Is nothing scared?

 

Historical fact competes with legend and folklore in the landscape around Tara, one of the world's most important heritage sites, which is now under serious threat from the proposed M3 motorway, writes Eileen Battersby

On Christmas Day 1900, two figures are to be seen walking across the Hill of Tara, in Co Meath. As they come closer, we see a man and a woman. This is no romantic stroll. A sense of purpose informs their every step, even though the man has a limp. They are well known: Maude Gonne, ardent nationalist, sometime actress and a great poet's muse, in the company of Arthur Griffith, editor of the United Irishman and future co-founder of Sinn Féin. Their mission is serious: the inspection of recent damage done to an ancient monument complex.

And complex it is. Tara is a royal city, the seat not only of the high kings of Ireland but a cultural landscape in which archaeology, history, religion, mythology, folklore, literature, language, the study of place names, heritage and national identity coalesce. If Ireland has a heart, it beats here at Tara and throughout the dramatic hinterland that surrounds the complex, with its monuments, earthworks and cohesive record of settlement.

In a letter published in the London Times on June 27th, 1902, and signed by Douglas Hyde, George Moore and WB Yeats, the trio voiced objections to the antics of a group excavating at Tara; the sect, known as the British Israelites, believed that the Ark of the Covenant was buried at Tara and made a couple of ill-conceived efforts to find it. "All we can do now under the circumstances," stated the letter writers, "is to draw the attention of the public to this desecration. Tara is, because of its associations, probably the most consecrated spot in Ireland and its destruction will leave many bitter memories behind it."

FAST FORWARD A century and concern for the protection of the complex, an obvious World Heritage Site - if only such a defining endorsement of status had been sought by the relevant government body - remains. Daylight begins to seep through the clouds and Tara, in all its magnificent layers, takes shape, emerging from the shadows of the night, as does the panoramic view praised by RL Praeger in his classic, The Way That I Went (1937). The antiquarian and musicologist George Petrie undertook the first comprehensive archaeological survey of the Hill of Tara in the 1830s and the complex was central to the initial phase of the Discovery Programme, a State-funded archaeological institute, when it was launched in 1991.

There are about 25 visible monuments on the Hill of Tara itself, as well as in excess of 80 others detected to date by topographical and geophysical survey and through the use of aerial photography carried out by Discovery Programme researchers. The wider Tara landscape is rich in monuments, as confirmed by further recent finds. Ireland's history has yet more to reveal.

With the light comes a growing awareness of the people who have taken to maintaining vigil here. It is as if pilgrims, dreamers and historians have become custodians. A man stands sentry-like, nods and says nothing. Two dogs jog by. Silence yields to birdsong. The morning air is chill and the breeze strong. Night may have passed but the ghosts linger.

For some 3,500 years this was a pagan sanctuary and burial ground. Tara dominates the Annals and all of the earliest Irish historical record. According to Edel Bhreathnach, former Tara research fellow of the Discovery Programme, "the study of Tara is the study of the history of Ireland". It was the seat of the high kingship as described by medieval historian Charles Doherty in Kingship in Early Ireland. Later, during the 15th century, Gaelic lords performed the ceremonial statement of regal intent at Tara: they shod their horses here, as observed by archaeologist Dr Elizabeth FitzPatrick in her magisterial volume, Royal Inauguration in Gaelic Ireland c.1100-1600: A Cultural Landscape Study (2004).

Ireland's legends are rooted around this centrepiece of a larger ritual and settlement landscape spanning the Gabhra valley and the hills of Tara and Skryne. It was here that St Patrick defeated the druids, according to Muirchú, his seventh-century biographer. Centuries later, Hugh O'Neill may have rallied his troops at Tara; some United Irishmen made a dramatic last stand on the Hill of Tara and are reputed to have been killed and buried on this spot. Daniel O'Connell held his biggest monster meeting here and, calling for the repeal of the Act of Union, identified Tara as the symbol of Irish nationhood.

By the early 20th century, Irish nationalists were committed to it as the apotheosis of Irish autonomy - a defining, almost tribal and, above all, enduring affirmation of Irishness.

According to Dónall Mac Giolla Easpaig, Tara or Temair means a sanctuary or sacred place. "The renown of Tara in medieval Irish tradition is reflected in the prominent position accorded to it in the great body of Middle Irish place-lore known as the Dinnshenchas Érenn [a kind of tour of Ireland], in which four poems and several prose items celebrate its fame."

To the visitor, this is a landscape of earthworks; embankments, ditches and grassy mounds, burial sites and open-air enclosures that had been constructed for ceremonial use and the worship of ancient tribal gods and, particularly, goddesses, as well as of earthly kings. "The relatively large number of defensive earthworks around Tara is as one might have expected," writes Conor Newman of NUI Galway in his essay "Re-composing the Archaeological Landscape of Tara", "and reminds us of the continued importance of Tara into the first few centuries AD and, more significantly, of the desire to protect it." That desire has now become a national obligation. Tara's current dilemma is reflected in concerns voiced on July 6th, 1844, in The Nation by Young Irelander Thomas Davis.

Referring to the then potential threat to Newgrange from road builders, Davis asked "what, then, will be the reader's surprise and anger to hear that some people having legal power or corrupt influence in Meath are getting, or have got, a presentment for a road to run right through the Temple of Grange! . . . We do not know their names, nor, if the design be at once given up, as in deference to public opinion it must finally be, shall we take the trouble to find them out. But if they persist in this brutal outrage against so precious a landmark of Irish history and civilisation, then we frankly say if the law will not reach them public opinion shall, and they shall bitterly repent the desecration. These men who design, and those who consent to the act, may be Liberals or Tories, Protestants or Catholics, but beyond a doubt they are tasteless blockheads - poor devils without reverence or education . . . "

The rectangular earthwork known as Tech Midchúarta (the Banqueting Hall), of which Newman, former director of theDiscovery Programme, has written extensively, is the ceremonial avenue of Tara. It is also probably one of the later monuments, dating from between the fifth and eighth centuries AD. Dug into the Hill of Tara, it is a symbolically charged monument, and the only one on the hill from which the views are carefully choreographed. It is the processional entry point, and to walk along it is to follow in the footsteps of the ancient kings of Tara, who would have walked among the tombs and temples of the ancestors on their way to sacral inauguration.

To the east lies Skryne (or Skreen). This was a mirror place to which those who failed at kingship, such as Cormac Mac Art, who was blinded by a bee sting, were banished. Beyond the Banqueting Hall lies Duma na nGiall (Mound of the Hostages), the oldest visible monument, and the most southerly of five similar mounds running in a line towards the Boyne. Dating from 3,000 BC, the mound has a modest passage tomb in which human remains were buried for more than 1,500 years. It was at this mound that the original Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny) stood. The king would put his foot upon this stone and, according to legend, the stone would cry out a declaration of rightful kingship.

About 2,500 BC, the Mound of the Hostages - which is the subject of an extensive study prepared by Dr Muiris Ó Suilleabháin - was incorporated into the area of a vast timber circle. This fosse extends over the side of the hill and also surrounds Ráith na Senad (the Rath of the Synods), dating from the Iron Age, and the grounds of the present-day church, which was built in about 1822 on the site of a 15th-century chapel. Judging by the amount of human remains found at the site, foundation rituals were central to the purpose of the Mound of the Hostages.

A range of Neolithic artefacts, including two intact Carrowkeel bowls, were discovered in the mound. The Rath of the Synods had previously suffered the attentions of the British Israelites, and Seán P Ó Ríordáin would later begin to excavate it in 1955 before focusing on the Mound of the Hostages. On his death in 1957, his successor, Prof Ruaidhrí de Valera, took over, completing his excavation of the passage tomb in 1959.

About 1,500m to the south of the mound is Rath Maeve, named in honour of a goddess of Tara. This henge or circular earthwork extends 270m and a smaller circle appears to have been contained within it. Close by, as revealed by aerial photography, are the remains of a succession of massive figure-of-eight timber monuments, exact matches of structures found at Navan Fort and Dún Ailinne, the royal complexes of the Uliad and the Laigin peoples respectively.

Contemplating the scale of such enclosures leads to the realisation of the amount of timber needed for their construction. There is no doubt that Tara would once have had its share of woodland. Two Bronze Age torcs or collars were discovered here in 1910. Both are on display in the National Museum.

TARA'S SIGNIFICANCE DID not wane with the advent of Christianity. During the medieval period it grew in political significance. A Norse king of Dublin, Amlaibh Cúaran, commissioned a poem associating himself with Skryne. Norse expansion ended in AD 980 at the Battle of Tara, in the valley between Tara and Skryne.

Historical fact competes with legend and folklore when wandering about the Tara landscape. In ways it is a parkland, albeit one with clear traces of its busy former self, or selves.

Where does Tara stand now? In a position as ambivalent as that occupied by any historical site or monument in the State, despite Bertie Ahern having said, as long ago as 1996: "It is imperative that no more of our irreplaceable national heritage be destroyed because of political inertia."

At present there are only two World Heritage Sites in the Republic, at Newgrange and Skellig Michael, while the Giant's Causeway, on the Co Antrim coast, was the UK's first World Heritage Site. The Tara landscape, the Burren, the Rock of Cashel and Clonmacnoise are all obvious World Heritage Site contenders and applications should have been made by the Government on their behalf. This status is not conferred; it must be actively pursued as a planning application. The concern among academics, environmentalists, campaigners and citizens is not only due to the towering significance of Tara; there are doubts about the track record of the National Roads Authority (NRA) to date.

The construction of the Tara phase of the M3, which now includes a second toll plaza planned for the Navan approach at the foot of Faughan Hill, the traditional burial place of Niall of the Nine Hostages - already signposted by a mobile phone mast - may well end up having very little impact on the commuter belt dilemma, itself caused by years of poor planning and the ludicrous M50.

Is there any point in allowing Tara to become the Wood Quay of the 21st century? An estimated €30 million will be paid to contract archaeologists working on the M3. Conor Newman points out that "€30 million would fund the Discovery Programme for the next 30 years". Contract archaeology is the first phase of development. Under legislation, it represents the first phase of a building project. But there are time constraints and, to date, contract archaeologists have published less by way of reports or surveys than archaeologists working within university departments, who enjoy greater independence and time to publish.

The NRA and Meath County Council have refused to concede that any of the spectacular archaeological sites excavated on the road corridor are connected to Tara. But these monuments are at the foot of the hill - what else could they be connected with? Blanket refusal by the NRA to accept that these sites might be related to Tara flies in the face of all expert advice, including that, initially, of its consultants, Margaret Gowen & Co Ltd, who, on August 14th, 2000, in relation to the M3 route selection from Navan to Dunshaughlin, concluded that "the monuments around Tara cannot be viewed in isolation, or as individual sites, but must be seen in the context of an intact archaeological landscape, which should not under any circumstances be disturbed, in terms of visual or direct impact on the monuments themselves". However, within two years, in August 2002, the same consultants, when providing a brief of evidence (an archaeological report) for the An Bord Pleanála hearing, offered a very different opinion: "Most of the sites approached by [the proposed M3] appear to be later in date than the great prehistoric complex at Tara. No sites related to the Tara complex will suffer any physical impact and the route lies approximately 1.5km from the eastern limit of the protected zone around Tara." So much for the "intact archaeological landscape which should not, under any circumstances be disturbed".

To date there have been some superb volumes on Tara published by academics, including a multidisciplinary collection of essays, The Kingship and Landscape of Tara, edited by Edel Bhreathnach, numerous papers in national and international academic journals as well as Mairead Carew's meticulous but lively Tara and the Ark of the Covenant (2003). Earlier this week, Michael D Higgins launched Uninhabited Ireland, which includes an invaluable, cohesive essay by Conor Newman on Tara and the M3, "The Battle to Save Tara 1999-2005", which is subtitled "Misinformation, disinformation and downright distortion" (making ironic use of Minister for the Environment Dick Roche's defence of the project).

There is no denying that the Carrickmines saga has overshadowed the infinitely larger issue of the threat to Tara. Now the public is aware of a national legacy at risk. Traffic versus heritage - it doesn't quite add up.

 Long and winding road: how we got here

1998The National Road Needs Study, compiled by the National Roads Authority (NRA), identifies the N3 Dublin to Cavan road among the routes in the State in most urgent need of upgrading.

1999The Government hosts a reception in Dublin Castle to launch the National Development Plan. Five motorways are to be built from Dublin to the Border, Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford. Other routes are to be considered.

2000Meath County Council and the NRA propose a motorway replacement for bypasses of Dunshaughlin, Navan and Kells.

2002A meeting in Trinity College Dublin to organise protests about the proposed destruction of the remains of Carrickmines Castle in south Co Dublin hears whispers of a more serious issue with regard to a road "through" the Hill of Tara. The NRA publishes the proposed toll scheme.

2003After one of the longest hearings on record, An Bord Pleanála clears the way for construction of the motorway.

2004The National Monuments Act, which provided for the "preservation by record" of national monuments, becomes law. Test-trench digging begins.

May 2005Minister for the Environment Dick Roche issues directions to Meath County Council (which include "preservation by record") and effectively approves the construction of the motorway. Full excavations begin. Conservationist Vincent Salafia launches a High Court challenge to the National Monuments Act and the Minister's directions.

July 2005The NRA identifies the EuroLink Consortium, comprising Cintra SA and SIAC Construction Ltd, as the tenderer offering the best deal.

2006Vincent Salafia loses his challenge to the National Monuments Act in the High Court. The following month he appeals to the Supreme Court, but later withdraws the papers after High Court costs of 600,000 are awarded against him.

January 2007Toll hearing is held in Navan. Meath County Council is among the objectors.

April 2007An Taisce mounts a legal challenge to the toll scheme, which is dismissed in the High Court. An Taisce appeals to the Supreme Court. The case is still outstanding.

May 2007Scuffles break out between conservationists and construction workers on the site.

Tim O'Brien