The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls

The Question

Claire Roche added The famous Thomas Moore poem-song
to her live performances this year, and someone asked her
to explain what "The Harp" was.

Since then Claire has asked me, a few times,
if I knew anything about the "Harp Of Tara".
Well, for one, there was a silent movie made with that title in 1914.
I would love to see a copy.

Recently, as regular readers will have read, I am currently
compiling the upcoming Celtic Ways Turas Journeys,
i.e. themed day tours with a compilation of routes, scenes,
stories, re-enactments, music, poetry and art

These include
"Following Columcille" and
"Following The Tuatha De Dannan"

Interestingly, I have discovered that
"The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls"
has a connection to these two Turas tours
and connections to where we currently live at Keash
by the Keash Caves
which are part of the Ceis Corran mountain.

The Harps Came From Heaven

It is believed that the Tuatha De Dannan
were the first people to bring harps to Ireland.

The arrival of the Tuatha De Dannan is a story told of
clouds descending to earth and out of their mists the
harp playing angels emerged led by the Dagda
and followed by the legions of De Dannan.

While their opponents wielded swords,
the tunes of the De Dannan harpers hypnotized
their opponents into sleep before their first blows.

Ceis Corran, the home of the Keash Caves is honored to
the mythological De Dannan harper Corran who's music
melted the most giant of people and animals into sleep.

It is also said that The Tuatha De Dannan also brought the sacred
"Lia Fail" Destiny Stone through the mists
and placed it at Tara Hill to consecrate the site,
a place where the High Kings Of Ireland were chosen and "crowned".

The Druids Appear At Tara

Before the Tuatha De Dannan arrived in Ireland Tara was already
established as a sacred place, believed to be Ireland's
main connection and veil to the"Otherworld",

The story of the De Dannan's Lia Fail is interesting one
as there appears to have been 4 sacred stones placed at Tara,
each with different stories
yet each one somehow known as a Lia Fail.

When the Tuatha De Dannan "claimed" Tara
it became their place of celebration, learning
and court of judgement led by their druids
as well as the seat of their High King.

When the Milesians came to Ireland
they drove the Tuatha De Dannan away from their seat at Tara
and drove them into the Underworld through places of legend
such as Keash Caves, Sheebeg & Sheemore
and they appointed their own chain of High Kings from Tara Hill.

Alas, the peace and abundance established by the De Dannan
was soon lost to the Milesians through famine and high casualty battles.

Stories of legends tell of a treaty formed with the
Tuatha De Dannan and Milesians allowing
the Milesians to care for the physical plane of Ireland
while the De Dannan, the Sidhe (Shee),
were the stewards of the Otherworld.

They agreed to partner together to return
peace and prosperity in Ireland once more
with their meeting place being at Tara Hill

The mediators, mediums, between the Milesians
and the De Dannan were the druids who,
through De Dannan guidance,
shared the skills, knowledge and wisdom of
language, mathematics, meteorology, astronomy,
farming, medicine and nutrition.

The De Dannan bard and harp traditions
also merged with the beliefs and piping traditions
of the Milesians.

The Camelot Of Cormac

Tara Hill experienced its most abundant presence
during the reign of King Cormac MacAirt,
often referred to as the King Arthur of Ireland.

Interestingly, Cormac was born by Keash Caves,
received his battle sword from a
"Lady Of The Lake" in Lough Key
became High King Of Ireland from 216 to 254 AD,
and even today local legend tells of
Cormac and his soldiers being asleep in the
Ceis Corran mountain, Co. Sligo
ready to rule and defend a prosperous united Ireland

Cormac was the King of Midhe, now called Meath,
a neutral region with its seat on Uisneach Hill
where the centre of Island is marked by a huge stone
known as "The Catstrone".

The King Of Midhe was also always the
High King Of Ireland with a seat at Tara Hill.
A "royal road" was built from Uisneach to Tara.

When Cormac became High King of Ireland
he deserted his "fort" at Uisneach
and Tara Hill became his Camelot,

Cormac's moved a big Samhain Feis (festival) of harps
from Glendalough to Tara Hill and ordered a huge Feis
to be held at Tara every three years
to bond the clans, unite Ireland and maintain peace.

His "round table" was a huge wooden banqueting hall
specially built for each Feis event.
The Kings, royal families, druids and bards
from all of the Irish regions of
Connaught, Munster, Leitrim and Ulster were invited to gather.
Roads were built from all 4 regions to meet at the site of the hall.

The Tara Hill Feis was no longer just a harp festival
but a time of meeting, story sharing, singing and ceili
accompanied by many bard harpists and pipers.

Before the festivities a court was is session for trials of
both criminals and disputes between clans.
The "magistrates" were led by the High King Of Ireland
and kings in those days were judges
rather than rulers of land and property.
The High King in court was accompanied by
the druids for moral advice
and the bards for recording the events.

Decisions at these courts formed new laws and treaties.
and these were read out to all at the end of the sessions.

After the court sessions ended
festivities could begin
with the pipes providing the stance for
the sovereignty of each region
while the harps symbolically provided a linking spirit
between the clans and united connection to the Otherworld

At the end of each Feis it is said the wooden banqueting hall
was set on fire to temporarily close the connection to the Otherworld,
complete the session of justice and destroy the aura of the conflicts
brewed over the past 3 years.

Tales of human sacrifice by the druids probably evolved from
this event as it is believed that the bodies of those sentenced
to death by the court sessions were burned in this fire.

This Camelot style Feis and rules of justice over Ireland
was maintained by High Kings Of Ireland until 560 AD.

Tara Becomes Challenged

The start of the downfall of Tara and it's "Feis"
may have started in 433 AD.

In addition to hosting the tri-ennial Samhain Feis
Tara was a national sacred meeting place at
Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasa too.
At each festival fires were lit, celebrations were shared
and the court was in session for trials and judgements
by the High King and druids.

In 433 AD St. Patrick lit a fire at Slane at Easter time,
a few miles east of Tara. Easter was a couple of weeks of
so before the next Beltaine Fire Festival at Tara.
This was regarded as a challenge and an act of "war"
by the ruling king of the time, High King Laoghaire,
He sent his army to arrest Patrick and his followers.

Patrick escaped but when his followers were marched into custody
they sang the words now known as "St. Patrick's Breastplate.
At the Beltaine court some weeks later, Patrick appeared
in defence of his followers.

It was here that he first demonstrated the trinity using a clover leaf.
The druids recognized this demonstration as being symbolic of the
interior of the passage tombs so they could relate Patrick's stories
to their own beliefs. This may have been the first marriage
of the druid stories and faith with the Christian stories.

Patrick and his followers were not only pardoned
but were encouraged to share their stories around Ireland.
So Ireland's own old testament taught by the druids
was told and taught alongside the stories of Christianity,

Some clans accepted the new Christian stories more than others.

The formation of Irish clans is quite complex.
First races became integrated through marriages of
Formorians, Firbolgs, De Dannan and Milesians.
Their inter-raced families then formed clans
The clans then split due to various disputes and battles
and then merged to form new clans
through treaties and trade partnerships.

A common peace and honour bond between clans
was through "hostages".
A clan king would offer to exchange a son or close family
member with the equivalent from another clan.
The people exchanged were known as "hostages".
They were not poorly treated but became members of the host clan.
Influential power became established through the number of
hostages a clan leader was able to negotiate for.

From Naill To Ui Neills

One leader, known as Naill, acquired nine hostages hence a treaty
with nine clans and this elevated him to the position of
High King of all of Ireland from his "seat" in Tara.

One of Naill's sons, Eogan, accompanied by his brothers,
conquered the Pictish clans in north west Ireland,
and formed a clan known as the Northern Ui Neills.
who then merged with more clans across northern Ireland.

The rest of Naill's sons merged their clan with more clans
through the south and south east of Ireland
These became the Southern Ui Neills.
Through becoming the biggest clans in Ireland they
formed a treaty at Tara to shared the High King
seat of Ireland by alternating rulership over the years.


Columcille's, St. Columba's, father was a leader of the
Northern Ui'Neill clan and his mother from the ruling
Southern Ui'Neills. If Columcille had not entered into monastic life
he would have become a High King Of Ireland
through either of the Ui Neill clans

During Columcille's life and times the development of monastic sites
became very important for the ruling clans. They realized it was
more successful to "conquer" through providing opportunities
for education and prosperous living through knowledge and wisdom
than through the brute force of battle.

Clan leaders and kings ranked the druids and early Christian
leaders as their most important allies for widening their
influence and expanding their clans.

Columcille monastic mission was his own,
very Irish, not Roman, and very druid based
due to his skills and performances with
story telling, poetry and music.

As Columcille was of Ui Neill blood from both North and South
he was, indeed, regarded as an unofficial, and probably humble,
High King of Ireland without claiming any seat of justice.
Columcille's interests would never have been on possessions and land
but of a unity of people living in abundance
from their own shared spirituality, knowledge and efforts.

First, the Northern Ui Neill gave Columcille land in Derry
to set up his first monastic site,
to become a major seat of learning in the north.

Soon after, the Southern Ui Neill gave Columcille land
at Durrow to set up similar and bigger in the south.

Unity & The Tara Feis

Connaught, western Ireland, survived many centuries of
unchallenged independence since the Tuatha De Dannan
agreed to let the Firbolgs rule the region.
From the Firbolgs the largest clan that emerged were the O'Briens
and their High King of Connaught was from this clan

Munster also had its own High King chosen from various clans,
also evolved from the Firbolgs,

The High Kings of Connaught and Munster and their courts
would always meet with the kings and courts of
the Ui Neills of Leinster and Ulster at the Tara Feis.

For many centuries the kingdoms of Ireland,
though not conquered by a single clan or race
maintained reasonable harmony and prosperity
thanks to the Feis in the Halls of Tara.

Events in 560 AD was to change this forever.

At The Last Feis

First, Columcille was sent to trial at the Beltaine feis to judge
on his right to scribe a copy of a book owned by another.
In this case, he copied a book of Psalms
belonging to his former Abbot teacher.
This was probably the first ever copyright trial.

It infuriated Columcille to have the rights to copy
and distribute "books of God" taken from him.

Then, during the at the Lughnasa Feis games,
at the ancient site of Tailtean
King Dermaid's son was killed by a hurling ball struck
by the hurley stick held by a son of the King of Connaught.
The Connaught king's son was a "hostage" of King Dermaid.

Fearing for his life, the Connaught king's son fled and sought
refuge in a church within a monastic site, was this Durrow?
Columcille was present.
The laws of sanctuary, previously set by the druids of Tara,
allowed anyone to seek refuge within a monastery without harm
while terms of trial and justice were negotiated
Dermaid's soldiers ignored this law,
invaded the monastary,
found the hiding "hostage"
and slayed him in front of Columcille.

This second act against laws and value close to Columcille
enraged him into personally declaring that the Southern Ui'Neill king,
Dermaid, was no longer the rightful High King Of Ireland

Columcille fled north and helped his father form an army
of the Northern Ui Neills to challenge the Southern Ui'Neills
and replace the High King with one from the northern family.

The king of Connaught was obviously angry at losing his son.
He ordered his army to join the Northern Ui Neills.
These two armies met near the base of Ben Bulben, Co. Sligo.
By this time the Southern Ui Neils had organized themselves
and had marched to Co. Sligo. Battle commenced!

It is said that 3000 men died, and that all casualties except one
were of the Southern Ui Neills.

The Closing Of Tara Hill

Though the Northern Ui Neills won the battle
they did not automatically take the High King seat at Tara.
The spiritual leaders, now mainlyChristian abbots and bishops
refused to witness ordination of a new High King in the eyes of God
until Columcille had been through trial and judgement.

At the Samhain court session, or synod at Tara in 560 AD
without the presence of a High King,
Columcille was tried to judge his ability to remain a monk
due to his acts or creating war against the monastic mission of peace.

It was a difficult trial because Columcille was very valuable
as a person to influence, convert and unite people.

A Northern Ui Neill clan of the Dalraida had invaded and
colonized Scotland's Hebredian islands and a mainland area
now known as Argyll county. They were having problems
defending their lands in Scotland from the country's native Picts.

Columcille was offered the sacred druid island of Iona, within Dalraida,
to commenced his "mission of Scotia" to convert and unite the Picts
within the Christian monastic culture, which quietly expanded the
kingdom of Dalraida.

This ruling saved the face of the church in Ireland
while also "using" Columcille's skills to expand more of Ireland
into Scotland.

Columcille was also given the "Lia Fail" stone
which was sent to Scotland for the coronation of,
first the High King Of Scottish Dalraida
and then of King Aiden the first Dalraida king who
became the first High King of Scotland
in the presence of Columcille.
The journey of that stone until the present
is also full of intrigue
and a story I will tell another time.

After the end of the Samhain sessions, or synod,
that judged Columcille,
it was ruled that Tara could no longer be recognized
as a place of judgement, negotiation and treaties
as it was proved they could not be sacred.

So it was in 560 AD that the The Abbot of Tara, Ruadan,
performed a curse over the Tara Hill
to close its connection between man and the Otherworld

... and the harp,
said to be the instrument brought from the other world
by the De Dannan as a symbol of peace,
and its music as a connection to the Otherworld,
........ was played at Tara's hall no more.

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 praise no more.

No more to chiefs and ladies bright,
The harp of Tara swells;
The chord alone, that breaks at night,
Its tale of ruin tells.
Thus Freedom now so seldom wakes,
The only throb she gives
Is when some heart indignant breaks,
To show that still she lives.

Since 560 AD

There have been famous gatherings at Tara since that time,
with the purpose of uniting Ireland,
The most famous have been by Brian Boru (an O'Brien)
to unite Ireland against Viking invasions,
and Daniel O'Connell in 1843 to fight against the union
of Ireland with Britain,

Gatherings have tried to lift the curse of Tara so that
Ireland can once again enjoy the unity of Cormac's years.

The spirit of Tara Hill deeply affects those who visit today,
especially at Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Oestre, Beltaine,
Lamas, Lughnasa and Mabon.

The "Stone of Destiny" or "Lia Fail" currently preserved
at Tara Hill is likely to be an ancient megalithic
fertility stone that was unearthed by Daniel O'Connell's men
near the "mound of hostages". It was erected to give their meeting
a symbol of destiny rather than resurrect a megalithic Viagra.

A few years ago a festival of Tara was introduced at Lamas,
Summer Solstice.

Claire was invited to sing and perform.
At the end of the show I heard the comment.
"Its wonderful to have the harp back at Tara"

I hope to remix and release the video of that performance soon.


  1. Thank you so much for this.

    I always wondered on that as a child in school.


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