Hill of Tara
Tens of centuries ago, amid Ireland’s iconic green, rolling landscape, the kings of Ireland were anointed on a hill of tremendous importance—a place where spirituality met with royalty, and mythical traditions began. The Hill of Tara, one of the most revered spiritual sites in Ireland, is a place where druids held festivals, priestesses were trained and shaman’s rites were performed. Dating back to about 4000 B.C., Tara’s importance to the Irish has withstood the test of time, and has remained a place of political and spiritual significance to pre-Christian and Christian Irish society alike. Today, the historical and spiritual value of Tara’s landscape is at the forefront of media attention and national debate, as the Irish government has begun construction of a four-lane highway near Tara despite widespread protests. Activists have vocally and physically protested the motorway and continue to mount campaigns and seek legal actions to halt the road’s progress, which was 40 percent complete as of April 2008. As reported in the Irish Times, Julitta Clancy, former president of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, told an EU Parliament petitions committee, “In the past two and a half years we have witnessed the steady destruction of this uniquely important landscape—a destruction akin to the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.”
The Land and Its People
Tara is often referred to as the mythical and ceremonial heart of Ireland and has been likened to England’s Stonehenge and Egypt’s pyramids. Associated with the early legends of the most powerful Celtic god, Lub, and the goddess Medb, Tara was believed to be the entrance to the otherworld. The name Tara is derived from the Gaelic Teamhair na Rí which means the “the hill of the king.” The King of Tara was a sacral kingship, rather than a territorial seat; thus, the king was believed to be a link between the otherworld and humankind, and this honorable position was bestowed among the most supreme of provincial and local kingships of Ireland.
The archeological remains of stone structures, earthworks and burial mounds at Tara indicate the area’s role as a religious and political “axis mundi”—center of the world—in ancient Ireland. The most famous of Tara’s monuments is Ireland’s ancient coronation stone, the Lia Fáil or “Stone of Destiny,” which sits atop the King’s Seat. According to mythology, the Lia Fáil was brought to Tara by the Tuatha De Danann, the godlike people associated with the goddess Danu, and the stone was said to roar when touched by the rightful king of Tara. The oldest monument on the Hill of Tara, dating to about 2500 B.C. in the Neolithic period, is the Mound of Hostages, which was named according to the belief that kings retained subjects there to ensure their submission. However, later excavation revealed a small passage grave indicating the mound was instead an ancient burial ground.
With the advent of Christianity, Tara retained its role as a sacred site, even after Christian missionaries such as Saint Patrick came to Tara in the fifth century to convert the pagans who worshiped there. Although the sacral kingship of Tara subsequently declined, lists of the kings continued to be maintained and to play an important historical role. In addition to its religious and ceremonial importance, Tara was also the starting place of several military campaigns throughout the medieval and early modern period, including skirmishes related to Irish nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although there are a number of references to Tara in ancient Irish texts, the earliest archaeological excavation of Tara was not until the 1950s. The Discovery Programme, a government-funded archeological research institution, began excavations at Tara in 1992 using non-intrusive technologies. At the time, very little was known about Tara, especially in terms of the function of the monuments, their relationship to one another and the way the site was actually used. Today, visitors are able to see more than 30 monuments, but many more have been detected under the surface. Many are located some distance away from the Hill of Tara, indicating the cultural significance of the entire landscape. Tara is also part of a larger area of well-known Neolithic monuments including Loughcrew, Four Knocks, Uisneach and the UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Byrne Valley: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
The construction of the 37-mile-long M3 motorway, which would bisect the Tara-Skryne (Gabhra) Valley and run less than a mile from the Hill of Tara, earned the site a place on the World Monuments Watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites for 2008. The M3 is intended to alleviate traffic congestion for commuters in County Meath, who presently spend two or more hours traveling the 70 miles to Dublin. For the past several years, cultural and environmental preservation groups have been working diligently to halt or change the M3 project while the government and the National Roads Authority continue with construction as planned.
Opponents contend that the M3 threatens the cultural and spiritual value of the entire landscape, and they note that an estimated 140 to 1,000 related ancient sites in the surrounding valley remain uninvestigated. They also claim that alternatives that would circumvent Tara were never properly researched. For its part, the government says the highway is a key part of building national infrastructure for Ireland’s growing “Celtic Tiger” economy. It also stresses that choosing an alternative route at this point would cause delays of up to £200 million extra. Public opinion, however, favors finding an alternative that protects the landscape around Tara. According to a random survey conducted by the independent polling firm RedC Research in January 2008, “When asked directly, almost two thirds (62 percent) of all Irish adults agreed that the current format set down for the M3 is wrong, and that alternatives should be found to protect the heritage sites.”
In spring 2007, construction of the highway was temporarily halted after a prehistoric site was discovered at Lismullen, about 1.25 miles from the Hill of Tara. The circular enclosure, which is thought to have been a ritual site, is about 262 feet in diameter with a 52-foot round structure believed to have been a temple. Although officials from the National Roads Authority declared the Lismullen site a national monument, it did not provide the site protection in situ. Irish legislation introduced in 2004 allows for national monuments to be “destroyed” once they are excavated, if the environment minister deems it “in the public interest.” Opponents to the road openly questioned why the site at Lismullen was not identified in initial test trenching and archaeological surveys along the M3’s route prior to its approval. To the dismay of many activists and opponents to the road, in his final hours of office former Environment Minister Dick Roche approved the demolition of the Lismullen site, after removing the main artifacts, in order to continue the road’s construction.
In March 2008, M3 protestors chained themselves to equipment in underground tunnels in order to prevent the National Roads Authority from continuing its work. While construction did halt for some days near the Rath Lugh National Monument, a famous archaeological site about 1.5 miles from the Hill of Tara, construction proceeded with approval from current Environment Minister John Gormley. Currently, activists remain near Rath Lugh and report that construction has done damage to the monument. The Irish High Court, however, recently rejected an application from a protestor for an injunction to stop work near Rath Lugh due to breaches of the National Monuments Act.
Opponents of the M3 have called on the European Parliament and the European Commission to intervene by asking the Irish government to review its plans and conduct an independent investigation into the highway’s impact on the Tara landscape. Campaigners first approached the commission for help in June 2005. The commission subsequently determined that the road construction violated EU law governing environmental impact assessments; however, it has yet to actually submit a case before the European Court of Justice, and that delay has allowed the Irish government and the Roads Authority to continue construction. On April 2, 2008, campaigners came before the EU Parliament’s petitions committee to resolve the problem. An EU Commission spokesman said the commission would be submitting an application to the court in the coming months; however, he said the commission did not have the authority to halt construction in the interim, as road opponents had hoped.
In April 2008, Environment Minister Gormley announced his intention to include the Hill of Tara in a “tentative list” of candidate sites to be submitted to UNESCO for consideration for World Heritage status. He said initiatives would be implemented to protect the landscape and prevent commercial sprawl along the M3, and that these measures would enable the Tara-Skyrne area to meet the strict World Heritage criteria. Opponents of the motorway, however, expressed fears that commercial and industrial zoning restrictions would be difficult to apply in areas near motorway junctions, noting that a major interchange is located only a mile from the hill.
Campaigners to save the Tara-Skyrne Valley have also proposed a solution that would designate the area as a World Heritage site. The Meath MASTER Plan, introduced in August 2007, 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. Proponents of the plan say it would solve the M3’s current EU legal issues, avoid the need to reroute, preserve the region’s cultural heritage and be a model of sustainable economic development in Ireland. According to the RedC survey, when presented with two options—to keep the M3 route as planned or to opt for the MASTER Plan—58 percent of adults supported the new solution, while less 31 percent said they would prefer to keep the M3 as planned.
What You Can Do
Learn more about the issue and keep abreast of new developments by visiting the websites for the Save Tara campaign and TaraWatch. You can sign an online petition addressed to Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and join the network of Tara activists through MySpace and Facebook. You can also get involved with the New York-based World Monument Fund, which is working to protect Tara and other endangered sites.
Bhreathnach, Edel. “Tara: Ceremonial and Mythical Capital of Ireland.” SaveTara.com.
Crowley Guckian, Brian Tadgh. “New Sustainable Development Plan for Meath Provides Way Out for M3 Legal Issues.” News release, April 29, 2007. (PDF)
Lobell, Jarrett A. “Lismullin Henge, Tara, Ireland.” Archeology 61, no. 1, 2008.
Melia, Paul and Treacy Hogan. “EU accused of failing to halt ‘Taliban destruction’ of Tara.” Irish Independent, April 2, 2008.
O’Brien, Tim. “M3 not to stop Tara getting world status, says Gormley.” The Irish Times, April 11, 2008.
O’Halloran, Marie. “Gormley pledges to release entire file on Lismullen site.” The Irish Times, June 28, 2007.
Owen, James. “Ancient ‘Royal Temple’ Discovered in Path of Ireland Highway.” National Geographic News, May 15, 2007.
Pollard, Penny. Personal communication, 2008.
RedC Research.“Tara/Skyrne Valley National Public Opinion Survey.”
RTE News. “Temporary preservation order at Tara.” RTE News, October 2, 2007.
Smyth, Jamie. “Tara campaigners appeal at EU level.” The Irish Times, April 2, 2008.
Smyth, Jamie. “EU to take action over handling of Tara route for M3.” The Irish Times, October 17, 2007.
World Monuments Fund. “Tara Hill, Ireland.” World Monuments Watch.
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Report by: Kirstin Henninger
Thanks to: Penny Pollard for reviewing the text prior to publication.
Posted on: May 15, 2008
Updated on: May 15, 2008
Country: Republic of Ireland