- The Guardian,
- Tuesday May 30 2006
The panoramic view from the Hill of Tara reputedly encompasses half the counties of Ireland. Windswept, grass ramparts enclose the ancient seat of the country's High Kings. Nearby stands the Mound of the Hostages, a megalithic passage tomb.
Soon a four-lane motorway, speeding traffic in and out of Dublin, will bulldoze its way through the landscape below the Iron Age earthworks. The first scars are already visible as archaeologists investigate the lush Gowra valley for the remains of a civilisation whose monuments pre-date many Egyptian pyramids. Unless survey teams uncover a new site of "national archaeological importance", the controversial, government-backed route through County Meath is likely to go ahead.
The row over construction of the M3 has set Ireland's marginalised, heritage lobby at odds with the republic's newfound prosperity and the drive to upgrade its outdated infrastructure. It has also highlighted Ireland's increasing reliance on the car.
The row is now entering a more embittered phase. Construction of the 36-mile road, connecting Clonee, on Dublin's congested outskirts, to Kells, north-west of the capital, was scheduled to begin early this month. The national roads authority (NRA) is blaming legal action by environmental protesters for delays costing €1m (£680,000) a week and for the number of fatal car crashes attributable to the unmodernised road.
No date has yet been set for an appeal to the supreme court over the disputed route, and the NRA has cautioned its preferred tenderer, the Eurolink consortium, not to start work until court proceedings are completed. If the case goes to Europe, it could take years.
Vincent Salafia, a Dublin lawyer fighting the Tara M3 case, denied his action had caused delays. He said he could be amenable to "mediation" if "an independent archaeological expert [was] appointed to determine whether the M3 passes through the greater national monument of Tara [or] if any of the 38 sites [already unearthed constitute] national monuments in their own right". He lost his case in the high court.
"The government is saying the Tara monument is just the tip of the hill," he told the Guardian. "But there are outer defensive forts which are all part of a large, single [complex]. We want to force [the road] to move further away. A route further out to the west would be better."
The issue has rocketed up the domestic political agenda as the economy has boomed and Dublin's commuter belt has expanded far out into the Irish midlands. Tara is barely 30 miles from the capital but car journeys can take several hours at peak traffic times.
Ireland has not experienced direct action protests against road building but the campaign has attracted celebrity support, notably from the Hollywood actress Charlize Theron and her Irish partner, Stuart Townsend.
Muireann Ni Bhrolochain, a university lecturer in Celtic studies at Maynooth, is one of the leading opponents. "Tara is one of the premier sites in Europe," she said. "Some of the tombs date back 4,000 years and the hill was used by the High Kings of all Ireland until 1200AD. I'm not anti-roads but we have the opportunity to learn from mistakes in other countries," she said.
Given the success of single issue candidates in Ireland's proportional representation system, there has been talk of an anti-M3 candidate at the general election anticipated next year. Several opposition parties, including Sinn Féin and the Green party, have backed the campaign. The Labour party's environment spokesman, Eamon Gilmore, described the route as a "betrayal of the country's Celtic heritage that will result in the destruction of the Tara landscape".
Many question why the existing freight railway line, from nearby Navan via Drogheda to Dublin, has not been improved to relieve congestion.
"The government said it would take until 2015 to [rebuild] the direct line from Navan to Dublin [closed in the 1960s]," said a local campaigner, Proinsas MacFheargus. "But that railway was begun in 1859 and finished in 1862. So nowadays it would take three times as long to build? They won't open up the line because it would conflict with the motorway's tolling arrangements."
Julitta Clancy, of the Meath Historical Society, did not join the legal action because the costs would have put her at risk of losing her home. "We went through the planning process and found it very frustrating," she said. "There was no remedy. We tried to persuade the government that the road could be moved, producing a better transport and heritage solution. We have petitioned the European parliament on the rights of litigants to oppose infrastructure projects. The delays to the road are not due to us but to the fact that the route picked was rich in archaeology. These sites are part of our European collective memory. We have asked for independent monitoring of the excavations. At present if they find anything in the valley ... it's the NRA that decides whether it's a national monument."
The M3 will also slice through Dalgan Park, headquarters of the St Columban Missionaries in the Gowra valley. The estate's woodland and riverside walks are open to the public.
"This road will be a violation of the sacredness and tranquility of the area," said Father Pat Raleigh. "This was given in trust to us by the people of Ireland. People are not going to enjoy a greater quality of life commuting to Dublin."
Last year 400 people died on the republic's roads, about 100 deaths per million people. That rate is close to the European average. The litany of casualties, however, fills the daily papers. Last week the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, joined the controversy, complaining that protests meant that "not a thistle has yet been cut" on the motorway. In the meantime, he added, existing roads were still proving deadly. "Nine people have died in the past nine months."
An NRA spokesman also accused protesters of endangering the public."The sooner we have a modern motorway the sooner we will start saving lives," he insisted. "Motorways, because of the traffic separation, are much safer. Construction was due to start at the beginning of May ... but we have to wait until all the legal challenges have been exhausted.
"We are not going through or over the Hill of Tara. The M3 has taken into account the historical significance of the area. It was known from the outset. There were two years of public reviews. More than 2,000 issues were addressed. We have tried to minimise the visual impact. The local community supports [us] and wants the M3 to be built."
The oldest excavated monument is the Mound of the Hostages, constructed in 2500BC. Its name derives from Niall of the Nine Hostages, a king who held prisoners from every province of Ireland as well as from Britain and Europe. Legend has it that candidates for the high kingship had to drive their chariots towards two standing stones positioned close together which opened only for the rightful king. In historic times, Tara was the seat of power in Ireland; 142 High Kings reigned from the hilltop that was revered as a sacred place with a direct connection to the underworld. St Patrick visited the hill in 433AD to convert the pagan king. One interpretation of "Tara" says it means "place of great prospect". An Israeli archaeological team excavated the hill in the 20th century, convinced the Arc of the Covenant was buried under the soil of County Meath.