The M3 motorway: driving a stake through the heart of Tara

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), News, Volume 12

Tara needs no introduction to the readers of History Ireland. Its reputation as the most sacred ground in Ireland, and its symbolic capital, is undisputed. The Discovery Programme’s innovative research has not only yielded amazing results but has been the focus of international interest. Tara is traditionally central to the story of St Patrick’s conversion of the Irish to Christianity and is the setting for most of the important early Irish sagas. It was a major rendezvous point for United Irish insurgents in 1798 and the site of one of Daniel O’Connell’s ‘monster meetings’ in the 1840s. Tara, moreover, is a major tourist destination, and its value as a brand-identity continues to be exploited by dozens of Irish companies. How, then, could any right-thinking Irish person sanction the construction of a four-lane toll motorway—the M3—right through the middle of it?

One of the key issues is how Tara is defined. Whereas we contend that the motorway will have a devastating effect on the Tara complex (or landscape), the National Roads Authority (NRA) and Meath County Council (MCC) claim that Tara will remain unaffected. We believe the Hill of Tara to be a necropolis, a ‘city of the dead’. The ‘land of the living’ is its immediate hinterland, and this we have mapped out using the evidence of archaeological monuments and documentary sources. Both parts, the sanctuary and the settlements, comprise an integrated unit; one without the other is not only unsustainable but is virtually meaningless. The size and shape of this landscape were established early in the history of Tara and, once defined, remained fixed well into the Middle Ages. In late prehistory it was demarcated, and defended, by a ring of earthwork fortifications that corresponds very closely with the royal demesne, the ferenn ríg, as historically defined and which in turn corresponds closely with the later barony of Skreen. The M3 will cut right through this landscape; and all the sites destroyed in its path are an integral part of Tara. It is not academics who have defined this landscape, it is the people of the past: this is their testimony.

The National Roads Authority and Meath County Council, on the other hand, have chosen to employ as their definition of Tara the ‘zone of archaeological protection’ as designated by the Heritage Services (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government; formerly Dúchas). This is a zone in which planning applications are subject to archaeological preconditions. Prior to 1994 the zone corresponded fairly closely to the area of state-owned land on Tara, about 1.2km in diameter. However, in recognition of the Discovery Programme’s analysis of the wider landscape, this was then increased to an area 6km in diameter. Therefore, when the NRA/MCC claim that the motorway lies outside the designated area they are referring to the pre-1994 designation. But they cannot claim ignorance of the re-designation because they were specifically advised in the first report (1999) commissioned from Margaret Gowen and Co. Ltd that the proposed motorway passed right through the larger designated area. Leaving aside the spin that the NRA/MCC are trying to put on this aspect (and the fact that the tax-payer is paying for this disinformation), we would point out that ‘zones of archaeological protection’ are not to be construed as describing de facto archaeological or historical sites or landscapes. To declare them as such runs contrary to the guidelines accompanying this aspect of planning legislation. However, since the environmental impact statement failed to provide any mature analysis of the impact this motorway would have on the Tara landscape, and instead merely listed the sites/monuments to be destroyed by it, it failed to provide the NRA/MCC with a complete picture upon which to base their decision.

The National Roads Authority’s and Meath County Council’s position remains quite simple: a motorway is needed to ease traffic congestion between Navan and Dublin, the former having developed into a dormitory town over the last fifteen years. As at present designed, about 14km of this 60km motorway will pass along the Tara–Skreen valley. For the last five years or so we have campaigned to have this part of the motorway diverted away from the archaeological and historical landscape of Tara along an alternative route: we are not opposed to the motorway per se. It will take a brave and enlightened decision but it is not too late to move the motorway away from this culturally sensitive area.

While we have marshalled a considerable amount of evidence and national and international expert testimony as to why the motorway should not go through this valley, the NRA/MCC have yet to articulate one compelling reason why it should. In truth, there is no legitimate reason why this motorway has to go through the Tara–Skreen valley. And whereas route choice is obviously based on a hierarchy of variables, in this particular instance absolute priority should have been given to preservation of heritage, and Dúchas should have insisted on this. Clearly it was not, and is not. On the contrary, the advice furnished by their own consultants was disregarded. In August 2000 a report by Margaret Gowen and Co. concluded:

‘In addition to being highly visible from the Hill of Tara, the route passes through the archaeologically sensitive landscape of the stream valley . . . No mitigation would remove the effects of this route on the Hill of Tara or on its outlying monuments. It would have extremely severe implications from an archaeological perspective.’

Short of saying ‘do not put the motorway through here’, the recommendation could not have been more unequivocal. In asking us to believe that they are committed to pursuing best practice in respect of our archaeological heritage whilst at the same time ignoring the advice of their own consultants, and a national and international lobby of experts, the NRA/MCC have created a glaring credibility deficit. They have failed the first test. It would appear that the principle of ‘cost benefit return’ for those who invested in this toll motorway has been given priority over preservation of the most important cultural landscape in Ireland.

Now that the motorway has been given the go-ahead by An Bord Pleanála, a more immediate burden of responsibility towards this heritage has fallen on the NRA/MCC. The dismemberment of Dúchas means that in reality they shoulder this burden with little scrutiny from the state heritage services. In fact, there is no independent archaeological authority in Ireland to debate, articulate and regulate best practice. The failure of state authorities to thoroughly scrutinise and intervene in the archaeological components of environmental impact statements contributed to the Carrickmines fiasco and will be seen to have contributed to the destruction of the Tara landscape if this development is allowed to go ahead.

It is not really surprising, therefore, that standards and practices in Irish archaeology are now largely determined by private sector companies and archaeologists employed by roads authorities. For the most part, and owing to commendable personal integrity on the part of individual archaeologists, site-testing procedures in Ireland are quite adequate. In the case of Tara, however, adequate is not really good enough. The highest standards possible should apply, and Tara merits nothing less.

The issues raised by this case transcend the question of Tara v. the M3 and touch on the value that we as a nation place on our cultural heritage and its role in contemporary society. In today’s Ireland, it seems, heritage is at best a brand-identity and at worst an obstacle to the generation of wealth among developers. The dismemberment of Dúchas was effected not in the name of rationalisation but as the final act in the silencing of a critical voice in Irish heritage protection. We should not sit back and allow this to silence an entire profession. Now, more than ever, a clear and strong voice is needed, if only to protect that which is of true value in times when value is sadly confused with monetary profit. If Tara is a symbol of our national and cultural identity, this roadway will stand as a permanent monument to a loss of direction, meaning and identity.

Edel Bhreathnach (Micheál Ó Cléirigh Institute, UCD) was Tara Research Fellow of the Discovery Programme’s Tara Literary and Historical Project (1992–2001); Joseph Fenwick (Dept. of Archaeology, NUI, Galway) was chief field archaeologist of the Discovery Programme’s Archaeological Survey of Tara (1992–5); and Conor Newman (Dept. of Archaeology, NUI, Galway) was director of the Discovery Programme’s Archaeological Survey of Tara (1992–6).

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