Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tara, the Seat of Ancient Irish Kings

"The only Latin he knew was the responses of the Mass and the only history the manifold wrongs of Ireland. He knew no poetry save that of Moore and no music except the songs of Ireland that had come down through the years."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter III 

Irish identity plays such an important role in Gone with the Wind and is present on so many different levels that it was hard to pick just one aspect to write about in honor of St. Patrick's Day. But then, why not go with the obvious? Tara. Ancient seat for the kings of Ireland  and home for one Southern Belle with her Irish up. It is after all an important subject that we have never discussed on the blog so far *cue white elephant in the room jokes here*. So, first we'll discuss Tara in connection with the themes and characters in the novel and then take a look at a historical tidbit about how Mitchell chose this name for the O'Hara plantation. 

Tara stands as a central element in defining the character of Gerald O'Hara, an Irish immigrant attaining a 19th century version of the American Dream. Though fully determined to fit in into the Southern society and be accepted as a Southern gentleman, in his heart (and the eyes of his neighbors) Gerald remains an Irishman. Far away from Ireland, he clings to the symbols and values that constitute Irish identity and that extends to his choice of a name for the plantation he won gambling.

But the name "Tara" shows more than Gerald's inherent patriotism. The Hill of Tara in County Meath (Gerald's home county) was the political and spiritual center of Ireland before the Norman invasion. It was the seat of the Irish kings. Choosing that name for his plantation is a subtle indicator of Gerald's grandiloquence (after all, it would be the equivalent of an American moving to Europe and baptizing their house "The White House") but also of something else. 

You see, the Irish were not that well seen in 19th century America. You will notice how, even in Gone the Wind, every Irish person outside of Scarlett's family is a parvenu or morally questionable (good examples: Bridget Flaherty and Johnnie Gallagher) and  Rhett, and occasionally the narrator too, pair Irishmen with "Yankees, white trash and Carpetbagger parvenus." It is telling of the mentality at the time. Both by class and ethnic origin, Gerald doesn't belong to Southern society. He is, as Rhett observes, "a smart Mick on the make," but he overcompensates by associating himself with the kings of Ireland and the lost glory of the old country. 

And the idea of lost glory is strong in the ballad that Margaret Mitchell hoped her readers would have in mind when reading the book. The author (Thomas Moore) is even referenced in Gone with the Wind as the only poet whose work Gerald O'Hara knew. Here is the story, in MM's words:
"The program is a work of art and I thank you for the 'Gone with the Wind' mention. I was so happy to read on the first page 'The Harp That Once Through Tara's Hall.' I wish it were possible for this timeless and beautiful and once popular poem and song to have a wider circulation. I realize that making a statement like this to a member of the Hibernian Society calls for some explanation and here it is. Until 'Gone with the Wind' was published, I took it for granted that practically everyone who could read or sing knew 'The Harp' and knew of Tara's hill so famous in history as the seat of ancient Irish kings. As I had my character, Gerald O'Hara, come from County Meath, I thought it would be understandable to every reader that he called his Georgia plantation 'Tara' in memory of a famous spot in his old home. But it seems I took too much for granted; for three and a half years letters have come in, and phone calls too, from people who never heard of Tara in song or in history. Most of them did not even know how to pronounce the name! I was appalled that this beautiful song seems to have passed from the knowledge of this present generation." 
--Margaret Mitchell in a letter to Hibernian Society of Savannah dated March 20, 1940 (letter and image from here)
Below are the lyrics for Moore's ballad. Knowing that Margaret Mitchell expected her readers to be familiar with this ballad, doesn't it strike you as a very appropriate connection to a novel about grandeur lost?

                                        The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls

The harp that once through Tara’s halls
  The soul of music shed,
Now hangs as mute on Tara’s walls
  As if that soul were fled.
So sleeps the pride of former days,       
  So glory’s thrill is o’er,
And hearts, that once beat high for praise,
  Now feel that pulse no more.
No more to chiefs and ladies bright
  The harp of Tara swells:       
The chord alone, that breaks at night,
  Its tale of ruin tells.
Thus Freedom now so seldom wakes,
  The only throb she gives,
Is when some heart indignant breaks,       
  To show that still she lives.

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