When Tara greeted the liberator

So much of Tarašs history is based on legend, on stories that have been passed down from generation to generation and which add to the great romance associated with one of Irelandšs most ancient and significant sites.

The famous hill has been the home of many great events in Irish history, including The
Battle of Tara during the 1798 Rebellion of the United Irishmen, but it’s doubtful if anything could compare with the sheer size of the gathering which assembled on the grassy slopes in 1843 to listen to Daniel O’Connell, ‘The Liberator’.

The date, to be precise, was August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the amazing assembly was to mark the climactic moments in what had become, during 1843, the most fervent, peaceful expression of Irish sentiment in favour of Irish rule in the history of the country.
British Prime Minister William Pitt had been alarmed by the 1798 Rebellion, so much so that in 1800 he passed the Act of Union, which meant that Ireland lost its parliament and became part of the United Kingdom.

Kerryman O’Connell had successfully achieved Catholic emancipation and the removal of the punitive Penal Laws during the early decades of the 1800s and now he turned his attentions to the repeal of the Union.

Accordingly, in 1843, in a bid to bring the attention of the people of Ireland and the British government to the call for repeal, O’Connell organised a series of approximately 40 huge rallies around the country and travelled up to 5,000 miles by coach to address 31 of these meetings himself. Some going for a man who was closing in on his 70th birthday.

These rallies were punctuated with what were known as ‘monster meetings’ held at important historic and Celtic sites. The Curragh and Cashel hosted gatherings estimated at close to 300,000 people, but the mother and father of all the meetings took place at the Hill of Tara as, for up to three days in advance, people thronged to the famed hill from a wide radius by carriage, horse and on foot.

By the day of the meeting, bands, ceremonial floats and thousands of banners added extra colour and the whole occasion became as much a festival as a political rally. The gathering was estimated as the biggest ever to assemble on this island.

O’Connell, being the great propagandist that he undoubtedly was, estimated the number at one and a half million people. That was probably something of an exaggeration, as others described the assembly in more conservative terms, like the mere 100,000 mentioned by the Illustrated London News.

But it also described the historic occasion in more glowing terms, saying that "the procession from Dunshaughlin, which conducted Mr. O’Connell, fully occupied a mile of road."

What a remarkable sight it must have been as the procession included a trumpeter on horseback, drummers, a harper on an open carriage drawn by six grey horses playing ‘The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls’, horsemen four deep, footmen six deep and flags and banners carrying the emotive word ‘Repeal’.

Altars were erected on the various mounds around the hill and Masses were celebrated on the morning of the rally. Two bishops and 35 priests were present as, soon after midday, O’Connell’s carriage made its way up to the top of the hill through an archway that included the words ‘Tara of the Kings hails the Liberator with 100,000 welcomes’.

Such was the extent of the gatherings that, obviously, huge numbers of people wouldn’t have been in a position to hear the great man’s words. Accordingly, it is believed that O’Connell’s words were relayed down the hill by officials assigned to that task.

"Tara is surrounded by historical reminiscences which give it an importance worthy of being considered by everyone who approaches it for political purposes and an elevation in the public mind which no other part of Ireland possesses," O’Connell proclaimed to the vast throng.

"We are standing upon Tara of the Kings, the spot where the monarchs of Ireland were elected, and where the chieftains of Ireland bound themselves by the solemn pledge of honour to protect their native land against Dane and every stranger.

"This was emphatically the spot from which emanated every social power and legal authority by which the force of the entire country was concentrated for national defence. On this important spot I have an important duty to perform. I here protest in the face of my country and my God against the continuance of the Union."

They were powerful words from one of the greatest Irishmen in history, but the cheers that echoes across the vast hill and beyond in response to his speech didn’t have the desired impact further afield and, if anything, sounded the death knell of O’Connell’s popular movement.

The extent of the rally at Tara didn’t go unnoticed by the government and pressure grew to call a halt to such emotive gatherings.

A local magistrate from Trim was particularly concerned and reported to his superiors in Dublin and London on the Tara meeting.

"Mr. O’Connell, accompanied by a large cavalcade, arrived on the hill shortly after one o’clock," he wrote. "He was received with loud cheers. No-one could contemplate the display made on this occasion without having the conviction forced on his mind that the very excitement caused by such a meeting must, in all human probability, eventuate in some attempt at a subversion of government of the country - which will involve us in all the horrors of a civil or either a religious war."

The likelihood is that O’Connell also feared the same outcome, for almost as an aside during his address he said: "What could England effect against such a people so thoroughly aroused they rose out in rebellion? While I live such an uprising will never occur."

The British government clearly wasn’t convinced and heeded the magistrate’s warnings. With the next monster meeting set for Clontarf, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel issued a proclamation at the last moment banning the rally for fears that it would have a military character.

The area was ringed by armed militia and O’Connell faced a dilemma - confrontation or submission. Fearing bloodshed, he opted for submission and messengers were sent along all roads leading to Clontarf to turn the people back. It was a humiliating occasion for O’Connell and one from which he never recovered.

Unlike his great victory in the quest for Catholic emancipation, this was a disastrous defeat for his repeal effort. He was arrested, tried for ‘conspiring to change the constitution by illegal methods’, and imprisoned. He was released a year later on appeal and, though he continued his campaign, his power to influence matters in London was gone.

Interestingly, a friend of O’Connell’s in the British government was Lord John Russell, who actually owned the land of Tara at the time of the rally. It’s not known if he gave permission for its use, but under the laws that applied to Tara regarding access to the monuments, permission had to be accorded to the applicant ‘subject to such reasonable conditions as the owner shall specify’.

When he became British Prime Minister in 1846, Russell didn’t give way to O’Connell’s demands on behalf of Ireland. Indeed, he presided over some of the most harrowing years in the country’s history, including the Great Famine.

Daniel O’Connell’s voice, which had once rung out over Tara, went silent forever in 1847 when he died at Genoa on his way to Rome.

He had packed some amount of effort and so many memorable moments into his amazing life, among them that monster meeting at Tara.

Taken from Royal Meath
December 2004