The Hill of Tara

Preserving the Sacred: Ireland’s Struggle to Protect the Hill of Tara

An aerial view of the Hill of Tara and its surrounding landscape.

The sacred Hill of Tara is one of most precious historical sites in Northern Europe. The site has been referred to as “the mythical and ceremonial heart of Ireland and has been likened to England’s Stonehenge and Egypt’s pyramids” (Henninger). The Hill of Tara began as “a place where kings were anointed, druids held festivals, priestesses were trained and shaman’s rites were performed” (Henninger). In addition, Irish mythology denotes the site as the entrance to the otherworld. Rather than territorial, the kingship of Tara was a sacral kingship, for the Irish people regarded the king of Tara as king of the world. The king provided the Irish people with a link between humankind and the otherworld (Bhreathnach). In more recent times the Hill of Tara has become a starting point for several military campaigns, including 18th and 19th century battles related to Irish nationalism. Even more noteworthy is the fact that monuments pervade the area surrounding the Hill of Tara, pointing to the cultural significance of the entire landscape. Today, visitors are able to see more than 30 monuments, with more under the surface. Unfortunately, the Irish government has commenced construction of a 37-mile-long motorway that would “bisect the Tara-Skryne Valley and run less than a mile from the Hill of Tara” (Henninger). In order to protect the site from contamination, cultural and environmental preservation groups are working hard to halt the progress of the motorway.

A map showing the route of the M3 motorway (blue).

The government proposed the construction of the M3 motorway in order to “alleviate traffic congestion for commuters in County Meath” (Henninger), so that the daily travelers would not have to spend two or more hours on the 70-mile journey to Dublin. In this sense, the government intends the motorway to benefit the Irish people. The Irish people, however, would rather not desecrate the sacred land surrounding the Hill of Tara. The independent polling firm RedC Research conducted a random survey in 2008 and discovered that “when asked directly, almost two thirds (62 percent) of all Irish adults agreed that the current format set down from the M3 is wrong, and that alternatives should be found to protect the heritage sites” (qtd. in Henninger). Unfortunately for the Irish public, the Irish government introduced legislation in 2004 that states that if the environment minister deems it “in the public interest,” national monuments can be “destroyed” once they are excavated (qtd. in Henninger). Protesters also actively question why the archaeological surveys along the M3’s proposed route did not account for historical sites such as the prehistoric site of Lismullen, which was approved for destruction in Environment Minister Dick Roche’s last hours of office. The government, however, believes that “the highway is a key part of building national infrastructure for Ireland’s growing ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy” (Henninger).

Campaigners for TaraWatch have undertaken many endeavors to protect the Tara landscape, such as chaining themselves to work equipment and appealing to the European Union for support. In an attempt to compromise, the activists proposed the Meath MASTER Plan in 2007, which would “Retain the M3 on either side of the valley, while upgrading the current road within the valley to a ‘2+1’ lane solution—a lane running in each direction, along with a passing lane—rather than a motorway. A rail link and increased bus service would be part of this plan as well, cutting traffic and carbon emissions” (Henninger). The MASTER Plan, if accepted by the government, would also solve the M3’s current EU legal issues, namely that the construction of the M3 motorway violates EU law regarding environmental assessments. The MASTER Plan, proponents say, avoids the need to reroute, preserves the region’s cultural heritage and would exist as a model of sustainable economic development in Ireland. According to the RedC survey, when given the choice, 58 percent of adults prefer the MASTER Plan and less than 31 percent support the continuation of the M3 motorway (Henninger).

The Stone of Destiny. The stone was said to roar when the rightful king of Tara touched it.

In April 2010, the Irish government submitted the Hill of Tara, which joined the World Monuments Watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites for 2008, to UNESCO for inclusion in its list of World Heritage Sites (Henninger; Melia, “Magnificent Seven”). Controversy surrounded the nomination, however, because even though the site was included in the list sent to UNESCO, many have claimed that the Irish government has not done their part to protect the site. Environment Minister John Gormley, who in the meantime has not halted the construction of the M3 motorway, has fallen under heavy criticism. In addition, the Irish government has enacted plans to build a bypass (N2 Slane) 500m away from another nominated site, the Newgrange-Brú na Bóinne complex (Carty). Although the UNESCO nominations seem to point to the government’s desire to preserve the sites, their subsequent actions regarding the M3 motorway and the N2 Slane bypass suggest otherwise.

In an attempt to preserve the sanctity of the Tara landscape without sacrificing the M3 plans, in 2009 the Irish government devised a protection plan for the area. Environment Minister John Gormley announced that the Tara-Skryne Valley would be designated as a Special Conservation Area, so that it will be difficult to develop along the motorway. In an official statement, Gormley said, “This will ensure that the very negative sort of development associated with motorways will not impinge on the area . . . the sort of motorway development we’ve seen in the past, the BQs, that would not be acceptable” (qtd. in Kelly). The Irish government is also drafting a new National Monument’s Act, which should increase the protection for national monuments in Ireland (Kelly). According to Gormley, ”For those of us who spent years trying to protect Tara, the work (M3) exposed serious weaknesses in our legislation. Protecting the landscape is something we want to see. No one wants to freeze the landscape, just manage change” (Melia, “Shops and Malls”). The new National Monuments Act, once drafted and passed, should ensure that no roadwork takes place in areas abundant in archaeological sites (Melia, “Shops and Malls”).

Demonstrators gather to protest the construction of the M3 Motorway.

Even though the struggle still continues for the Irish people to preserve their sacred land from desecration by the government, their fight for the Hill of Tara and other historical sites has resulted in favorable legislation for the preservation of Irish heritage. Cherished for roughly 6000 years as the “ceremonial and mythical capital of Ireland” (Bhreathnach), the Hill of Tara represents much of Irish heritage and culture. The fight for its preservation continues, but activists have made great strides in offering it the protection that they feel it deserves. Not only has the conflict over the M3 motorway resulted in more protection for the Tara-Skryne Valley, but it has also led to conservation efforts and legislation that guard the other sites of historical value. When speaking on the establishment of the Tara-Skryne Valley as a Landscape Conservation Area, Environment Minister John Gormley summarized the value of fighting to preserve sacred land when he noted, “This is the first landscape conservation area ever. We have to learn lessons from the past, there’s no question mistakes have been made and mistakes must be rectified” (qtd. in Melia, “Shops and Malls”).

~Casey Elkins

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Works Cited

Bhreathnach, Edel. “Tara: Ceremonial and Mythical Capital of Ireland.” saveTara.com. Ríocht na Midhe. Web. 28 November 2011.

Carty, Ed. “Government Accused Over Heritage List.” saveTara.com. Metro-Herald, 15 April 2010. Web. 29 November 2011.

Henninger, Kirstin. “Hill of Tara.” Sacred Land Film Project. Earth Island Institute, 15 May 2008. Web. 28 November 2011.

Kelly, Olivia. “New Rules To Protect Tara Area.” saveTara.com. The Irish Times, 18 July 2009. Web. 29 November 2011.

Melia, Paul. “Magnificent Seven Battle For World Heritage Honour.” saveTara.com. The Irish Independent, 14 April 2010. Web. 29 November 2011.

Melia, Paul. “Shops And Malls To Be Banned At Historic Tara Site.” saveTara.com. The Irish Independent, 18 July 2009. Web. 29 November 2011.

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