Archaeology Magazine - News Headlines: Here’s a summary of what preservationists have tried to do to save Ireland’s Hill of Tara from highway construction. Their new argument suggests that the downturn in the country’s economy requires Ireland to save its historic resources as tourist destinations.
Celtic Tiger threatens 'very soul of historic Ireland'
MITCH POTTER - TORONTO STAR
Europe Bureau - Oct 07, 2008
HILL OF TARA, Ireland–It is a battle worthy of the old Irish legends, pitting history against modernity. But as a controversial highway creeps ever closer to the spiritual home of the early Celtic kings, it now appears both sides may lose.
For advocates of the twin ribbons of asphalt called the M3 now under construction north of the Irish capital, there is no choice but to live pragmatically with the roar of a commuter corridor in the shadow of the sacred Hill of Tara, because getting to nearby Dublin is a nightmare without it.
For opponents, the new toll highway is the most painful example of the Celtic Tiger's propensity for gnawing through all obstacles – up to and including "the very soul of historic Ireland" – in the pursuit of the almighty euro. Worse, they say, the highway is arriving just as the economy curls up into what many expect will be a deep slumber, worn ragged by a broken property bubble and the global credit squeeze.
Scheduled to open in 2010, the M3's loudest critics concede much of the damage is already done – 38 archaeological sites unearthed during construction thus far have been carved from the landscape. Among the now vanished finds, a newly discovered national monument at Lismullin that one leading archaeologist described as "the wooden equivalent of Stonehenge."
"All these sites, including the monument at Lismullin, were part and parcel of the greater whole that is the Hill of Tara complex and now they are gone, demolished. The damage is complete and irreversible," said Vincent Salafia of Tara Watch. "Some would say, `Give up the fight. The deed is done.' But we're not giving up because what we are most against is the building of the motorway through the valley that is at the heart of the Tara complex. It's a long ways from completion and there is still time to come to our senses.
"We say reroute it. Turn the M3 into a heritage trail and it will make much more money than a toll road, which is now looking at ruin as a concept with the economy today, because nobody is going to use it."
A walk to the summit of Tara itself, with the guidance of local historian and author Michael Slavin, reveals the multiplicity of historical layers at the heart of the quarrel, from a Neolithic passage tomb predating the Celts to Iron Age earthworks within which as many as eight centuries of Irish High Kings are believed to have been crowned.
Slavin points to a standing stone, thought to be the fabled Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, which legend holds would scream loud enough to be heard throughout the island when a would-be king met a series of challenges and was deemed worthy of royal rule. Another layer still commemorates the 1798 Battle of Tara, when some 400 rebels died fighting against British forces, encoding the hill even more deeply as a symbol of Irish independence.
Other earthworks reveal 20th-century excavations conducted on the mistaken belief that the Irish were part of the Lost Tribes of Israel and that the hill contained the Ark of the Covenant.
"In the time of the pyramids, a spiritual people were on this hill. And for centuries to come, Tara was a place to project power through ceremony, right through to the time of the later Irish kings. That's why it matters," said Slavin.
Slavin admits he has "a bit of a jaundiced view" toward the great wealth that flowed through Ireland for the past generation. It brought a building boom to the nearby town of Navan, which swelled from county town to a northern outpost of Greater Dublin.
"Money was something we never had. But now we have thousands of people in Navan living in these new houses that have to get to Dublin every day. Can you say to them, `Sorry, you can't have a road?'"
The answer, according to the overwhelming majority of Irish archaeologists, is yes. Foremost among them is George Eogan, professor emeritus of archaeology at University College, Dublin, who has invested a lifetime of excavation throughout County Meath, becoming famous for the discovery and understanding of the rich belt of Neolithic passage tombs that ring the Boyne River valley, from Tara to nearby Newgrange and Knowth.
"This highway is shocking. It is one of the great scandals," Eogan told the Toronto Star. "People need motorways. Fine. But the evil thing they've done is to build this motorway into crucial areas alongside Tara. They could have found a way around it. But instead we are left with a depressing, cannibalistic and ruthless plan that runs directly through virgin territory."
With the Irish economy falling into recession last month, the Tara Watch campaign is now shifting tactics, arguing "the radically new economic landscape" calls for the scrapping of the government's six-year National Development Plan, under which the M3 is being built. The downturn, the group says, requires that Ireland rethink the assumptions of what kind of economy it will have moving forward.
"We're in a struggle to define ourselves," said Salafia. "With the Celtic Tiger roaring along we were able to ignore the commercial and cultural advantages of properly protecting this history. People thought, `Craft shops and Leprechauns? No thanks, we're better than that now.'
"It's ironic that we've always relied on tourism, yet there is so much there that has never been properly marketed. And there is a stupid assumption that we have so much we don't really need to protect. But the way the economy is turning now, we're asking for a chance to revisit these assumptions."
Downriver at Newgrange, the fuss surrounding Tara comes as no surprise to Claire Tuffy, who manages what is widely regarded as Europe's most impressive Stone Age monument. Dating to 3,200 BC, the estimated 200,000 tonnes of stone were arranged in such a way that daylight penetrates into the 20-metre passageway for about 17 minutes each year – precisely on Dec. 21, marking the winter solstice.
Tuffy says visitors are continually looking to attach ever-greater meaning to the site. One theorist claimed a drawing in the chamber constitutes the first map of the moon. Another declared the stones at Newgrange were acoustically tuned to a specific musical note.
"It is just so much to ask of our ancestors. You get the stones, you pile them up, you line them up with the sun and the stars and moon and then, oh yes, they need to make a certain note," Tuffy laughed.
"What it says that humans are always looking for answers. And in the backs of our heads we have a notion that at some time in the past there was a golden age where people knew exactly what they were doing and they weren't struggling to find their way."
Tuffy doubts it was so. She points out that after the completion of Newgrange, the builders immediately began work on secondary monuments at the site.
"God love these poor people who were dragging these stones up the hill, they were searching for answers as well ... And obviously they didn't get all the answers, because the guys in charge said, 'Now we've got to start building another one on Monday,' " she said.
"That same spiritual fascination is what keeps Tara and the rest of these monuments special. They are real, living spiritual places where people connect to the past. And if we lost that, we'd all be a lot poorer."
Watch interview with Professor George Eogan