king had a duty to make a sacrifice to the earth to appease Maeve and restore balance and prosperity. This would sometimes entail animal or even human sacrifices, and if the land was still unfertile after these, the king himself was sometimes sacrificed, taking the weight of the kingdom’s hardships upon his shoulders. It was all very interesting, and unlike many ancient cultures that I had read about previously.
Walking up onto the Hill of Tara was a very hallowing experience in a way, to think that I was walking where these once great and powerful kings and queens once reigned. It was interesting to see though that the Stone of Destiny was just a large plain stone with no engravings, decorations, or descriptions around it. For something supposedly so powerful, it seemed to me a little lackluster, but still very interesting, and of course my roommates and I took a picture with it. Walking over the Mound of the Hostages and through the areas carved out of the hill where nobility were thought to have once entered a banquet hall with the kings was all a very unique experience. Yet, there was still so much I did not know about this old and sacred place and I did want to learn more so I could better appreciate the experience I had there.
In our Irish Life and Cultures class we did talk about the Hill of Tara, the high kings, and the Stone of Destiny, but our trip to the National Museum of Ireland this afternoon gave me an even better understanding of the place. What I found particularly interesting was the Tara Brooch, which had actually been mentioned to me on my tour. The brooch was beautifully crafted, and according to the posted placards, was from around 800 A.D., with the intricate designs in the gold showing a more sophisticated hand crafting the piece. I took a look at several other broaches that had been excavated from other areas in the Midlands and the West which were all interesting and beautiful in their own right, yet none could quite compare to the broach of Tara. It truly was fit for a king.
This magnificent broach, shining brightly even in the dim museum lighting, along with some new information about how the areas around and the various mounds of the Hill of Tara were excavated, really helped me to get a better idea of this place, of the beginning of the Golden Age of Ireland, of Celtic culture, and of how stylish the people were back then. I’m only partially kidding. But, I really do feel very fortunate to have gotten to visit the Hill of Tara, and to have been able to learn about that history further through class and the trip to the National Museum. It truly was a brilliant experience, shining almost as brightly as the Tara Brooch itself.