The Celts believed that Tara was the sacred dwelling of the gods and the gateway to the otherworld. The passage grave was thought to be the final resting place of the Tuatha de Danann, the mythical fairyfolk – who were real enough, but instead of pixies and brownies, they were earlier Stone Age arrivals on the island.
As the Celtic political landscape began to evolve, the druids’ power was usurped by warlike chieftains who took kingly titles; there was no sense of a united Ireland, so at any given time there were countless rí tuaithe (petty kings) controlling many small areas. The king who ruled Tara, though, was generally considered the big kahuna, the high king, even though his direct rule didn’t extend too far beyond the provincial border. The most lauded of all the high kings was Cormac MacArt, who ruled during the 3rd century.
The most important event in Tara’s calendar was the three-day harvest feis (festival) that took place at Samhain, a precursor to modern Halloween. During the festival, the high king pulled out all the stops: grievances would be heard, laws passed, and disputes settled amid an orgy of eating, drinking and all-round partying.
When the early Christians hit town in the 5th century, they targeted Tara straight away. Although the legend has it that Patrick lit the paschal fire on the Hill of Slane, some people believe that Patrick’s incendiary act took place on Tara’s sacred hump. The arrival of Christianity marked the beginning of the end for Celtic pagan civilisation, and the high kings began to desert Tara, even though the kings of Leinster continued to be based here until the 11th century.
In August 1843, Tara saw one of the greatest crowds ever to gather in Ireland. Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’ and the leader of the opposition to union with Great Britain, held one of his monster rallies at Tara, and up to 750, 000 people came to hear him speak.