The Hill of Tara: the Historical and Cultural Significance
A conference organised by the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance
Studies, Trinity College Dublin, held in the Swift Theatre, TCD, on 21
Dr Sarah Alyn Stacey, Head of Centre/Department of French, TCD
Dr Gerald Morgan, School of English, TCD
Dr Seán Duffy, Department of Medieval History, TCD
Mr Vincent Salafia, School of Law, TCD
Opening remarks by Dr Sarah Alyn Stacey, Senior Lecturer, FTCD, membre
de l’Académie de Savoie, Head of the Centre for Medieval and
Renaissance Studies, Trinity College Dublin
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Trinity to this conference
on Tara held under the aegis of our Centre for Medieval and Renaissance
I would like to thank the three speakers for agreeing to participate
despite the short notice. If today’s conference has been hastily
convened, we would hope that it will be just the first in a series of
events organized by the Centre to discuss Tara, and, indeed, Ireland’s
other early monuments, particularly those under threat.
I would like to begin by saying a few words about the impetus behind
today’s event. As has been very clearly highlighted by the media, the
very existence of the Hill of Tara is currently under threat, owing to
the proposed route of the M3. It is a threat which invites us to
consider a question that is central to scholarly research into the
past, whether that past is the early period, or the more recent period.
And the question is this: how important is the relationship between
past, present, and future? The answer to this question goes beyond
academia and requires of a society that it should reflect upon its
moral and political structure and integrity. We might recall in this
respect George Orwell’s assertion in his dark, visionary novel,
Nineteen Eighty-Four, that ‘who controls the past, controls the future;
who controls the present, controls the past’. As his predecessor, the
historian E.A. Freeman, put it: ‘History is past politics, and politics
is present history’.
For a country to know its past, to have an understanding of its
specific national identity, does it need the artefacts and remains of
that past to be preserved? Or does it suffice to record that past,
which thereby becomes something abstract, incorporeal,intangible? These
two questions are surely central to the current development programme
in Ireland, and, indeed, in any country which has such a wealth of
The way in which a society treats its past is surely an eloquent
statement about its fundamental political and moral values. Some feel
hindered by the past, seeing it as an impediment to progress. We are
reminded in this respect of what William Hazlitt wryly observes in his
essay, ‘On the Past and Future’: ‘The secure, self complacent
retrospect to what is done is nothing, while the anxious, uneasy
looking forward to what is to come is everything. We are afraid to
dwell upon the past, lest it should retard our future progress’.
In the name of progress, then, the past may be eclipsed,
concealed-destroyed even, and always, of course, with good reason: in
the name of necessity.
Why, one wonders, may past, present, and future not peacefully coexist?
Why should progress-so necessary for any nation’s well-being-prove
itself to be such a destructive force with regard to the past? Again,
these questions invite a society to examine closely its moral and
That work has been undertaken to run a motorway through the sacral site
of Tara, Tara of the Kings, the ‘bedrock’ (as it has been called) of
the Irish imagination, of Irish culture, of Irish history, would seem
to indicate that it is high time modern Ireland asked itself these
In seeking the answers to these questions, modern Ireland must remind
itself now of its unique cultural heritage, a heritage of which it is,
in so far as any of us ever ‘own’ anything, a mere trustee for the
history and future generations not just of this country, but of the
I leave it to our three speakers to highlight the precise nature of
Tara’s historical and cultural heritage. Before I hand over to them, I
would like to conclude my introduction with three reflections, which
strike me as particularly relevant to the present conflict between Tara
and the developers’ concept of a modern Ireland. The first of these
reflections I take from the English Renaissance poet and Roman Catholic
martyr, Robert Southwell, who, in his poem ‘Content and Rich’, warns
against ambition, power and destruction:
To rise by other’s fall
I deem a losing gain;
All states with other’s ruins built
To ruin run amain.
The second reflection is by the eighteenth-century English poet Walter
Landor, who, in his poem ‘Ireland Never was Contented’, reminds us of
Tara’s unique political and historical significance:
Ireland never was contented…
Say you so? You are demented.
Ireland was contented when
All could use the sword and pen,
And when Tara rose so high
That her turrets split the sky,
And about her courts were seen
Liveried Angels robed in green,
Wearing, by St Patrick’s bounty,
Emeralds big as half a county.
The final reflection conveys a poignant reminder of the reverence which
generations of Irishmen have felt for the remains of Tara and for the
site’s historical and political significance-it is, after all, believed
to have been the seat of the High Kings of Ireland and of Celtic
majesty; in short, as one historian, Max Caulfield, has termed it, it
is ‘the Irish Camelot’, ‘this place so redolent of all that symbolizes
the land and people of Celtic Ireland’. In the well-known words of the
eighteenth-century musician and songwriter, Thomas Moore:
The harp that once through Tara’s halls
The soul of music shed,
Now hangs as mute on Tara’s walls
As if that soul were fled.-
So sleeps the pride of former days,
So glory’s thrill is o’er;
And hearts, that once beat high for praise,
Now feel that pulse no more.
In light of the current threat to Tara’s very existence, Moore’s lines
have acquired a bleak resonance, and show modern Ireland’s government
in a lamentably poor light.
Today's news reports of the event:
Examiner: Kenny urged to address M3/Tara issue
Irish Independent: Tara plan 'an attack on medieval studies'
Irish Times - Breaking News: 'Plea to FG over Tara motorway route'
- TaraWatch - http://www.tarawatch.org / [log in to unmask]
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