Important historical site flattened by bulldozers


ONE OF the State's most important historical sites, at Tailteann, or Teltown, in Co Meath, has been bulldozed in what a leading archaeologist has described as "a tragedy for Irish heritage".

However, the owner of the land, Ms Madeleine Colwell, a local publican who bought it recently, says she made inquiries before buying the land and was told that it was not of any archaeological significance. The earthworks were knocked down for development, she said.

Prof George Eogan, the archaeologist who excavated Knowth, says the ancient earthworks at Tailteann are as important as Tara. Archaeologists in the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht describe them as one of the most significant archaeological sites in the State.

Local historians even claim the site, which was the location for the ancient Tailteann games, provided the inspiration for the Olympic Games. However, in recent weeks, most of the site has been flattened.

The Department, which has responsibility for national monuments, yesterday sent an investigator to Tailteann to examine the damage to the ancient earthworks. The owner has been told by gardai that the site must not be interfered with.

Mr Ed Burke, an archaeologist with the Department, said the site was listed as a national monument and was therefore legally protected. Anyone wishing to make alterations to it would have to have to apply for permission from the Department at least two months in advance. Mr Burke said he had gone through the planning records for the area, but had found no record of any permission having been given.

Mrs Colwell told The Irish Times she had contacted Meath County Council. An archaeologist came out from Trim and looked at the land and an archaeologist from the Office of Public Works told her it was of no significance. They told her the mound was not historically valuable. "I asked them before I bought the land. I would not have knocked the mound if they said it had archaeological significance. They said it was all right to go ahead."

She said she had knocked down the mound to enlarge the field.

The secretary of Meath County Council, Mr Kevin Stewart said he was investigating the case.

However, the council has no statutory role in protecting national monuments; this is the responsibility of the Department.

"This is one of Ireland's most important sites, a great Celtic centre and the scene of the Tailteann games. It is frequently mentioned in the annals as a significant site and a place of great sanctity," said Prof Eogan who visited the site yesterday. Tailteann is near Oristown, about five miles north-west of Navan.

The earthworks consisted of two parallel earthen banks with an intervening ditch running in an east-west direction for about 100 yards. Only a portion of the longer bank remains.

The land, which was originally a Land Commission holding, changed hands recently. Locals say there was no signposting to indicate that the earthworks were a valuable archaeological site.

According to Mr Burke, with 150,000 national monuments in the State, it is not feasible to signpost every one or to notify every landowner.

Believed to be about 2,500 years old, the earthworks at Tailteann may be the remnants of a great fort, according to the Shell Guide to Ireland.

The Tailteann games were held from ancient times until they died out in the 17th century. They were revived for a time in the 1930s. But, according to a local vet, Mr Pat Farrelly, the area's links with the ancient games are remembered yearly in the annual Scurloguestown Olympiad, held each June in nearby Trim.

Mr Farrelly said the games were opened with the lighting of a torch at Tailteann, which is then carried by runners to Trim, where it is used to light a flame for the duration of the games.

Contestants take part in a variety of sports and challenges modelled on the feats of the ancient Celtic heroes. Runners are asked to pluck a thorn from their foot while in full flight, while hurlers emulate the deed of Setanta by hitting a sliothar into a hound's mouth fashioned out of wood.