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Tara Threatened April 8, 2004
by Mark Rose


Aerial view of Tara Hill and some of the now-threatened surrounding landscape (courtesy Mythical Ireland) [LARGER IMAGE]

A site called "noblest of hills" in Irish legend is endangered following approval of construction of a four-lane highway by Ireland's Board of Planning Appeals (An Bord Pleanála). The controversial route of the M3 highway would cross an archaeologically sensitive and historically important landscape, passing between the hills of Tara and Skreen northwest of Dublin. The plan has drawn worldwide criticism and appeals both to the board to reconsider its decision and to Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to intervene.

"Put at its simplest, in Irish tradition and early historical documents, Tara is recognized as the seat of the high king," says archaeologist Ronald Hicks of Ball State University. "It is also the site where, according to early traditions, St. Patrick is supposed to have engaged in a contest with the high druid to see whose religion was more powerful. Patrick, of course, won. In fact, from an examination of the prehistoric remains in the vicinity and from Irish myth, it is clear that Tara has been a sacred site since the Neolithic. Within the myths, Tara is described as one of the dwelling places of Eochaid, the most important of the Irish gods, who is often referred to as the Dagda, "the good god." The hilltop itself is covered with earthworks, and the whole complex of related monuments extends for a considerable distance in all directions. The large, henge-like Iron Age embankment at the center of the site, Rath na Riogh (the "enclosure of the king") incorporates a Neolithic passage tomb within it and surely must have started life as a sacred rather than a secular enclosure. There are similar enclosures located about 1.2 miles to the southwest at Riverstown and to the south at Rath Medb. Approximately 1.9 miles to the north lies Rath Lugh and about that distance to the east is the Hill of Skreen (whose name derives from the Latin term for a shrine, though it is known in the myths as Acall). Medb and Lugh are both deities, and all of these earthworks undoubtedly constituted integral parts of the complex as a whole."

Opponents of the project point to earlier studies of the area, which led Ireland's Heritage Service to expand a protected zone around Tara to six kilometers (3.73 miles) in 1999. The proposed roadway, they say, would cut through the protected zone, and in a nine-mile stretch would run through 26 sites identified as archaeologically significant in a geophysical survey. Not only would these sites have to be fully excavated, but construction would likely reveal yet more sites.

Letters addressed to the editor of the Irish Times have been a forum for those who object to the project. One group of scholars, primarily Irish historians, wrote, "Let us be clear: excavation is destruction, not 'preservation' in the true sense...let Irish taxpayers decide for themselves if their money should be spent destroying this singular element of Irish identity." Most recently, a letter by AIA President Jane Waldbaum appeared in the Irish Times. "We are shocked that planning permission has been granted," said Waldbaum, "and are particularly alarmed at the news that trial trenching is already beginning on an unusual scale, and is likely to do irreparable damage to the site."

It isn't just the excavation required by the plan that concerns project opponents. The end result of building the M3 on this route, they say, would affect an entire archaeological landscape. A group of British archaeologists complained in the Irish Times that, "Tara is a virtually intact archaeological landscape of monuments with the Hill at the centre. The Skreen side of the projected motorway is part and parcel of this complex. Driving a four-lane motorway through the valley will destroy the integrity of this ancient landscape forever."

"The existing N3 highway passes through the low ground between Tara and Skreen," explains Hicks, "already bisecting the complex. If the new motorway were to follow that route, it would be worrisome enough, since its corridor will be substantially wider. But the proposal is to carve out an entirely new route. This will involve reshaping a very considerable amount of land, and there is no doubt at all that the archaeological reconnaissance carried out along this route cannot have identified all areas of significance. Thus it will inevitably destroy sites that form an integral part of the Tara complex. And while to the east the proposed route lies slightly further from the heart of the complex, to the north it actually swings inside the existing road."

"In recent years it has become increasingly obvious to archaeologists that to understand the past we often must think beyond individual sites," notes Hicks. "Like ourselves, the people of the past lived not just within sites but within landscapes. Often the relationships among sites and between the sites and the surrounding landscape contained meaning that can only be understood by looking at the overall pattern. This is especially true at major sacred sites like the Tara complex. The planned construction thus will threaten our ability to gain an adequate understanding of the Tara landscape."

Waldbaum also addressed this point in her letter to the Irish Times, stating that Tara is not merely the hilltop site but "a particularly important and well-preserved example" of a large ritual and settlement site for which "one would expect the highest measure of protection...."

The protests may be having an effect. On April 5, Ireland's National Roads Authority offered to meet with project opponents.

For more about the Tara controversy, see the following websites:

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America