The Discovery of Wake Rites

JR Foley

The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself primptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy.

     In August 2008, weeks before I commenced a Shaun-hike from beginning to end to beginning again of Finnegans Wake, even more weeks before I discovered George Cinclair Gibson’s Wake Rites: The Ancient Irish Rituals of Finnegans Wake (University Press of Florida, 2005), I visited (with my wife) the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland, the ancient seat of the Ardrí, the High Kings of Erin. It was only for an hour or so, including a twenty-minute guided tour of the grassy hummocks that remain from ancient times. (See YouTube videos of the Hill linked below.)

     The recumbent Finnegan, of course, lies from the big Hill of Howth on the northeast point of Dublin Bay to the little hill (in Irish, cnoc or knock) in the vast Phoenix Park in the northwest reaches of the city. According to Wake Rites, however, Joyce has superimposed the Hill of Tara on the geography of the northside of Dublin from the big hill to the little one. To understand what Bartholomew Porter/H.C. Earwicker is dreaming about some 30 to 40 miles south of the Hill of Tara, it is necessary to realize what used to take place on that once-sacred Hill.

     To reach Tara you drive up one of those lane-and-a-half Irish country roads. Where it widens slightly there is a pleasant little shop-and-café with not many parking places; most visiting cars park half in the grass along the road. All around are farms: hilly pastures trimmed with lines of trees. Twenty or so paces beyond the shop-and-café stands a gate; the Hill itself is fenced in. There is no cost to enter. You walk up a long gravel path beside a rising slope of greenest grass. (All the fields around are greenest grass.) The first surprise is that the statue two-thirds up the path is the widely-photographed statue of St. Patrick, bearded and mitred, holding a bishop’s crozier in his left hand and a shamrock in his right. The surprise is that it is not significantly placed on the Hill, which is after all the legendary location of his clever improv, plucking the shamrock to “explain” the Trinity to pagan king and company. It is not on the top of the Hill (as photos make it appear); nor is it in front of the church toward which the path is climbing, nor in its churchyard. It stands alone and incidental on the side of the path, like a single greeter in an empty receiving line.


     Up ahead in a copse of trees stands the square-towered little white church, built in 1822 on the ruins of a 12th century church. The new church (probably Church of Ireland, not Catholic) is no longer a church but the visitors center. (Yet people somehow still manage to get themselves buried in its thriving churchyard.) A fine 20-minute video introduces visitors to the rings and mounds and the standing stone they will see on the hilltop above the churchyard. People are free to roam around the hilltop, but a guided tour, for a small fee, is of course better if it’s all new to you.

     I don’t know if the Sunday afternoon on which we visited, intermittently sunny and drizzly, was windier than usual, but I doubt it. Because the wind is so strong on the Hill, our guide gave us his spiel down in the churchyard beneath the copse. He gave dates of eras and names of kings and of course St. Patrick; explained briefly the topography of the rings and mounds of the site; mentioned the 400 rebels against the British who died and were buried here in 1798; the use of the Hill in 1843 by Daniel O’Connell the Liberator for the great Monster Meeting he incited into a movement to break up the Union with Great Britain; and recounted with dry humor the tale of destructive excavations around 1900 by the British-Israel Association, millenarian Protestants who considered Anglo-Saxons direct descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, and that the Irish had actually conquered England, not the other way around, and dug up part of the Hill of Tara (until they were stopped) looking for the Ark of the Covenant.

     He also told us, quite accurately, that sheep enjoy the liberty of Tara, and to watch our step.

     At last we climbed up into the Ráith na Ríg (Rath [ring-fort] of the Kings), a large ring of grassy berm enclosing two smaller double rings of berms which, from the air, look at first like a double figure-eight. Before we reached the nearer of these smaller rings we passed the small grassy mound with a bare puckered mouth called the Duna na nGiall, the Mound of the Hostages. Largely a reconstruction, it looked both familiar – because the day before we had visited the passage-graves at Knowth – and less imposing than the well-groomed little Knowth mounds. Not only was the entrance worn to dirt on one side, but the old stone piers and lintel of the passage within were blocked by iron bars – and inside, where rites and burials had once taken place, grounds equipment was stored. Well, we’d seen Knowth and Newgrange the day before.

Note ups and downs, with rear of Duma na nGiall

     We kept to a well-trod path through the shaggy, blowing grass – partly to spare our ankles the hidden drops in the lumpy ground, partly to avoid the neat little nests of mottled sheep turds. More distinctive than the Mound of the Hostages I found these clusters, which reminded me of nothing so much as the tight little bombing patterns beloved of Col. Cathcart, was it? in Catch 22. Today, on kingly Tara, the sheep rule.

     Our guide, against the wind, named the ring-berms we climbed. Atop the more important one – the one with the standing stone – he expanded on the role the stone had played in the inauguration of the High King – and reminded us, now we had the vista to appreciate, of the hundreds of thousands who had followed Daniel O’Connell up from Dublin to hear and cheer his denunciation of the Union he served in Parliament.

A mere suggestion of the sweep of the Boyne Valley

     That vista, all round, of the Boyne River Valley, is what most impressed this uninformed visitor. The Battle of the Boyne (1690) bears a negative connotation to anyone of Irish descent who prefers an Ireland free of English rule. It marked the beginning of the end of the last chance for Irish independence for another 200 years or more. But the slim swift winding Boyne waters one of the widest and richest valleys on the island, south or north. The day before we had viewed it from the top of the great mound of Knowth across the river a few miles to the northeast. The river, bending near Tara, is hidden by intervening hills and lines of forest.

     Off further to the north another square church tower is visible. I asked the guide if that is Slane. The first great legend of St. Patrick is the lighting of the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Slane. The pagan High King Lóegaire (or Laoghaire, pronounce Leary), celebrating Beltane (May Day), had forbidden (as did he every year) the lighting of bonfires on any hill of Ireland before he lit his great fire on Tara. On the Hill of Slane, about ten miles due north, St. Patrick lit his Paschal Fire to celebrate not Beltane but Easter (which must have come very late that year), in defiance of the edict, ordinarily a capital offense. Hauled before King Lóegaire for this outrage, Patrick commenced the duel of wits that ended in the isle's mass conversion.

     But the guide told me Slane is not visible from Tara. (Others say it is. A more important point is that, if Patrick did light a Paschal Fire to challenge the High King, some archaeologists and historians now dispute the identification of Slane as the place. Neither archaeological remains nor place-name legends support it. Knowth, on the other hand, or Newgrange, or any one of several other hills along the Bend of the Boyne is more likely.) I can only suggest that on a pitch-black night anybody atop the Hill of Tara would surely notice a sudden fiery glow on the horizon.

     We took a few photos and returned to the car, with the Boyne battlefield yet to visit and a night in Armagh.

     What were we missing?

     Home again after two weeks in Ireland, and having decided that if I am ever to read Finnegans Wake there is only one way, and one time, to do it, at the suggestion of John Bishop’s intro to the Penguin edition, I gave myself permission not to understand it all from page to page. And I surrendered to the community of readers who have grown around FW over 70 years, especially those who have shared their own reductions of bewilderment in books. I got hold of several books, including, on a tip, Wake Rites. And there I discovered quite a lot of what we had missed on the Hill of Tara.

     It is the contention of George Cinclair Gibson in Wake Rites that, as Homer’s Odyssey provides the structure and key to Ulysses, so the structure and key to Finnegans Wake is the ancient complex of celebrations on the Hill of Tara known as the Teamhur Feis (roughly, Tara Festival). Gibson has closely compared all the things that happen in Finnegans Wake against Joyce’s own sources: principally the books of R.A.S. Macalister (especially The Archaeology of Ireland, Studio, 1906; London: Methuen, 1928; “Temair Breg: A Study of the Remains and Traditions of Tara,” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 34, sec. 100: 231-399, Dublin: Hodges, Figgs, and Company, 1919; Ireland in Pre-Celtic Times, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1921; Tara: A Pagan Sanctuary of Ancient Ireland, New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931; and The Secret Languages of Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937), and of P.W. Joyce (who shares a bow in Barney Kiernan’s licensed premises in Ulysses as “Patrick W. Shakespeare”), particularly his Social History of Ancient Ireland, Vols. 1 and 2. New York; Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903; New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968.

     The “Introduction” to Wake Rites is worth quoting at length.

     The Teamhur Feis ... was the most important religious, mythic, sociopolitical, historical (and pseudohistorical) event conducted in pre-Christian Ireland. ... [It] was an extraordinary and complex array of rites, rituals, mythic and historical reenactments, sacred drama, conclaves, assemblies, funeral and inaugural ceremony clustered around several major themes ...
     Like Finnegans Wake, the Teamhur Feis had its origin in the funeral and wake rites conducted for a great but fallen leader. These rites (collectively called the Nosad) were performed – as they are in the Wake – during a truce period, thus allowing a national gathering of mourners, Fianna, Druids, legislators, and other attendants. The Nosad at Tara included ...: elegies around the temple (that was also tomb and mount), keening, songs related to the deceased, drinking and feasting, Druidic divinations, fertility rites, sacred dances and mimes, athletic contests, and ritual combats between two young males known as the Twins. The national gathering and truce period of the Nosad made the Teamhur Feis an opportune occasion for various groups already gathered for the Nosad to convene separately for their own specific purposes. The Nosad was thus associated with the national gatherings of the Irish Druids and the Fianna, as well as musicians and artists, judicial and legislative assemblies, along with a motley multitude of Irish revelers and onlookers.
     ...[T]he most important proceedings at the Teamhur Feis were those comprising the inaugural cycle and ritual investiture of the Irish high king. For the Irish assembled at the Teamhur Feis, their high king, ard rí, was nothing less than the human vessel for “ECH,” the great solar god who resided in his human vehicle for as long as it was deemed suitable. Age, illness, infamy, the violation of magical proscriptions known as geissi, or failing potency, would render this vessel unfit, thus necessitating replacement of an aged ruler with a younger and more virile successor. The fate of many a failed king was regicide – usually at the hands of a certain Druid known as “Mog Ruith,” specially designated for this grim task.
     The Teamhur Feis was the occasion for this dramatic royal spectacle to unfold. Consequently, a complex sequence of choreographed events were conducted: portents to assess the king’s future, a review of his adherence to the royal geissi, tests of virility (often followed by formal charges), rejection by the Sovereign queen, Druidic curses and scathing ranns, a public trial and execution. Then, a series of magical tests and rites (including an important seancelike inquest) were enacted to identify and verify the new king: these were followed by inaugural rites involving a sacred mantle, horses, ritual bathing in a consecrated cauldron, a fourteen-part labyrinthine procession, baptism, and the lighting of a hallowed bonfire. The inaugural cycle culminated in the marriage of the king and his consort, the Soverign goddess Ana, personification of the land. The ancient name of this royal marriage, Banais Righe (literally, “wedding feast of kingship”), is frequently used in the mythological tracts to describe the entire inaugural event.
     The date of the Teamhur Feis was also recognized as the birthday of the “Spirit of Vegetation” and was deliberately calculated to coincide with the vernal equinox, the day of renewal of both the sun and the earth. This is a deliberate act of sympathetic magic meant to underscore a fundamental goal of the Teamhur Feis: sustenance and renewal not only for the king and the seasons, but sustenance and renewal for the land, the people, and the Irish nation as a whole. To this end, the Teamhur Feis was deliberately constructed as a microcosm of Ireland and Irish culture: all of the knowledge, science, lore, and great events – historical, pseudohistorical, mythical, and religious – that created and defined Ireland and its people were retold, reenacted, re-created on this birthday of king, sun, and land. Through the skill of their visionary poets, the sum of Ireland’s knowledge, lore, and history was thus conjured into the present – relived, reexperienced in real time at the Rites of Tara. Through this deliberate rite of creation, the king, the assembled populace, and the nation as a whole could begin life anew. Collectively, these events of the Feis – the Nosad, the cycle of the Banais Righe, the rites of renewal – constitute the single most important religious festival conducted in pagan Ireland.
     The choreographed presentation of this complex of religious, socio-political, and magical events required a truly elaborate array of performers: human representatives of pagan divinities, personifications of natural forces, magistrates, divine functionaries, Druids, priestesses of the goddess Brigit, reenactors of the mythic dead. Through their performances at the Teamhur Feis, mortals were connected with their divinities, and the realm of the Irish gods and goddesses was made manifest upon earth. The ultimate purpose behind the performances at the Teamhur Feis was to reunite the populace with their pantheon – religion (Latin, re, “again” + ligare, “connect”) in its most fundamental manifestation. The climactic moment in these religious performances was the lighting of the torc caille, the sacred bonfire, symbolizing the new light of a new dispensation. At the culmination of the Teamhur Feis in A.D. 433, Saint Patrick dramatically usurped this pagan ritual when he lit his Paschal fire nearby on the Hill of Slane. This event – Patrick’s confrontation and victory at Tara – which heralded the end of Irish paganism, is also the pivotal and climactic moment of Finnegans Wake.
                                                                                                                        Wake Rites, pp. 5-7

     Essential to these rites, especially the most intimate rites involving the regicide (if necessary), funeral, and burial of the old king, and the selection and inauguration of a new king, is the language employed by the presiding Druids and attendant poets (or filidh). This was not the ordinary language of the people.

...Called bélra na filed [“language of poets”], this language was nearly incomprehensible in its polyglot logorrhea; language sometimes blathering, at other times ranting, ribald, profound, or scatological, and everywhere laden with absurd catalogues of everything; language rife with riddles, and riddled with puns, neologisms, and a plethora of polysemes and portmanteaus; language literally loaded with thousands of words misspelled and malformed, bent, folded, twisted, mutilated or torn into pieces – all of this according to a bizarre set of “rules” that consistently apply, rules known to the Druids and Filidh themselves. This language was so obscure it was generally referred to as the “Dark Tongue.” Saint Patrick, soon after his victory at the Teamhur Feis, deliberately made the Dark Tongue illegal. James Joyce, in Finnegans Wake, re-creates the illegal Dark Tongue for his reenactment of the Teamhur Feis.
                                                                                          Wake Rites, pp. 9-10
     So where exactly on the Hill of Tara did these various rituals, assemblies, and entertainments take place?

     A large element of speculation is unavoidable, but given the relatively small space atop and around the Hill, it cannot err badly. It is necessary to coordinate Wake Rites with archaeological findings. My sources are Conor Newman’s TARA: An Archaeological Survey (Discovery Programme Monograph 2, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1997) and The Kingship and Landscape of Tara, edited by Edel Bhreathnach (Fourt Courts Press for The Discovery Programme, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2005).

     Newman divides the Hill of Tara into five divisions, each with surviving earthworks of one sort or another: (1) Ráith na Ríg (“Rath of the Kings”), the largest, consisting of the double “figure-eight” at the top of the Hill and running on downhill to the west; (2) Ráith na Senad (“Rath of the Synods,” which the British-Israelites chopped up), to the immediate north of Ráith na Ríg, and running down the north side of the Hill; (3) Ráith Gráinne (“Grainne’s Rath"), further downhill to the immediate north of Ráith na Senad; (4) Clóenfherta (“Sloping Trenches”), downhill to the west and running alongside both Ráith na Senad and Ráith Gráinne; and (5) adjoining Ráith na Ríg downhill to its due south, Ráith Lóegaire (“Laoghaire’s Rath,” Lóegaire or Laoghaire, the High King St. Patrick confronted over the Paschal Fire). All these divisions were privately owned, by several families, from the late 12th century well into the 20th. The Irish government acquired the south side of the Hill in 1952, the north side in 1975. The Hill is now managed as a Heritage Site by The Office of Public Works (OPW) and the Department of the Environment, Heritage, and Local Government.

Conor Newman's five divisions of the Hill of Tara

     Newman makes clear that the names of these divisions are more conventions than identities. They were first applied to the Hill of Tara only in 1839 by the antiquarian George Petrie, based on study of the medieval literature, particularly the dindshenchas (place-name legends). The five divisions also encompass only those parts of the Tara complex now fenced in as a Heritage Site and free of agricultural use (except sheep grazing). There is abundant evidence that the actual Hill of Tara complex extends much further into the surrounding farm-lands. Some 38 sites have been unearthed (and, after removal of bones and artifacts, destroyed) by construction of a new four-lane motorway, the M3, to ease commuter traffic into and out of Dublin. A late-starting movement to halt or divert the M3 has gained increasing support but less success, although it is thought that the recent economic slump might delay the motorway's completion, scheduled for 2010. The Hill of Tara itself, as currently preserved, does not appear to be threatened; but without a fight nothing can be taken for granted.

The Tech Midchuarta, viewed from north, leading toward Ráith na Senad

     According to Wake Rites, many elements of Finnegans Wake correspond directly with many elements of the kingship rituals in the Teamhur Feis. The rounds of drinks led by Mr. Porter/Earwicker himself in his pub (“House of the cedarbalm of mead”) parallel the newly inaugurated king’s Deisil (sunwise, or clockwise, east-to-west) procession 14 times around the Tech Midchuarta (House of the Circulation of Mead, or Banquet Hall), which enacts and re-enacts the union of the sun god ECH with the land, personified as the goddess Ana. (And, yes, at the climax of his inauguration the new king, possessed by ECH, must have coitus with the goddess, partly to prove his virility, even more so to renew the land. As Mr. Porter/Earwicker fucks wife Anna Livia in the penultimate chapter of FW.)

     Most of the ancient features of the Hill of Tara (in archaeological terms, “monuments”) are wholly or partially ring-like, but one is strikingly not. This is a long straight depression at the northern end of the Ráith na Senad that curves down between two parallel embankments with irregular breaks along their lines. The antiquarian George Petrie believed this to be the site of the Tech Midchuarta, and so named it. The more cautious archaeologist Conor Newman, not finding any evidence consistent with other known sites of mead halls, thinks that the long straight depression is more likely a cursus, or ceremonial avenue, leading up to the earthworks Petrie named the Rath of Synods, which may indeed have hosted assemblies of lawmakers or, later, churchmen. Joyce, writing FW in the ‘20's and ‘30's, did not have the benefit of advanced archaeological studies; and, in any event, for him the literary record was more pertinent.

     As it happens, my wife and I did not stroll over to the north side of Tara, and so have no eye-witness description to offer. Like most tight-scheduled visitors, we stuck to the two big earthworks on the top of the Hill. At least 100 kings – some say 142 – were inaugurated on the Hill of Tara, and the chief ceremonies would have taken place on top.

     On top, but largely not in public. The most solemn inaugural ceremonies were conducted by Druids underground, in a tumulus. The remains of earlier kings and other significant ancestors (primarily ashes) were interred in the tumulus, as the new king’s would also be in time. The old king himself would have been buried just days before. Transference of kingship consisted not in personal contact between old and new, but in the return to the new king – if found worthy – of the god king ECH, who had gone to the Land of the Young, Tir na nOg, for renewal and rebirth after the old king died. Once ECH returned to take possession of the new king, the new king would, in the same tumulus, mate with his consort representing the Sovereign goddess of the land. And if the new king, at some point during his reign, failed to remain perfect in kingly flesh and kingly deed, he would be summoned, ceremoniously, to the tumulus once again to be divested of kingship by the same Sovereign, formally cursed by the Druid Mog Ruith, and ritually murdered.

     The name of this tumulus was An Forradh, and this name George Petrie gave to the mound in the center of the topmost double-circle of the double figure-eight atop the Hill. Is this reasonable? Of course. Is it true? Perhaps not even an archaeological dig could indicate likely true or (as with the Tech Midchuarta) likely false. But if it is the true Forradh, a thorough archaeological dig would destroy it.

The Forradh, viewed from the north

     This is what happened to the little Duma na nGiall, the Mound of the Hostages. (Just to explain “hostages”: Irish kings and clan chieftains took human pledges-of-good-faith from subordinate clans; indeed, the greatness of a chieftain could be measured in the number of pledges or hostages he held, the most famous being Niall of the Nine Hostages, from whom the Ulster Ui Neill (O’Neill) clan descends.)

     In the 1950's the first serious scientific excavation on the Hill of Tara focused on the Mound, considered the oldest monument on the site, going back to about 3500 B.C. A small passage grave (of which hundreds have been identified around Ireland), it is a dolmen of dressed stones covered by a thick mantle of earth. It proved immensely rich in archaeological treasure; not only pottery, but intact urns of ashes and “grave goods,” artifacts for the journey to Tir na nOg. Forty of these urns were found in the earth-mantle, and skeletal remains in a couple of graves just outside the mound, perhaps buried before the mound was erected. Altogether some 250 burials or interments were found. But notwithstanding the careful and neat organization of the dig, the mound was devastated. Once everything of interest was removed for study and museum use, the archaeologists carefully and neatly recovered the original dolmen stones with its earth-mantle. But the Mound is no longer what it had been for over 5,000 years; it’s a reconstruction, albeit with original materials.

     The two double-ring raths of Tara have not been probed; but certainly the center of the Forradh is a mound, much bigger than the Mound of the Hostages, and if it is a passage-grave, and its floor is deep enough, men could stand up in it. (In the Mound of the Hostages they would have to crouch or crawl.) It could be a “museomound” like the one housing the Willingdone Museyroom through which Kate conducts the reader in the first chapter of the Wake. But something in addition might also qualify the Willingdone Museyroom as the rightful bruthain, or passage-chamber, for the inauguration, burial – and perhaps ritual slaying by Magrath – of Porter/Earwicker/Finn.

The Forradh, closer from north.
Note Lia Fail and neighboring 1798 memorial, casting shadows.

     Atop the dream Willingdone Museyroom in the waking Phoenix Park stands the Wellington Monument, tallest obelisk in Europe. (Lord Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, hero of Waterloo, was born and raised in Dublin.) Atop the Tara mound called the Forradh stands a stone which the tourist literature and the guide will tell you is the Lia Fáil, or Stone of Destiny.

     In the lore of Tara the Lia Fáil is reputed to be the original coronation stone of the High King. One legend has it that the colony of Irish (Scoti the Romans called them) who vacated Ireland for the isles that became Scotland took the original Lia Fáil with them to inaugurate their own kings, and that the Lia Fáil eventually was renamed the Stone of Scone. In 1296 Edward I of England captured what he believed to be the Stone of Scone from its resting place in the Abbey of Scone, and it has resided ever since in Westminster Abbey for the coronation of the King or Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The Irish who did not emigrate to Scotland dispute this, of course; but I won’t go into the competing legends. The useful point here is the size of the Stone of Scone. It weighs some 336 lbs, but it is only about ten inches high, and fits in a wooden throne Edward had built for it. Throughout Ireland clan coronation stones, on which a new clan chieftain would become its king, were typically rectangular and not much higher than a foot. They had to be portable for safekeeping (usually, in Christian times, in an abbey or friary) between coronations. The new chieftain, or (king), would step upon it to swear his oath.

     This capacity of the coronation to be stepped upon is key. Which is one reason why the six-foot standing stone of rough white granite atop the Forradh on the Hill of Tara is almost certainly not the coronation stone of the ancient Irish kings. (O.K., a new king could climb up on it, but ...!) For one thing it was erected no earlier than 1821, to honor the rebels buried here in 1798. (An iron commerative headstone was added to the Forradh many generations later.) The stone is said to have been found elsewhere on the Hill (maybe in or near the Mound of the Hostages, maybe in one of the ditches); and this is likely. According to Conor Newman (p. 149), in Neolithic Ireland standing stones were often erected near the entrances of passage-tombs, like the one before the great mound at Knowth. One 11th century prose text, the Dindgnai Temrach, locates the Lia Fáil north, not as it now is south, of the Duma na nGiall; and a 12th century source describes it as “the pillar-stone of the hostages” (Newman, p. 149). One participant in the archaeological diggings of the 1950's states that the Duma was surrounded by large circular pits; which might have been postholes for a group of such pillar-stones. The so-called Lia Fáil standing today might well have been one of those. (Newman again cautions that dating such stones is notoriously difficult.) It’s a pity its fanciful identification with the legendary Lia Fáil deflects what might be its real significance.

     But there’s more. The legends of the Teamhur Feis indicate that the most important role of the Lia Fáil was not that it was stepped on by the new king. The new king could not be inaugurated, on the stone or off it, if he failed a test performed by the stone.

     If I recall correctly, our Tara guide told us the Lia Fáil tested a candidate for new king in two ways. The first was that he had to hitch a chariot up to two (or more) horses and drive them at full speed toward the Lia Fáil. If he was the rightful candidate the stone would split down the center with a roar, letting him charge straight through, horses, chariot, and all, then clap to again as the roar ceased. If, on the other hand, he was not the rightful one, horses, chariot, and he would dash themselves against the stone – and retire to Tir na nOg prematurely, and without rebirth.

     I remember staring at that hard, thick, white stone (which extends another six feet down into the mound), and managing to accept the part of the legend about crashing. But the Druids did inaugurate a long line of kings. The stone roared apart each time?

     It turns out this part of the guide’s spiel (assuming I remember correctly) gets half the story right. There was a test involving candidate, chariot, and team of horses, and they did charge a large standing stone. But the actual story is just a wee bit more realistic. The stone charged was actually two stones, with a crack between them, and the true candidate was expected to make them admit his passage. These two stones were called Blocc and Bluicne, or the Twins, guardians of the portals to the inaugural/burial mound – indeed, to the Otherworld. As twin stones they fit into one another, leaving a jagged crack, but not space enough for a hand to pass through, let alone two (or more) horses, a chariot, and a whole man.

As a divine sanction of his legitimacy, the king had to undergo the Test of Blocc and Bluicne: he must pass through the cleft between the stones or crawl through a “hole in the ground,” an “opening in a rock,” or a “space between two objects set close together” (T [Macalister, Tara: A Pagan Sanctuary of Ancient Ireland], 133-134). The king must not touch the sides of the rending rocks; for him to do so suggests divine rejection. If he succeeds, he is reborn into a new dispensation.
                                                                                          Wake Rites, p. 199
     So maybe not horses and chariot; still it sounds as though for one man to pass or crawl through the needle’s eye between Blocc and Bluicne was not pro forma. But Blocc and Bluicne, wherever they are today – and as the Twins, Shem and Shaun, they are all over Finnegans Wake – they are not the Lia Fáil.

     But the half of the guide’s story that was correct is that the Lia Fáil was expected to roar, or shriek, or at the very least moan its approval of the successful candidate.

     According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Lia Fáil was brought to Tara by the Tuatha de Danaan after their victories over the indigenous inhabitants of Ireland: “It is the Tuatha de Danaan who brought with them the great Fal, that is, the Stone of Knowledge, which was in Temair [Tara], whence Ireland bears the name of ‘The Plain of Fal.’ He under whom it should utter a cry was King of Ireland.”
     Throughout the cycle of Wake rites are numerous allusions to the Stone of Destiny. The Wake describes the “stone of destiny” (40.19-20) as colder than a man’s knee or a woman’s breast (40.18-20); HCE reigns until one “Liam Fail” felled him (131.9-10). The Voice of Fal, the “cry of Stena” (608.16), comes from the “stone that moans when stricken” (94.5), also called the “liamstone” (331.4), and the “Lianfian Fall” (600.13).
     HCE himself actually hears the cry of the Stone of Destiny. In the old pagan ceremony, many of the inaugural rites were conducted in or near the royal hall at Tara, and consequently the Voice of Fal was traditionally heard by the king in proximity to the hall, the Tech Midchuarta, “House of the Circulation of Mead.” HCE, in bed with his consort, hears a mysterious “cry” (558.32) off in the distance (as the rightful king should), and to his amazement and confusion thinks he is now in the ancient Mead Hall of Tara, the “House of the cedarbalm of mead” (558.35)
     The mysterious cry of “the stone that moans” was heard, not just at the inaugural and wedding events of the Irish king but also during the wake rites conducted at Tara. The sound was, for the Irish pagans, the aural credential of a divine authority: the Voice of Fal was both the death knell for a failed king and the unearthly voice of approval for his legitimate successor. The sound itself, claimed by the organizers of the wake to be of divine origin, was of course created by the choreographers themselves: “That it was some trick on the part of the druids ... may be taken for granted” (TB [Macalister, “Temair Breg”], 344). The “trick” originates with a shamanistic instrument used by certain Irish Druids, known in Old Irish as the Roth Romach, referred to by Bishop Cormac as Foi, described by classical writers as the “sacred thunder maker” (rhombus), and commonly known to anthropologists as the bull-roarer. The Voice of Fal was created by the whirring moan of the Roth Romach, secretly wielded by designated Druids to dramatically punctuate key moments in the wake and marriage rites of the Teamhur Feis.
     The earliest accounts of the Teamhur Feis describe this mysterious sound, a “remarkable accompaniment” that was, at times, a low moaning; at other moments, a shrieking or a thundering roar intended to strike fear in those who heard it (IPC [Macalister, Ireland in Pre-Celtic Times], 299). The sound “penetrated the hearts of the people, so that men lost their colour and their strength, women the children in their wombs, boys and girls their reason”; the Roth Romach created “a mysterious noise that brought destruction to unauthorized persons that came within its influence” (TB, 351). The origin of this mysterious sound was never disclosed to the participants at the wake; the Druids told them that this sound was the voice of the thunder god (TB, 351).
                                                                                          Wake Rites, pp. 88-89
     Which voice – the Voice of Fal – breaks into Finnegans Wake again and again, from first page throughout.

     Wake Rites explores the myriad correspondences between the Teamhur Feis and Finnegans Wake in rich detail. It is always important to keep in mind, though, that Joyce’s focus is not Tara itself but Phoenix Park. I don’t know if he ever traveled those 30-40 miles north of Dublin to inspect Tara. He probably saw photos. The story of the British-Israelites was all over the newspapers in 1899-1902. But even after their diggings were filled in he might not have seen much to impress him. Not till decades after publication of Finnegans Wake, and after Joyce’s death, did the Irish government take significant measures to preserve the Hill.

     So it’s less the Hill of Tara itself that caught his imagination, of course, than the Teamhur Feis.

     As for Phoenix Park, I have not yet managed to visit it to explore, for myself, the Magazine wall where tumtytumtoes upturnpikepointandplace, the fionn uisce of the two maggies, or the Willingdone Museyroom. (For that matter, there is no museum beneath the wakeaday Wellington Monument.) But from my visit to the Hill of Tara I take the image which finds at least one visual echo in the Echoland with the Viceregal Lodge (now President’s Mansion), which makes the Dublin park also a royal seat.

Ancient standing stone atop the Forradh of the ancient High King of Erin.

Wellington Monument atop a mound of concrete steps in honor of the Irish champion of
an invader king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.


(All links active as of the publication of FlashPøint #12)

On the Hill of Tara:

     Tara: Voices From Our Past

     Michael Slavin

     Leigh Ann Phillips

On the Phoenix Park, Dublin:

     Discovering Phoenix Park

     Phoenix Park protest


Bhreathnach, Edel
     The Kingship and Landscape of Tara, editor, Fourt Courts Press for The Discovery Programme, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2005.

Joyce, P.W.
     A Social History of Ancient Ireland, Vols. 1 and 2. New York; Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903; New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968.

Macalister, R.A.S.
     The Archaeology of Ireland, Studio, 1906; London: Methuen, 1928.
     “Temair Breg: A Study of the Remains and Traditions of Tara,” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 34, sec. 100: 231-399, Dublin: Hodges, Figgs, and Company, 1919.
     Ireland in Pre-Celtic Times, New York: Benjamin Blom, 1921.
     Tara: A Pagan Sanctuary of Ancient Ireland, New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931.
     The Secret Languages of Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937.

Newman, Conor
     TARA: An Archaeological Survey (Discovery Programme Monograph 2, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1997.

Slavin, Michael
     The Book of Tara, Wolfhound Press Ltd., Dublin, 1996.


(All links active as of the publication of FlashPøint #12)

1) Hill of Tara: The Irish Image Collection/Corbis, Smithsonian Magazine

2) St. Patrick: Suite Images

3) Map of Tara: Conor Newman, TARA: An Archaeological Survey, p. 44; (Discovery Programme Monograph 2, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1997

4) Tech Midchuarta: Anthony Murphy, Mythical Ireland; Bennett-Watt Entertainment

5)Forradh half in shadow: Ancient-Wisdom.Co.Uk

6) Duma na nGiall reconstructed: Jim Dempsey

7) Duma na nGiall deconstructed: Eoghan Rice, "Return to Tara"; [UCD [University College Dublin] Connections

8) Forradh in bright sunshine: Conor Newman, TARA: An Archaeological Survey, p. 79; (Discovery Programme Monograph 2, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1997

9) Lia Fail: Sean Rowe: sjrowe53's photostream

10) Wellington Monument, Phoenix Park, Dublin: Colin Gregory Palmer, File:Ireland

an Diochtaidhri [dik-hed-ree] (roughly, "royal penisolate gillie") of Tara

More of JR Foley's work can be found at

JR Foley is also the author of "night patrol" in FlashPøint #5, "The Short Happy Life of Lee Harvey Oswald" in FlashPøint #6,
"Lost in Mudlin" in FlashPøint #7,
"Down as Up, Out as In:
Ron Sukenick Remembers Ron Sukenick"

"A Visit to Szoborpark"
in FlashPøint #8, and
"The Too Many Deaths of Danny C." in FlashPøint #9;
and "OUR FRIEND THE ATOM: Walt Disney and the Atomic Bomb" in FlashPøint #10.