Plato’s landscape: the quarrel over Lismullen and the Tara/Skryne valley

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2007), News, Volume 15

Lismullan—‘. . . could hardly be said to offer an aesthetic experience comparable, for example, with a visit to Newgrange or Knowth’. (Hawkeye)

Lismullan—‘. . . could hardly be said to offer an aesthetic experience comparable, for example, with a visit to Newgrange or Knowth’. (Hawkeye)


According to documents placed on the Department of the Environment website by the current minister, John Gormley, the Lismullen site is a circular enclosure 80m in diameter, formed of a double row of stake-holes, about 2m apart. Each stake-hole is about 10–15cm in diameter. The site was discovered as topsoil was being stripped as part of the preparatory archaeological work for the M3 motorway. An earlier generation of land-developers appears to have got there before ours, as the current excavation ‘has revealed that the site has been heavily truncated by past centuries of ploughing’. A recent RTÉ news report showed, for the benefit of the inexpert eye, that a stake-hole translates into a patch of soil subtly darker than its surroundings. Clearly, it took a trained archaeological eye to reveal and interpret a site that might otherwise have remained invisible to the rest of us. Or, in other words, it took expert knowledge to reveal a site whose primary content is knowledge. What remains could hardly be said to offer an aesthetic experience comparable, for example, with a visit to Newgrange or Knowth, where visible remains and the actual tracings of ancient art on stone offer a sensory, three-dimensional encounter with ancestral imprints, and a palpable basis for engaging imaginatively with our ancestors’ efforts at self-expression. What remains at Lismullen, on the other hand, is an earthen shadow—the Platonic ghost—of a long-lost structure. This is not a little ironic, because the argument about what to do with Lismullen and a range of similar sites along the Tara/Skryne valley has indeed reached a Neoplatonic pitch.
While some archaeologists have been content to advocate excavation for knowledge in the case of a site like Lismullen, other equally distinguished brethren have declared the excavation option to be sacrilege. In this vision, Lismullen is seen as part of a cohesive landscape, a putative complex that stretches numinously outwards from the Hill of Tara itself. The sacredness of this landscape has been asserted as a self-evident proposition. The argument over the M3 roadway has inspired some extraordinary flights of imagery. For example, Professor Dennis Harding of Edinburgh University declared that ‘carving a motorway through such a landscape is an act of cultural vandalism as flagrant as ripping a knife through a Rembrandt painting’.
Somewhere in the middle of this argument archaeology’s uneasy balancing act between science and aesthetics has become woefully dysfunctional. Terrain has been confused with souterrain, and arguments about the protection of places with a manifest imprint on the landscape have been conflated with the need to protect the faintest manifestation of archaeological evidence. And these anxieties of preservation have in turn become intertwined with a very contemporary unease about unbridled development and its consequences for heritage.
Is there a way forward? A place to begin might be to develop some sense of the historical nature of this heritage argument. One of the ironies of heritage is that its advocates fail to see the historicity of the thing itself; where history’s stock is relativity, heritage deals in absolutes—‘heritage causes are supremely self-righteous’, says David Lowenthal in The Heritage Crusade. Another place to look is how words like landscape, complex and sacred are used in an archaeological context. As an element of landscape, the Lismullen subsoil earth-shadings have very little meaning in the traditional sense of that word. The Dutch word landschap, coined in the sixteenth century as Dutch artists pioneered the landscape genre of painting, was brought over into English in the sense of ‘a picture depicting scenery on land’. Thus the word is almost entirely visual in its connotations. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it is ‘all the visible features of an area of land’. So we are used to an idea of landscape as comprising the elements of a scene, a vista or panorama. It is the configuration of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the natural and man-made terrain upon which we gaze: hills and steeples, hedgerows and watercourses, bridges and the random assortment of clustered or dispersed habitations are some of its self-evident elements, but not the invisible, subterranean dimension of the world. That is to extend its meaning into, quite literally, unknown territory, embracing what might—or might not—be there. But the idea of landscape, reinforced with the notion of things being related to each other in some generally asserted complex, has the virtue of dispelling the contemporary need to make hard choices about what to preserve and what to let go of when pressed by the demands of infrastructural development.
With the idea of heritage landscape, we need to be careful about what we wish for: we might not be able to afford it. A number of years ago an American economist carried out an exercise to calculate what it would cost to preserve all of the identifiable Italian heritage stock to an acceptable conservation standard. He calculated that it would cost 35 per cent of Italian GDP—clearly an unsustainable sum. Imagine Rome being declared a heritage landscape. How could it possibly continue to be the living city it is, with the Coliseum, to take a prominent example, acting more or less as an island in a traffic roundabout?
Terry Eagleton observed that while society ‘reveres history as authority, continuity, heritage’, it ‘plainly has no time for it whatsoever’. There can be a gap between sentiment and reality, or between what might otherwise be called fondness for heritage and the willingness to pay for it, whether in cash or inconvenience. The most recent Heritage Council survey of attitudes to heritage in Ireland, commissioned from Lansdowne Market Research and published in July 2007, is revealing in this regard. When asked to respond to the statement ‘Protecting our heritage should not interfere with necessary development of our infrastructure’, 58 per cent agreed and 25 per cent disagreed—a clear majority in favour of building those roads, in other words.
Those who argue passionately for conservation in the face of infrastructural developments need to be more sensitive to the democratic implications of this. Eileen Battersby in an article on Tara in May this year opined: ‘now the public is aware of a national legacy at risk. Traffic versus heritage—it doesn’t quite add up’. On the contrary, the way it adds up, as politicians are only too well aware, is against the impassioned heritage lobby: neither the Carrickmines nor the Tara developments have, or will, be stopped. Facing up to this is not a betrayal of heritage values but an acceptance of an inescapable political reality. Conservationists need to develop a strategy based on battles that can catch the popular imagination and that stand some chance of being won. For example, perhaps not enough of a fuss was made about the hotel built in the shadow of Trim Castle, a fight that might have been winnable (a private development as distinct from a public roadway—an important distinction when it comes to the political context in which heritage battles are fought). Though its win rate may not be as high as some of those who value heritage would like, many of the cases fought by An Taisce are sensible on a case-by-case basis and would benefit from a fraction of the passion that has been poured into the defence of the Tara landscape.
But even if the Lismullen site is ‘lost’ to rescue archaeology, the impassioned Neoplatonists can surely take heart from an unintended win: the government will be much more mindful about mitigating parasitic development in the vicinity of the motorway. This would be a not inconsiderable win. But picking better battles perhaps might lead to a better and intended consequence—the salvation of more heritage across the entire Irish landscape and not just at this one, poorly chosen Thermopylae.

Pat Cooke is director of the MA programme in cultural policy and arts management at University College Dublin.

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