Motorway threatens Hill of Tara, site of ancient Irish kings and colonial rebellion

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The Independent Online

It was the spot where St Patrick triumphed over the pagans, and the site of the crowning of the High Kings of Ireland. On a clear day, the historic Hill of Tara offers views across half of Ireland.

It was the spot where St Patrick triumphed over the pagans, and the site of the crowning of the High Kings of Ireland. On a clear day, the historic Hill of Tara offers views across half of Ireland.

But the site described as the "heart and soul" of Ireland is about to take on a new aspect.

Plans for a motorway which will pass within half a mile of the ceremonial and historical capital of prehistoric Ireland have attracted huge criticism from the country's academics, historians and archaeologists.

The row represents a clash between an urgent need to improve transport links around Dublin and a desire to protect the country's heritage.

Academics are appalled at the prospect of the new road encroaching on territory which an expert has described as one of the must culturally and archaeologically significant places in the world. A group of eminent historians and archaeologists have declared: "The Hill of Tara constitutes the heart and soul of Ireland. Its very name invokes the spirit and mystique of our people. This is a massive national and international tragedy."

The road scheme, which will raise money through tolls, seems nonetheless certain to go ahead, having gone through all the necessary planning procedures.

Tara lies in Co Meath to the north-west of Dublin, and it is the phenomenal growth of the capital that has produced the huge increase in traffic.

Navan, just beyond Tara, has mushroomed, turning into a commuter dormitory town with thousands of new homes for those who cannot afford high Dublin house prices.

"You can hear cars starting at 6.30 in the morning," said one local. "People get on the road early to avoid the bottlenecks. You can sit in jams for ages." Objectors admit traffic is a problem, but say there are alternatives. They complained: "Tara is a virtually intact archaeological landscape of monuments with the Hill at the centre."

Tara is associated with many of Ireland's most renowned historical and mythical figures. Daniel O'Connell held one of his "monster meetings" for repeal of the union at Tara in the 19th century, reportedly attracting a million people. The United Irishmen rose in rebellion against the British here in 1798.

A thousand years or so earlier, St Patrick is reputed to have confronted and defeated the high druid at Tara, Christianity thus prevailing over paganism.

But Tara is so ancient that its story begins in pre-Celtic times. The High Kings of Ireland came here to be crowned but traces of barely-known earlier inhabitants have also been found.

Its significance as a place of ritual is dated as early as 4,000BC, around the beginning of the Neolithic period.

There are many tombs, since Tara was regarded as a gateway to the Otherworld, some of which are regarded in legend as the homes of the Fairy Folk.

The academics have not succeeded in building a powerful campaign which might have deflected the roads authorities from their plans. Many locals welcome plans which could shorten their commuting time.

The other problem for objectors is that the focus of attention is on the Hill. The authorities argue that the motorway will be far enough away from the Hill itself so that it will not despoil any historical heritage. A large interchange will be about a kilometre away. The academic retort is that Tara is more than just the spectacular Hill, encompassing the surrounding landscape, and that most of its treasures lie buried underground.

That the valley adjacent to the hill contains historical riches is not in doubt. The roads authorities have already dug a continuous test trench, two metres wide with smaller trenches branching off, along the length of the motorway. The results were striking: in the nine miles that go through Tara territory, they identified 28 sites of definite or potential archaeological interest. The government is now considering what to do about these, but is considered highly unlikely to make any major change to the route.

One road expert said a new motorway would absorb much local traffic, leaving Tara Hill more peaceful. The fear of the academics is that the opposite will happen, with the new road attracting ever more housing and industrial development along its corridor. "It's really the death knell for Tara," said one.

Whichever prediction is correct, the arguments in favour of the motorway have won. Its opponents are losing hope of preserving what they see as the integrity of Tara. The modern is prevailing over the ancient.

A last despairing comment came from Fr Pat Raleigh, one of the Columban Fathers, who are based in the valley. "It's like driving a road past the pyramids," he said. "This says much about where we're going, about our values as a country."

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