Friday, 28 June 2013

Trim Castle & Hill of Tara

Today we visited Trim Castle the largest Anglo-Norman castle in Ireland, constructed over a thirty-year period by Hugh de Lacy and his son Walter. Hugh de Lacy was granted the Liberty of Meath by King Henry II in 1172 in an attempt to curb the expansionist policies of Richard de Clare, (Strongbow). Construction of the massive three storied Keep, the central stronghold of the castle, was begun c. 1176 on the site of an earlier wooden fortress. This massive twenty-sided tower, which is cruciform in shape, was protected by a ditch, curtain wall and moat.

The Great Hall outside the castle as the original was on the top floor and food was cooked on the bottom being very difficult to carry to the banquet, a new great hall was built outside the castle for easy access.

Looking down from the roof of the 4 story castle onto the new Great Hall site 

Barbican Gate

Beautiful bridge crossing the river in the village

The Yellow Steeple a tall bell tower remains from the Priory of St Mary 40 mtr high.

Looking back towards the Castle from the Yellow Steeple

The curtain wall of the castle 
St Patrick's Church 1891
Our next stop of the day was the Hill Of Tara (Teamhair na Ri), though best known as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, it has been an important site since the late Stone Age when a passage-tomb was constructed there. On Samhain, all the Kings would congregate at Tara for a big festival and celebration, which would last the whole month of November. Ireland was broken into 4 provinces Ulster (northern) Cannaught (western) Leinster (eastern) and Munster (southern). Each province had their own ruling king with Tara having the High King. In its hey day it was a very powerful pagan site. Learning facilities were based here, Bards (poets) Ovates (philosophers) and Druid Priests. It is believed by some that the De Danann Kings reigned at Tara some 1,900BC. They were succeeded by the Milesians who came from Spain. There were 136 pagan and 6 christian kings said to have ruled at Tara uninterruptedly. Diarmaid was the last of them, his successors moved elsewhere.

Tara was at the height of its power as a political and religious centre in the early centuries after Christ. There are some 30 monuments spread over this low hill (about 500 feet high) near the Boyne River, and more are being discovered regularly. From ground level, the earthworks can be difficult to distinguish. The shape of the rings and mounds are best seen from the air, but the dramatic slopes and changes in ground level can be appreciated by a stroll around the ancient grassy landscape. The most important of the many earthworks at Tara are found on the summit of the hill inside an enclosure called Ráith na Ríogh (Fort of the Kings or Royal Enclosure), dating from the Iron Age in the first five centuries AD. The axis of the oval enclosure measures 318 m (1,043 ft) north-south by 264 m (866 ft) east-west. The ring-shaped formations within this enclosure are known as Teach Chormaic (Cormac's House) and the Forradh (Royal Seat). In the centre of the Forradh is the Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil), a pillar stone that was originally located just north of the Mound of the Hostages. It was moved here in 1798 to commemorate 400 rebels who died in the Battle of Tara during the Irish revolution. If this is the original Stone of Destiny, which most scholars think is likely, it played a central role in the coronation ceremonies of over 100 Celtic high kings. According to legend, the stone would screech loudly when touched by the rightful king.

Just inside the Ráith na Ríogh enclosure is the oldest monument at Tara, and one of the most visible - the "Mound of the Hostages," a passage-tomb dated to between 2500 and 2100 BC. The name comes from the tradition of Celtic high kings to hold local nobles hostage, ensuring the cooperation of their lesser kingdoms.

The tomb is similar in layout to those at nearby Newgrange and Knowth, but on a much smaller scale. The short passage is astronomically aligned (less accurately than some) with the sunrise on November 8 and February 4, the ancient Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc. Just inside the passage on the left is a carved stone; several Bronze Age burials were excavated in the tomb itself.

Mound of the Hostages
Other monuments at the Hill of Tara include: Ráith na Seanadh (Rath or Fort of the Synods) a ring-fort north of Ráith na Ríogh with three banks, in which Roman remains from the 1st to 3rd centuries have been uncovered - Ráith Laoghaire (Laoghaire's Fort) a ring-fort in which the 5th-century King Laoghaire was buried - Banqueting Hall a long rectangular earthwork (750 feet/230 m) on the north side of the site, which may have been a ceremonial avenue or cursus monument.

The Hill of Tara is also known as the womb of the mother in Ireland.

Royal Seat with Stone of Destiny 
Stone of Destiny 
Looking across Cormac's House towards the Royal Seat
Again looking back to the Stone of Destiny
Banqueting Hall
Just down the road we found the Well of the White Cow, before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland there were religious cults associated with the wetland areas dating back to the Later Bronze Age (1200-600BC). There is considerable evidence from the metalwork finds of this period in these wetland areas that religious and ritual activity took place here, but the rapid rise of bringing metalwork offerings to wetland areas is evidenced by the sheer volume of finds from the Early Iron Age (600BC-400AD). It is a common myth that these cults held ritual activities or gave ritual and religious importance to well sites. Almost all holy well sites that have been excavated show religious and ritual activity dating only as far back as one thousand, seven hundred years at the very most, and where archaeological finds have been made they are invariably Christian in nature.

It now seems far more likely that ancient Irish spirituality was extremely diverse, with local gods and regional beliefs in various sprites and spirits - somewhat like animist beliefs. However, that being said, there are a few well sites that have had a pagan past. Some well sites have ballaun stones which have been brought to the site after its Christian associations, so I am not referring to those places where there are inscribed stones or rubbing ballauns. This is not always a clear indication of a more ancient pagan past, but a site with a pagan past may indeed be the well at Tara. There are in fact six wells at Tara (or seven depending on what map you use as some may have been filled in or dried up) and not all of them are religious wells, although some bear the name of Saint Patrick. The Well of the White Cow is situated at the base of Tara Hill and just to confuse matters it has multiple names:

-Caprach Cormac; meaning ‘Cormac’s well’, a nod to one of the King’s at Tara.
-Liagh; meaning ‘the Physician’s well’, possibly a reference to the belief in its healing property.
-Tipra bo finne; meaning ‘the well of the White Cow’.
-Deare dubhe; meaning ‘the well of the dark eye’, possibly a description of its appearance or relating to its power to heal the eyesight.
-Poll tocair na tuiliche; meaning ‘Trial by Ordeal’. There is a medieval manuscript that talks about entering the waters and coming up again: if you had a black spot you were guilty and if you were spotless you were innocent.
-Saint Patrick’s well.

Some of the names can be explained with their connection to myth (Poll tochair na tuiliche), a possible local and more ‘modern’ fond invention (Caprach Cormac) or simply names expressing its use or purpose (Liagh and Deare Dubh), but the name of Tipra bo finne is by far the most intriguing name. This name appears in a mid medieval set of legends – from which almost all of the legends of Tara come. You will read and you will also be told that these legends are very early and speak of Ireland’s pagan past. I’m afraid they don’t; the myths are medieval in date and use obscure imagery often to convey Christian ideas – and the white cow is one such idea.

The main citations for the myths of a pagan, life-giving cow are the Ulster Cycle which contains the famous Tain Bo Cuailnge (Two sources; both twelfth century), the Historical Cycle containing the famous vision of Conn of the Hundred Battles (again a twelfth century work of poetry and prose, recently translated into English in full by Seamus Heaney) and the Fenian or Ossianic Cycle which contains the famous story of the well surrounded by trees and the salmon of wisdom (a thirteenth century work) and the Mythological cycle (a twelfth century work).

It is possible that legends of a white sacred, pagan cow were retained orally in the Irish storytelling tradition, but the poetic and prose works that were written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries contain obscure Christian references – the symbolism of which is somewhat lost in the passage of time (for example, some suggest that the tales of sacred cows relates to the visions in the Book of Enoch)- and often use the tales as a means to teach ethics and etiquette, or even to reinforce feudalism and hierarchical social structures.

The well of the white cow

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