Tearing up the past

The kings' highway: actor Stuart Townsend with members of the Tara Skryne Valley Group at the Hill of Tara, Co Meath.  Campaigners claim the hill and its surrounding archaeological landscape could be ruined forever if the roadworks go ahead.

The kings' highway: actor Stuart Townsend with members of the Tara Skryne Valley Group at the Hill of Tara, Co Meath. Campaigners claim the hill and its surrounding archaeological landscape could be ruined forever if the roadworks go ahead.


The significance of Tara transcends the need to run the M3 past the ancient seat of Ireland's kings, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor.

When Dr Edel Bhreathnach stands on the Hill of Tara, what she sees is very different to what the Taoiseach said he saw.

Dismissing claims by many archaeologists and historians that the M3 tolled motorway would destroy a mystical landscape, Bertie Ahern said he couldn't even see the hill from where he was standing on its route.

Just as he blamed an exotic snail for holding up the Kildare by-pass, when what was really at stake was its potential to drain Pollardstown Fen, he seized on the fact that the M3 won't actually run through the ancient seat of Ireland's kings as sufficient to permit the National Roads Authority (NRA) to proceed with its controversial €680 million scheme.

Sure even the growing "posse" of archaeologists couldn't agree on it. Yet this absence of agreement is hardly surprising given that most members of the "posse" carry out work for the NRA. And there would be a lot to do on the route of the M3; so far, 42 archaeological sites have been identified in the softly rolling valley between Tara and the Hill of Skryne.

Joe Fenwick, of the Department of Archaeology at NUI Galway, says it "amounts to an archaeological site occurring on average every 370 metres" on the 15-km stretch between Dunshaughlin and Dowdstown, 5km south of Navan. And that's just a running total, as it's likely more will be discovered. The preliminary cost of excavating them all would be at least €30 million.

Along the entire 61-km route between Clonee and Kells, some 141 archaeological sites of varying importance have been identified, some of them by test-trenching carried out on behalf of the NRA in recent months. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Dick Roche, is due to decide next month how the sites are to be "archaeologically resolved" following debates in the Dáil and the Seanad this week.

Four years ago, long before An Bord Pleanála rubber-stamped the M3 in August 2003 without laying down a single archaeological condition, the NRA was told it would be "virtually impossible to underestimate the importance or the sensitivity of the archaeological and historical landscape of this area". Whatever route was chosen, it would run into this.

In other words, the NRA had some idea what it was letting itself in for when different route options were being considered and a decision was made to run the M3 through the Tara-Skryne valley. It was also clear that some major monuments, notably Rath Lugh, would be left stranded at the edge of a four-lane motorway that would inevitably be visible from Tara.

THAT'S WHY SOME of the leading names in Irish archaeology are vehemently opposed to the current plan. They include such eminent figures as Prof George Eogan, who spent 30 years excavating the passage tomb complex at Knowth, in the Boyne Valley. Like so many others, he argues that this is an integrated landscape and would like to see the sites near Tara excavated at a leisurely pace.

What the NRA is proposing, as Sen Maurice Hayes (Ind) has said, is to excavate these sites quickly "before obliteration". Even apart from the time pressure, he argued that the whole area needs to be recognised as "a single archaeological environment which will be sundered and damaged irreparably" by any motorway driven between Tara and Skryne.

Last March, former taoiseach John Bruton said it was evident from archaeological studies that Tara was "the centre of a sacred space of interlinked monuments stretching over a comparatively large area". Short of running over the hill itself, it was "difficult to conceive of a route more likely to run into delays generated by archaeological excavations than this one". Dr Bhreathnach, who is based in UCD and is the editor of a major academic work on Tara to be published in the spring, says the book will show definitively that Tara was the centrepiece of a sacred landscape, the focus of "incredibly complex ceremonies in prehistoric times", with routeways leading to the hill from every direction. "The imprint of this is all over the landscape," she maintains.

According to the quiet-spoken academic, who once served as an Irish diplomat in Brussels, the title "King of Tara" was the most prized in ancient Ireland because it made whoever held it the "top dog". It was seen as a "kingship of the world", so the place where the King of Tara was inaugurated, atop this windswept hill in Co Meath, was "the centre of the world".

That would help to explain why a messianic group of British Israelites descended on Tara in 1902 and "tore into" its earthen banks in a vain search for the Ark of the Covenant. It would also account for the strong opposition to the M3 voiced by so many archaeologists and historians from overseas as well as celebrities such as actor Stuart Townsend.

According to Dr Bhreathnach, the whole area extending northwards from Dunshaughlin became a centre of considerable activity in the Bronze Age, focused on a necropolis at Tara with burials placed facing towards the hill. It was the mystical properties of Tara and its mythological status that led people, even in prehistory, to hold it in such awe.

EARLY HISTORICAL RECORDS, from the 6th century, show that Tara was the much-prized centre of the Kingdom of Brega, which extended northwards to Oldcastle and southwards to the River Liffey. And though associated with St Patrick and Romano-British culture, she says its significance was deliberately played down by Christian writers because of its pagan past.

Dr Bhreathnach points to a pair of parallel ridges rising up the hill, saying they indicate the processional route to the mound on its brow, which came to be called the Mound of Hostages. It was here that contracts were signed between the High King of Ireland and lesser kings, often including the exchange of hostages to cement the bonds of fealty.

From this vantage point, she points to the impressive range of buildings at Dalgan Park, headquarters of the Columban missionaries, just outside Navan.

They also strongly oppose the M3 route not least because it will sever their heavily wooded lands - used as a valued amenity area by the townspeople as well as one of the largest dairy herds in Ireland.

Though its route lies east of the N3, the new highway would cut a much wider gash through higher ground on the lower slopes of the Hill of Skryne, making the cars and trucks on it more visible than traffic on the existing road. Worse still, the plan includes a floodlit interchange at Blundelstown, just 1km northeast of Tara, which would be clearly visible, especially at night.

As if to compound its impact, rumours are rife in Co Meath that developers have been acquiring options from farmers with land around the proposed interchange, with an eye on its potential for retail warehousing and other motorway-related development. All of that, too, would be seen from Tara - speaking volumes about the value we assign to a priceless heritage.

The Kingship and Landscape of Tara, edited by Dr Edel Bhreathnach, will be be published by Four Courts Press next spring

The NRA defends its M3 plans: Monday in The Irish Times