One of Ireland's most important ancient places, the Hill of Tara (in Irish called Cnoc na Teamhrach, Teamhair, or most frequently Teamhair na Rí, "Tara of the Kings") can be found less than three miles (four kilometers) south-east of the River Boyne, between Navan and Dunshaughlin in County Meath.
If you are following the signs, the Hill of Tara is incredibly easy to find, especially as part of the Boyne Valley Drive. However, Tara even though it is one of the top places to see in Ireland, the landmark itself might be a bit underwhelming at first sight. To a casual observer, it looks like just another field from the roadside. However, if you dig into the history of Tara, you will soon discover that it is a sprawling and important, archaeological complex of ancient earthworks and more refined monuments that are traditionally believed to be the seat of the High King of Ireland. In addition to its historical significance, it is also considered by many to be a "magical", "sacred" place - though much of this particular classification is up to individual belief systems and the often creative interpretation of the scarce hard facts that are known about Tara.
At First Glance
The first impression most visitors have of the Hill of Tara is a winding, narrow country road, then a parking lot (often more than crowded), some signs and, finally, the rolling greens that seem reminiscent of a slightly untidy and very challenging golf course. The other notable feature will be the visitors meandering and milling about the place, getting almost lost in a wide expanse of Irish countryside, with a few discernible ditches and hillocks here and there. In other words, if you came looking for a castle worthy of Camelot, you won't find it at Tara. Part of the beauty of this archaeological site is in its hidden mystery.
In fact, Tara is more a state of mind than a real, tangible attraction. Just looking at the rolling hills that remain won't be enough to give a real impression of its former royal splendor. Truth be told, the only immediately noticeable ancient monument in the area is the Lia Fáil. Made of roughly hewn stone, the pillar is the oldest artifact still standing at Tara but it ultimately turns out to be less impressive than more modern monuments to be found on the site.
To really experience the best of the Hill of Tara and uncover as many of its ancient secrets as possible, you need to be willing to explore and walk a bit. Staying in the parking lot, or even in the churchyard (both are the extreme ends of the prepared pathways) is not really an option if you want to get a sense of the importance of the site.
The Ancient Monuments of Tara
If you want to explore Tara, you will have to make your way up to the summit of the hill over what is a sometimes slippery and uneven path. From here, it is said at least, you are able to see no less than 25% of the Irish mainland. On a clear day, you will believe this as your eyes take in the landscape that stretches in every direction. On many other days it'll seem a very exaggerated claim. However, the view is just a bonus on visiting this enchanting spot.
At the summit you will also find an oval Iron Age hilltop enclosure, a massive "hill fort" measuring over 1,000 feet (318 meters) from north to south, and an impressive 866 feet (264 meters) from east to west. This is surrounded by an internal ditch and an external bank, which would not have been very effective defensive features and act as an indicator that this was a ceremonial site only. Over the years it became known as the Fort of the Kings (Ráith na Ríogh), or the Royal Enclosure. Within it are further earthworks, a ring fort and a ring barrow with double ditches - they are known as Cormac's House (Teach Chormaic) and the Royal Seat (Forradh).
Right in the middle of the Forradh you'll notice a solitary, almost organically formed standing stone. This is believed to be the Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil), the ancient crowning place of the High Kings. Legend has it that the stone will scream (at a level to be heard all over Ireland) if touched by the rightful king, who also had to meet (and successfully complete) challenges before even being allowed within touching distance of the magical stone.
Just north of this all, but still within the Royal Enclosure, you will also find a rather modestly sized Neolithic passage tomb, this is known as the Mound of the Hostages (Dumha na nGiall). Constructed around 3,400 BCE it has some fine carvings in the short passage, which is said to be oriented towards the rising sun on Imbolc and Samhain.
Further north, outside the Ráith na Rí, is a ring-fort with no less than three banks, but partially destroyed by the much more modern churchyard. This is known as the Rath of the Synods (Ráith na Seanadh). Strangely enough one of the few places in Ireland where Imperial Roman artifacts have been found. However, it is important to note that what was not found here, despite the best efforts of the slightly deluded British Israelites around 1900, was the Ark of the Covenant. What these religious zealots managed, however, was the destruction of parts of the site by haphazardly digging into it in search of the nonexistent ark.
A short distance north again you will just be able to make out a long, narrow, almost rectangular earthwork, almost like a highway leading to Tara. It is commonly called the Banqueting Hall (Teach Miodhchuarta), There is no evidence that there ever was a hall here (as opposed to the hall that was at Emain Macha near Armagh), so first impressions might be much nearer to the truth - it may have been a ceremonial avenue approaching the main site. It certainly feels that way if you walk up the middle of the "Banqueting Hall", uphill and towards Cormac's House.
Further earthworks like the Sloping Trenches, Gráinne's Fort, and Laoghaire's Fort can be found at the Hill of Tara, all are signposted. As is the massive ringfort known as Rath Maeve a few hundred feet south, and a Holy Well you pass on the way there. There also is a Wishing Tree, but that is another story.
The Church and Visitor's Center
The church on the Hill of Tara, dedicated to Saint Patrick, is far from ancient and its construction partially destroyed some of the important ancient monuments. As it stands today, St. Patrick's was built in the 1820s, on a site that may have had a church since the 1190s. It once belonged to the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John (Order of Malta in modern parlance), so the theory with the Ark of the Covenant may well have started in medieval times.
History could be said to come full circle - the encroaching Christian church has long been disused and was then reactivated as a visitor center by Heritage Ireland.
Here a word of caution is in order: If you google for the Hill of Tara, you may well find many sites that give opening times and an admission fee. Both of these are only relevant to the visitor center (which is strictly optional, though recommended to quickly brush up on the background of the Hill of Tara). The hill, with all its ancient monuments, is open throughout the year, at any time, even at night.
Actually the best time to visit would be outside the season and outside normal opening hours - I recommend April (when most of the grass is fresh and the ravages of tourism are not that obvious), or early October or November mornings, to catch a sunrise in solitary splendor.
Basic Information on the Hill of Tara
Getting to the Hill of Tara is not complicated - you'll find the access road (signposted) south of Navan, westwards off the R147 (the old N3, which also avoids motorway tolls). If you are coming by motorway, leave the M3 at Junction 7 (signed for Skryne/Johnstown), then turn south onto the R147. The local road approaching the Hill of Tara is narrow and winding, so be sure to take care here.
Parking is limited at the Hill, expect a bit of maneuvering, and maybe a short walk. Actually, even getting into the parking might be a problem at busy times - you might have to find a space on the side of the road a bit away. Be careful not to block any entrances to the fields surrounding Tara, and to leave ample room for other traffic to get through. Note that "other traffic" includes large tour buses and (more important) large agricultural machinery.
Access to the Hill of Tara is avaialble 24/7 through unlocked gates or over stiles.
Take note that the Hill of Tara is a (more or less) natural landscape, absolutely not suitable for wheelchairs or persons with a more than slight mobility impairment. All others should wear stout shoes with good (gripping) soles, and bring a walking stick if needed. On wet days, Tara is an assortment of slippery slopes and sheep droppings.