Subscriber OnlyHistory

The Hill of Tara’s Lia Fáil has a fascinating history - but is it the original?

In 1899, religious zealots called the British Israelites dug up a substantial portion of a monument called Ráth na Seanad, the Rath of the Synods, in the belief the Ark of the Covenant was buried there

The stone known as Lia Fáil which stands at the Hill of Tara today may not be the original, but its mythological history is fascinating.

According to Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of Invasions, it was said to have been brought to Ireland with three other talismans or sacred objects by the Tuatha Dé Danann, an ancient god-like race who came here from mysterious islands in the north of the world where they had learned science, druidry, the arts, prophecy and magic.

Lia Fáil is the stone that was said to declare the true high king by screaming aloud when the candidate placed his foot on the stone. “From Failias was brought the Lia Fail, which is in Temair (Tara), and which used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland,” the Book of Invasions said.

The phallic-shaped granite pillar that stands at the royal seat (An Forradh) at Tara today may not be the original Lia Fáil. In medieval literature the stone is said to have been located to the north of Duma na nGiall, the Mound of the Hostages – a Neolithic passage tomb situated about 100m to the north of An Forradh. The present stone is said to have been erected at the royal seat in the 1820s by locals in memory of those who died in the area during the 1798 rebellion.


Patrick Weston Joyce, writing in The Wonders of Ireland in 1911, said that he had spoken to a gentleman 50 years previously who had been involved in erecting the stone, and that it had not been brought, as antiquarian George Petrie had suggested, from a location close to the Mound of the Hostages. Rather it had been found in a trench at the bottom of An Forradh, where it had apparently been lying prostrate for generations.

The stone that was vandalised this week does not constitute a convenient stone upon which a king might stand, leading to doubts of its claim to be the true Lia Fáil.

Joyce said the following: “The coronation stones used so generally by the Gaelic tribes all over Ireland and Scotland were comparatively small and portable, like that now under the coronation chair at Westminster which is a flag 25 inches by 15 inches by 9 inches thick. But the present pillar stone at Tara is 12 feet long by nearly two feet in diameter. It would be very unsuitable for standing on during the ceremonies of installation and coronation.”

He concluded that the present pillar stone is not the Lia Fáil, and furthermore claimed that: “The Lia Fáil was never brought away from Ireland, but remains still in Tara, buried and hidden somewhere in the soil; probably in the position where the old writers place it, on the north side of the Mound of the Hostages.”

In 1899 a group of religious zealots called the British Israelites dug up a substantial portion of a nearby monument called Ráth na Seanad, the Rath of the Synods, in the belief that the biblical Ark of the Covenant was buried there. They failed to find it, and caused huge damage to that monument. Their vandalism was stopped eventually following a campaign led by figures including William Butler Yeats, Douglas Hyde, Maud Gonne and Arthur Griffith.

Far from remaining the stuff of fringe conspiracy theory, the outlandish claims of the British Israelites still have a substantial following today.

There are people in Ireland who continue to believe that the Old Testament patriarch and prophet Jeremiah came to Ireland in the Iron Age with a mysterious Judahite princess Tea Tephi, bringing the ark with them. Jeremiah was, they claim, later buried at Cairn T at Slieve na Calliagh, Loughcrew, Co Meath. This monument is clearly a Neolithic passage tomb like those of Brú na Bóinne, but one which British Israelites claim was built for Jeremiah up to 2,500 years later.

While all of the claims of this fringe religious movement have been dismissed out of hand by archaeologists and scholars, the power of the internet being what it is means that a lot of the nonsense propagated by religious fanatics is still believed by some.

The British Israelites insist that the “real” Lia Fáil was carted away from Tara and later used in the coronations of Scottish, English and British monarchs for centuries. They also believe this Lia Fáil was originally the stone known as Jacob’s Pillar in the Book of Genesis.

Regardless of the origins of the stone that stands at Tara today, it is a national monument and its desecration is a disgrace. Sadly, this is the third incident of vandalism on the stone. In 2012 someone used an axe to chip off several small pieces of the stone, and in 2014 paint was daubed over much of the Lia Fáil.

Incidents of vandalism at national monuments appear to be on the increase. During the Covid-19 pandemic someone dug a large hole into a Neolithic passage tomb called Teach Cailleach a’Bhreara at Ballygawley, Co Sligo.

In April 2021, a number of stones at the Loughcrew Neolithic cairns were vandalised when graffiti was inscribed on them. In August 2022, someone lit a fire at the cairns, an act that may have damaged or destroyed precious archaeological stratigraphy.

Despite the presence of signs warning visitors not to climb Cairn T, the largest of the cairns at Slieve na Calliagh, Loughcrew, some visitors continue to ignore them and walk on top of the cairn, potentially adding to the subsidence there which forced the Office of Public Works and National Monuments Service to prevent access to the interior of the monument in October 2018. The gate to the passage of that monument has remained locked ever since.

Because Tara is a large open site accessible 24/7, 365 days a year, it is very difficult to police acts of desecration. CCTV has been suggested as a deterrent, but the installation of security cameras at Tara and other precious sacred sites of the past would be a retrograde step.

This latest incident has a happy outcome. Lia Fáil has been cleaned and all signs of the spray paint removed. Let’s try to keep it that way.

Anthony Murphy is an author and founder of the Mythical Ireland website