The venue of Óenach Tailten – the fair of Tailten – is perhaps the only closely located royal assembly place in the country. It is on a gentle SW-facing slope extending from the top of a NW-SE ridge in Oristown (Baile Orthaí) in the Meath Gaeltacht of Baile Ghib down to the NW-SE River Blackwater and the low N-S ridge of Teltown (Tailtin) in a southward loop of the river. Its boundaries would have been porous, but it lay between the ceremonial enclosures of Rath Dubh (ME017-027----) in the west and Rath Airthir (ME017-033----) at the E extremity.
In Irish mythology Tailtiu was the wife of Eochaid Mac Eirc, the last king of the Fir Bolg, and subsequently of Eochaidh Garbh, king of the Tuatha dé Danann, who had defeated Mac Eirc at the Battle of Moytura. The river was anciently called Sele and its valley was known as Coill Chuan – the wood of Cuan, which Tailtiu cleared within a year of the battle but she died from her exertions and is buried at Tailten. Her foster-son, the god Lugh, instituted a festival of games in her memory, which were held annually over one or four weeks at the beginning of the harvest in July - August when a truce was to be observed. A mythological battle followed about a hundred years later which was won by the Milesians, the last mythical invaders of Ireland and the supposed ancestors of the Gaels, who took over the Óenach. Other mythical battles occurred here in the course of the Táin Bó Chuailgne, and it also features in tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. (MacNeill 1962, 320-5; Wilde 1849, 150; Mac Gabhann 2000, 226-32)
Legend also relates how Coirpre, a brother of King Laoighre, rejected St Patrick’s holy men while he was presiding over the festival. In response Patrick declared that Coirpre would have no royal descendants and that the river would henceforth have no salmon (Herity 2001, 6). In contrast Coirpre’s brother, Conall, gave Patrick the site of Donaghpatrick church (ME017-034006-) and was blessed by the saint (Swift 2000, 25). Saint Kieran of Clonmacnoise is said to have overseen the games on one occasion with Diarmaid Mac Cerbhaill, progenitor of the Clan Colman branch of the Uí Néill kings of Meath, which is unlikely (Binchy 1958, 123). However, the connection between the royal sovereignty of the Úi Néill and the games at Tailten, which may have been held on royal demesne land (Swift 2000, 28-9), was being established with the approval of the Church, and all under the sway of Uí Néill would be expected to attend at a high level (Binchy 1958, 117). St Columcille’s case was discussed at a synod which met at Tailten in 563, and the Óenach witnessed strife if not battle, almost exclusively amongst the Uí Néill, in 679, 717, 733, 777, 791, 827, and 927 (MacNeill 1962, 329-31; Binchy 1958, 118-22). Five occasions when the Óenach was not held in the 870s and 880s were noted in the annals, as well as attempts by interlopers to preside over the festivities, such as Cathal Mac Finguine, king of Munster, in 733 (ibid. 121), or Diarmaid Mac Cearbhail, king of Ossory, in 894 (MacNeill 1962, 326-31), although the latter might be an annalistic error (Byrne 1973, 163).
Annalistic references cease after 926 until Brian Ború spent a night there while en route to Armagh in 1004. Maelseachlain, now only a sub-king of Meath, revived the Óenach in 1006 when a commemorative poem was written by Cúán Úa Lothcháin, and this provides most of our information on the origin and topography of the Óenach (Gwynn 1924, vol. 4, 147-63). Nine raths are named as well as the graves of Tailtiu and Eochaidh Garbh, and there were seven named stones. However, only Rath Aithir (Oirthear, eastern) is now applied to the ceremonial enclosure (ME017-033----). While Brian Ború may have hesitated over Tailten, Turlough O’Conor, the ambitious King of Connaught, made a point of presiding over an Óenach in 1120, and in 1168 his son Ruaraí, whose mother was a Clan Colman princess named Tailtin, held the last regal Óenach when the crowds are said to have occupied the plain between Mulach Aiti (Hill of Lloyd) and Tailten. (MacNeill 1962, 332-35)
The festival continued at the original location until c. 1770 (Wilde 1849, 152) when the games moved to the river at Martry mill (Mason 1814, 1, 95-6; Morris 1930, 114 ftn 5), and according to John O’Donovan they may have finally come to an end c. 1810 (Herity 2001, 11). Tailten is described in the sources as a cemetery, and this has led some to speculate that it was centred on the passage tombs of Slieve na Cailliagh (Conwell 1879, 72-81; Morris 1930), but John O’Donovan writing in 1836 (Herity 2001, 2-4, 11-15) fixed the location in the Telltown – Oristown area and identified many of the monuments. Máire MacNéill (1962, 311, 338) was able to confirm the continuing oral tradition of the festival in the 1950s, and Gosling (2016) confirms the importance of its monuments.
All prehistoric and early historic monuments in the area could be related to the Óenach. This includes three Ceremonial enclosures (ME017-027----; 017-033----; ME017-049----) and four ponds which were brought to the attention of John O’Donovan by local people in 1836 as well as the enclosure of Lug an Aonaigh (ME017-0059----) where marriages were contracted in the seventeenth century according to Keating (Comyn and Dinneen 1902-14, 248) and undoubtedly long before. Although Tailten is described as a burial place with numerous named raths and stones, only one barrow (ME017-033001-), the site of one cairn (ME017-058----) and one standing stone (ME017-034002-) are known. Early medieval church sites such as Donaghpatrick (ME017-034006-) and Teltown (ME017-031----) would be contemporary with the early historic Óenach, and the ford (ME017-061----) would allow access from the S side of the river long before the medieval roadway (ME017-062----) was established.
Situated on a rise on a gentle SW-facing slope. The name Rath Dubh – Black Rath – was provided by local people to the Ordinance Survey in the 1830s, and the enclosure reputedly had a second bank until a few years before John O’Donovan’s visit in 1836 (Herity 2001, 11). It now consists of a raised circular, and slightly domed (H 0.3m at N to 2.8m at E) grass-covered area (diam. 92m N-S; 91m E-W) defined by an earthen bank (Wth of base 7m; Wth of top 2m; int. H 0.6m; ext. H 2.6m) WNW-N and at SW but the perimeter is largely a scarp (at ENE: Wth 6m; H 1.5m). There is an outer fosse (Wth of top 9-12m; Wth of base 2-4m; ext. D 0.2-0.4m) W-N-ENE. The scarp is broken down at E where there may have been an entrance, although Wilde (1849, 128) says it had entrances at N and S. The ponds (ME017-055----; ME017-056----) are c. 170m to the N and c. 100m to the NE respectively. Archaeological testing (09E0287) by B. Halpin c. 100m to the NE produced no related material (excavations.ie 2009:664).
The above description is derived from the published 'Archaeological Inventory of County Meath' (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1987). In certain instances the entries have been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
Revised by: Michael Moore
Date of revision: 15 April 2019
Amended: 16 March 2021; 3 March 2023Description Source: Department of Housing, Local Government & Heritage