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IRISH TROVE SET TO BE TRASHED

A road to ancient history’s ruin

by Stephen Hesse

Irish politician Dick Roche is in the business of government, and his two-decades-long career has touched on public administration, finance, transportation and economic planning and development.

Unfortunately, he has little or no professional knowledge of environment, anthropology, archaeology or history — or if he does, he has kept it off his Web site and well hidden from the public.

Nevertheless, in September 2004 Roche was appointed Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and now has “sole discretion in deciding whether any archaeological site is a national monument and what to do with it — including authorising its demolition,” according to Frank McDonald, Environment Editor of the Irish Times, writing in a March 2006 article.

And authorizing demolition is exactly what Roche has done. Not just one or two historical sites, but demolition on a grand scale: a 60-km, four-lane motorway that will condemn 700 hectares of land to development, including at least 156 known archaeological sites ranging from burial sites and buildings to settlements.

The motorway, known as the M3, is projected to run between Clonee and Kells and will supplement the N3, a two-lane road that runs through County Meath, just northwest of Dublin. Inevitably the M3 will also bring increased traffic, mounting air pollution, urban sprawl — and even more development.

Experts are certain that many more archeological sites will surface as well, but the greatest tragedy is that the M3 will carve through the lush green fields that sweep up to the Hill of Tara, bisecting and degrading an ancient valley rich in unique sites of historical and cultural significance.

The Hill of Tara, also known as the Hill of Kings, is a long, low hill that rises between the towns of Navan and Dunshaughlin, southwest of the River Boyne. At the top the hill is a large ringfort of mounded earth that encircles two more ringforts, one of which surrounds a meter-high, phallic standing stone, the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny. It is here that the High Kings of Ireland were crowned.

Ancient Celtic festivals

Just north of the ringforts is the Mound of Hostages, a Neolithic tomb constructed more than 4,000 years ago, which contains a passageway that is astrologically aligned with the sunset on November 8 and February 4, the ancient Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc. Not far away, excavations have turned up Roman artifacts.

In short, Tara and its surroundings conceal a trove of archaeological treasures that link present-day Ireland and Europe with some of the earliest of ancient traditions and peoples. To have a hand in degrading an area of such unique heritage is truly barbarian.

“The Hill of Tara constitutes the heart and soul of Ireland. Our ceremonial and mythical capital, its very name invokes the spirit and mystique of our people,” 30 academics wrote in a letter of protest to the editor of the Irish Times in February 2004.

“[The] recent approval of the government’s scheme to divide the Tara/Skryne valley with the M3 motorway spells out a massive national and international tragedy that must be averted. This narrow valley is one of the most culturally and archaeologically significant places in the world. Many monuments predate the Egyptian pyramids.

“The Hill of Tara has been a sanctuary for every generation since. It is precisely because it has remained intact, unlike many comparable continental sites, that it holds a special key to understanding the continuous progression of European civilization. We are only just beginning to understand and appreciate how the Mound relates to the hundreds of other monuments in this archaeological complex — many of which will be destroyed if the valley is sliced in two,” the academics warned.

I admit that when I first heard about the M3 from an Irish colleague, all I knew of Tara was its American movie namesake, the ill-fated plantation in “Gone with the Wind.” Not wanting to remain too terribly ignorant I got busy googling.

An op-ed piece, “A Road Runs Through Tara,” that appeared in the New York Times (April 25, 2005) is particularly poignant about the planned highway. The writer, Colm Toibin, is the author of “The Master,” and he states the case for Tara in measured, thoughtful terms:

“The beauty and isolation of the valley, which has Tara on one side and Skryne, another historical site of some importance, on the other, will effectively be destroyed. A place of myth and mystery will look like anywhere. It is called modernization.

“For commuters who drive each day to work in Dublin from towns and villages in County Meath, where Tara lies, it might cut 20 minutes off the journey. It will make them happy. But it seems almost beyond belief that Ireland, awash with new money and enormous economic confidence, cannot find another route for the road and leave for generations to come a heritage that has been left to us,” writes Toibin.

Judging from the debate now raging in Ireland over construction of the M3, one might imagine that a highway is essential. The truth is that there are viable alternatives, but these have been given short shrift by politicians and bureaucrats eager, as ever, to build yet another road.

(I’m beginning to wonder whether this is a genetic flaw in those aspiring to public service worldwide: the need to crisscross the countryside with highways, leaving a matrix of concrete that says, “See, even from behind my desk I really did do something monumental!”)

Since traffic along the N3 in County Meath is dominated by commuters and commercial transport, the most practical and energy-efficient solution, and the least destructive, would be rail service combined with upgraded existing roads and a bus network.

Nevertheless, the debate has focused on road-building and on one route in particular. The authorities have made a great show of their efforts to consider various routes — 10 options in all, but the more one learns about the preliminary assessment process, the more it appears that the authorities chose the route first and now are taking great pains to justify a patently bad decision.

Protest petition

Because my colleague, an Irish scholar, signed a petition protesting the route selected for the M3, the National Roads Authority (NRA) of Ireland sent him an “information pack on the archaeological aspects of the M3.” The accompanying letter states, “This is the first time the Authority in co-operation with a local authority have produced such a document. It is hoped that in the future similar information packs will be produced for other road schemes.”

Having seen numerous impact assessments over the years, my suggestion is that the NRA should not attempt similar packs — not if this is the best they can do. Even a cursory look through the information raises more questions than it answers about how and why such a destructive route was chosen.

The NRA information pack even contains a DVD that offers a digitalized view of the landscape around Tara before and after the construction of the M3. Not surprisingly the view from atop Tara remains exactly the same (!) — so don’t worry your pretty heads, dear taxpayers; all is well.

However, one source close to the controversy says the digitalized view is “doctored” and not from the highest point, as is claimed by the narrator of the DVD.

More importantly, what the DVD and information pack completely fail to render is all of the related degradation that will accompany the construction of a major road and impact on the region and its invaluable archaeological heritage: air pollution, noise pollution, towering lamps floodlighting a major intersection just north of Tara, and the inevitable glut of light industry and warehouses that are attracted to highways and their intersections.

Reading the NRA assurances in light of the concerns expressed by those opposed to the construction, one is left with a distinctly troubling impression that the Irish government, led in this regard by Minister Roche and his colleagues, is attempting to slip a tragic and costly boondoggle past the public using a clumsy mixture of polish, bluster and intimidation.

In fact, a recent nationwide survey conducted by Red C Research & Marketing Ltd. found that 2 out of 3 people in Ireland oppose the motorway going through the Tara/Skryne Valley. The findings of the survey are equivalent to the outcome of a referendum vote — if one were held, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, according to a source familiar with the Red C results. Red C is an independent market research company based in Dublin.

Looking through the NRA information pack with my colleague, he mused that even the archaeologists in the photos appear embarrassed by the travesty being perpetrated on the Irish and their land: In each photo their faces are averted from the camera as they go about the dirty business of selling out Ireland’s history and mystery to the whims of a few public servants greedily intent on serving their own, not the public’s, interests.