By Paul Muldoon, the author, most recently, of “Horse Latitudes” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 25/05/07):
TOMORROW is the anniversary of the Battle of Tara Hill, fought on May 26, 1798, between 4,000 United Irishmen and 700 British yeomanry. The British carried the day. More than 200 years later, the hill of Tara, a little over 30 miles north of Dublin, is the scene of yet another battle, between the forces of modern Ireland, represented by the advocates of the M3 motorway, and those of us who believe that the routing of a busy road slap bang through the Tara-Skryne Valley represents an act of vandalism with not only national, but international, ramifications.
With the end of the Northern Ireland conflict and the power-sharing agreement of the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, this area of County Meath has rapidly become the most disputed terrain in the country. Even the nearby scene of the Battle of the Boyne, where in 1690 William of Orange defeated James II to reassert English Protestant rule over Ireland, and which was visited recently by Ian Paisley and Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in a spirit of great joviality, joshing and gift-giving, is now likely to be relegated to the status of theme park.
What makes the Tara-Skryne Valley so special is not only the battle once fought there, but a remarkably high concentration of ceremonial monuments including the Hill of Tara itself, which was, and is, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.
Archaeologists calculate that the oldest of the monuments, the Mound of the Hostages, was raised in about 3000 B.C., thus making it roughly contemporaneous with the construction of Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. This monument contains a chamber in which, at the festivals of Imbolc (Feb. 1) and Samhain (Nov. 1), the rising sun is perfectly aligned, just as at the winter solstice in the great passage tomb at nearby Newgrange, a shaft of sunlight penetrates the inner sanctum of a massive mound whose white quartz facade is glisteningly reminiscent of the Portland stone of the Parliament buildings in Belfast.
Also nearby is the Hill of Slane, on which St. Patrick is reputed to have lighted a fire to get the attention of King Laoghaire and begin to obscure the light of the sun god with the light of God the Son. It was from the Mound of the Hostages that the coronation stone of Laoghaire and countless other Irish kings, the six-foot-tall, phallic Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, was moved to the nearby memorial honoring the 500 or so United Irishmen who died at the Battle of Tara Hill.
Some believe that the Stone of Scone, long used for the coronation of British monarchs, may also be traced back to Tara, having been removed by St. Columba to Scotland and thence to Westminster Abbey by Edward I.
And it was at Tara in 1843 that the political leader Daniel O’Connell, known as “the Liberator,” spoke to an estimated million people — the largest of a series of “monster meetings,” as they were termed — in support of Catholic Emancipation, the repeal of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and the restoration of the Irish Parliament. This location was chosen by O’Connell precisely because of its profound significance in the Irish psyche.
It’s an irony, then, that Prime Minister Ahern and the Fianna Fail government of the Republic of Ireland (the party name, which means “Soldiers of Destiny,” suggests an intimate relationship with the Stone of Destiny) have seemed to be standing by while the Tara-Skryne Valley is threatened with destruction by the building of a 70-mile motorway to ease the commute between County Meath and Dublin to the south.
The plan to build the M3 close to the Hill of Tara has been in place since 2002 and has already been widely condemned for what it is: cultural vandalism. To quote a letter from a group of eminent American and British scholars published in The Irish Times recently, “Tara wasn’t just a site, but a landscape, a complex of monuments that, in combination with the topography, place names, mythology and history make this a uniquely well-preserved place of truly international importance.”
Yet, three weeks ago, the minister for transport, Martin Cullen, officially “turned the sod” on the motorway in County Meath. Within 24 hours, however, it was announced that in Lismullen, right in the path of the motorway, there was the site of a 3,500-year-old structure similar to Stonehenge, though made of wooden pillars, and covering an area the size of three football fields. The minister for the environment, Dick Roche, ordered work on the M3 stopped in light of the discovery of a national monument.
Leaving aside the issue that it’s only now that this discovery is being made (or only now revealed), the find should signal the need to reroute the M3 away from the Tara-Skryne Valley. But nothing is quite so simple in the new, emancipated Ireland. It turns out that there was a 2004 amendment to the National Monuments Act that allows the minister for the environment to demolish a national monument if he chooses.
So work continues on the motorway, if not precisely in the area of the henge, causing untold damage. Yesterday, I spoke with Muireann Ni Bhrolchain of the National University of Ireland and the Campaign to Save Tara who reported that on-site protesters have been attacked by construction workers.
The time has come for another “monster meeting” at Tara, one conducted, perhaps, by the new “Liberators” — Mr. McGuinness and Mr. Paisley. Earlier this month, at the Boyne battle site, Mr. Paisley gave a good-humored warning to Prime Minister Ahern that “you will have an invasion from Ulster on many occasions,” and it’s more likely than not, for example, that busloads of Ulster Loyalists will come south each July 12 to commemorate the Battle of Boyne.
It’s much less likely that Bertie Ahern would welcome Ian Paisley to the hill of Tara, since the prime minister has stood by while one of the chief glories of the country he purports to hold in safekeeping has been attacked.
The results of yesterday’s general election in the Republic of Ireland, in which Mr. Ahern is trying to return to power for a third term, are still unclear. What is clear, however, is that whichever government takes charge, one of its first responsibilities should be to preserve the fabric of a country that depends on cultural tourism.
It seems strange, to say the least, that the idea of the scene of the Battle of the Boyne as a tourist destination is being bandied about while Tara is being bulldozed. If Bertie Ahern does happen to be returned as prime minister, it’s still not too late for him and Fianna Fail to go down in history as the government that paved the way for a new era of Irish cooperation rather than the government that, at least with regard to Tara of the Kings, literally paved the way.