During 1899 and 1902, members of the British-Israel Association of London came to Co Meath to dig up the Hill of Tara. These ‘British-Israelites’ believed they would find buried there the Ark of the Covenant, the chest said to contain the Ten Commandments inscribed on stone tablets. Their strange and unlawful activity provoked a protest from cultural figures such as William Butler Yeats, Arthur Griffith, Douglas Hyde and Maud Gonne. The Press supported their protests, making this the first media campaign to save a national monument.
Founded by Edward Wheeler Bird, a retired Anglo-Indian judge, the organisation became the unified mouthpiece of all sections of the British-Israel movement which believed that the Anglo-Saxon race was descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel, the wandering biblical Hebrews. It held many theories, most of which were wonderfully colorful.
Central to them all, however, was an underlying conviction in the British right to rule the world. Implicit amid the theorising was extensive rhetoric proclaiming white supremacy and the usual racial megalomania embraced by any chosen people.
So how does royal Tara, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland fit into this? The British-Israelites, driven essentially by intellectual beliefs, decided the Ark of the Covenant had been buried at Tara and must be retrieved.
Landlord, Gustavus Villiers Briscoe, bought by the organisation, sat by heartlessly drinking whiskey as the zealots began their mad ‘excavations’. Maud Gonne cleverly hijacked Briscoe’s bonfire in celebration of the coronation of Edward VII. Having organised an excursion to Tara for 300 children on the same day, 13 July 1902, Gonne looked at the bonfire and ‘felt it would serve a better purpose if burnt in honour of an independent Ireland’. She lit it and sang ‘A Nation Once Again’. Briscoe and the local police were outraged. There was also an outraged letter written to the London Times, signed by an intimidating trio: Hyde, Yeats and George Moore, describing Tara as “probably the most consecrated spot in Ireland”.
While the British-Israelites saw Tara as “a powerfully symbolic site, their ‘resuscitated’ Jerusalem, and spiritual capital of the British Empire”, the cultural nationalists saw the place as a potential capital of an independent Ireland, and both sides drew on archaeology, history and mythology in making their cases.
Among the many interesting quotations used throughout is one attributed to William Bulfin (1864-1910) who travelled Ireland by bicycle and recorded his experiences. A close friend of Arthur Griffith, Bulfin was a shrewd commentator and observed the antics at Tara, not only of the Ark hunters, but also noted the government’s evasive side-stepping. He was aware that fear of an exasperated public had been a factor in officialdom taking action but the true heroes were men such as Griffith, Hyde and Yeats and the professional archaeologists.
Of those responsible for the damage at Tara, Bulfin wrote: “Men have been sent to prison for less. But in Ireland there is no plank bed and hard tack for such offenders. They sleep upon the safest mattresses in the country and feed on the fat of the land.” Considering he did not have the benefit of planning tribunal revelations to draw upon, his perceptions are impressive.
It clearly captured the imagination of Maud Gonne who experienced so vivid a vision there, she fell to her knees, and reported in an article published less than a fortnight after the visit with Griffith: “I seemed to see shuddering, misty forms gazing curiously at us. A weird procession wound round the great raths where the palaces had stood. Some tossed white arms as they moved in rhythmic circles.” Her companion saw nothing.
While the British-Israelites dreamt of finding the Ark of the Covenant, patriotic Irish poets and writers battled to save a national monument. Many shades of opinion met and fought over the Hill of Tara, as symbol and as fact. However daft it all seems in hindsight, it is a serious and important, though eccentric, interlude.
Suggested reading on the incident: “Tara and the Ark of the Covenant” by Mairéad Carew is published by the Royal Irish Academy, €30
Photo: The Stone of Destiny, The Hill of Tara, Co Meath © Stair na hÉireann