Conference PaperPDF Available

In the way of development: Tara, the M3 and the Celtic Tiger



Interrogates the circumstances and wider context of the construction of the M3 motorway through the Tara landscape, and critiquing, inter alia, the fallout arising from the narrow definition of archaeology that was promulgated to facilitate the construction of the motorway, as well as issues around cultural amnesia of the type that arose in Celtic Tiger Ireland (a term coined for the over-heated Irish economy c. 2002-8). The paper also summarises the case for the existence of an extended landscape associated with Tara. Note: copyright for the original publication rests with MUP; this version represents the penultimate draft. Pagination is incorrect. Published pagination is 33-50.
In the Way of Development: Tara, the M3 and the Celtic Tiger
Conor Newman
The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of
earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century (Hobsbawm,
1994: 3).
My wife and I were fortunate to attend the reception in Dublin Castle to celebrate the
inauguration of Michael D. Higgins as President of Ireland. There we fell into conversation
with an affable and impressive young man who in reply to our asking whether he had been at
the ceremony earlier that day said that he hadn’t but instead had taken himself off to Tara to
offer a prayer for the new president. He felt that it was the right place to make such a gesture.
Lots of people go to Tara to pray. Indeed, I would guess that more than half of its thousands
of visitors are drawn there by a sense of its deep religious pedigree and are mindful that it is a
place where one can meditate on timeless, universal questions and perhaps attune to an
historical and more anciently-earthed order as others have done for countless generations.
They go there because of the noble principles that Tara stands for: secularisation has
diminished neither the need nor the appetite for spirituality and cultural authenticity. The
collapse of the moral and intellectual authority of so many of the traditional institutions in the
state seems, in fact, to have accelerated a trend in behaviour that was already evident to those
of us who study ancient religious monuments, namely a popular return to such sites to
embrace and bathe in the serenity that comes from being in a place that symbolises genuine
and enduring spiritual, moral and historical integrity.
Tara is such a place.
On August 25th 2003 An Bórd Pleanála gave the go ahead for the M3 motorway to be
built along the Gabhra Valley, through the Tara landscape. The circumstances and
controversy surrounding this decision has since become emblematic of the loss of compass
that characterised ‘Celtic Tiger Ireland; its corporate recklessness, Three Monkeys
regulation blind, deaf and mute cheerleader-style economic and spatial policy, and,
above all, cultural amnesia. Money became king and nouveau-riche profligacy became the
public face of ‘modern’ Ireland. Significant changes in values and behaviour occurred during
those years and serious damage was done to the institutions of democratic governance from a
decade-long diet of spin-doctored sound-bites masquerading as public debate and political
answerability. The influence over the body politic enjoyed by a small coterie of powerful
developer-businessmen and financiers reached its grotesque nadir in the infamous ‘Galway
Tent’. One of the more pernicious legacies of this period, however, is, as Hobsbawm (1994:
3) observed, the extent to which the relevance and value of knowledge of the past was
undermined by utilitarianism and a fundamentally flawed model of modernity and of 21st
century Ireland.
No caption needed (copyright: thepaddie)
This chapter considers some of the circumstances that permitted a motorway to be
built through such a historic landscape. It argues that its context was the illusion of an
ahistorical, of-the-moment modernity that arose during a perfect storm’ when the sudden
availability of cheap money from the creation of the Eurozone encountered a political
landscape of soft regulation, clientelism and ideological torpor: in short an intellectual ghost-
The campaign to reroute the motorway, which lasted for nigh on a decade, took place
against this background. If column inches are indicative of the scale and significance of an
issue or event, apart from the development boom itself, the M3 controversy was one of the
biggest news items of the period between 1999 and 2009. Even though there were arguments
that challenged the rationale for yet another motorway through Meath, the campaign was not
about halting the M3 but re-directing it away from the historic landscape of Tara.
Sacralisation and desacralisation: a brief account
It is probably fair to say that when the motorway was first mooted most people’s sense of
Tara was formed strolling amongst the monuments on the state-owned land on the crown of
the Hill of Tara. Although the existence of a wider archaeological landscape was and is
referred to in the audio-visual show in the Visitor’s Centre and in a guidebook (Bhreathnach
and Newman, 1995; Newman, 1997; Newman, 2005; Newman, 2011) it lay beyond the reach
and experience of the visitor. Instead, it was and mostly still is the views from Tara
that are trumpeted (Newman 2007). This fixation reduces its wider landscape to a mere
aesthetic backdrop and opens the door to the fallacy that as long as the motorway is not
visible from the Hill of Tara then it hasn’t impacted on it.
The monumental record at Tara stretches back nearly 6000 years and far beyond the
summit of the hill. The earliest written account of the complex, Dinshenchas Eireann
(Petrie, 1839), redacting texts as old as the 7th century, includes references to monuments and
natural features at the bottom of the hill. What makes this place so special is that it retained
its significance throughout the millennia, and by the centuries either side of the Birth of
Christ it had become the focus of what is known as sacral or world kingship. The pedigree of
world kingship at Tara is Indo-European. Based around the sacrament of hieros gamos
(sacral marriage between man and sovereignty goddess), it is redolent with motifs of
liminality (MacGoilla Easpaig, 2005), equinity, sacred drinks, fire ceremonies, taboos,
ceremonial regicide, and so on. These aspects are preserved in documentary sources,
archaeology and placenames. For instance, the stream flowing between the symbolically
binal hills of Tara and Skryne (aka Skreen) is the Gabhra, which means ‘white mare’; thus
linking in to the ancient Indo-European tradition of the sovereignty goddess manifesting as a
horse ( Chatháin, 1991; Doherty, 2005; Oaks, 1986). The demesnes associated with world
kingship are typically cosmographical, i.e. they are conceived and developed as analogues of
the cosmos, and are imbued with mythological significance that is reflected in placenames
and in the way monuments are positioned relative to notable natural features (Newman,
2011). The land itself is sometimes conceived of as the body of a deity. The association of
Tara with such an institution, coupled with its advantageous geographical position, good soils
and benevolent climate, meant that it enjoyed superior status throughout the medieval period
(Bhreathnach, 1996a; 1996b; 2005), being associated with the Uí Néill kings of Southern
Brega, decisive battles, and so forth. The ‘footprint’ of the earlier, sacral landscape is
preserved in the later royal demesne, or ferann ríg, of the early medieval kings of Tara
(Bhreathnach, 1996c; 1999). Based on this long pedigree it commanded particular
importance throughout the early modern period as a symbol of Irish nationhood, and was
described by W. B. Yeats (et al. 1902) as probably the most consecrated spot in Ireland.
In 1992 the Discovery Programme embarked on a major research project at Tara. Central to
its findings was the re-identification of the sacral and historical landscape of Tara. The M3
motorway cuts that landscape in two, prompting Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney to declare in
a BBC Ulster documentary, ‘Tar on Tara’:
it literally desecrates an area [..] the word means to de-sacralise, and for centuries the Tara
landscape and the Tara sites have been regarded as part of the sacred ground (Fleming, 2008)
The legacy
The M3 is now a permanent fixture in the landscape and will, for decades if not centuries to
come, affect peoples’ lives in the Meath area, shape spatial development and influence how
this landscape is experienced. In the shorter term it will continue to be a significant drain on
public finances. Negotiated into its Public Private Partnership (PPP) contract is a revenue-
guarantee provision to compensate the private partner if pre-agreed thresholds of traffic are
not achieved annually until 2025. In 2012 the compensation payment was €6.7m from the
public purse (Comptroller and Auditor General, 2011). It is unlikely that the gap between
predicted and actual traffic levels will close during the lifetime of this clause seeing that the
modelling suggested a 2.5 per cent year-on-year increase in traffic volume. Given
unemployment and the contraction of household budgets which is forcing drivers back onto
the toll-free N3 (Murphy, 2012), the gap may well widen. If it remains consistent the bill for
2025 alone will come in around €12.83m, bringing the total cumulative cost of the
compensation package (not including 2011’s payments) to €140.64m. If there is no increase
in real traffic volume between now and 2025 the total cumulative bill will be closer to
€216m, almost exactly one-third of the pre-construction estimates of cost for the whole
Commenting on the liabilities arising from this and the Limerick Tunnel, Transport
Minister Leo Varadkar (2012) explained the purpose of these clauses: [T]o enhance the
fundability of these projects and obtain competitive funding terms to the benefit of the
taxpayer. Perhaps it is to credit Dr Varadkar, who was not in government at the time, with
too refined a sense of irony to suggest that his phrasing is a mischievous return to the
nonsensical political idiom of the Celtic Tiger era. He is undoubtedly aware that the terms of
these contracts were based on the same Never-Never-Land economics that drove the Irish
economy and its passengers into the barren wastelands of ghost estates, negative equity and
bad banks (see Dukelow, this volume). When the M3 controversy was raging the ‘property
bubble was in full spate and government and media alike were enthralled to celebrity
bankers, developers and economists. Their talk was of solid underlying fundamentals, soft
landings and international envy (see Lenihan; Dukelow; this volume). That the economy was
overheated and over-reliant on the construction sector was common knowledge but the body
politic had no appetite to apply measures to cool it down. Instead, those who expressed
concerns were subjected to sometimes quite vituperative attacks by government and media
commentators as irresponsible, politically motivated or just plain wrong. Those of us
campaigning on the side of historical culture in the face of such dramatic changes to Irish
landscapes, townscapes and life-style choices were even further off-script.
I don’t know who was there five thousand years ago [..] but somewhere along the way you
have to come to an end of a process (Taoiseach Bertie Ahern speaking about the
controversy, January 2005, in Doyle, 2005).
A clash between a new era and old values, the M3 symbolised the knife that would
cut the leathery umbilicus tethering bold, new, materially-rich Ireland to the corpse of old,
impoverished, historically-enslaved Ireland. The valorisation of instantaneous wealth and
celebrity represented a brash challenge to historic, pre-Millennium Ireland, giving birth to the
fallacy that by liberating itself from the shackles of history this benighted generation was
somehow also self-inoculating against the possibility of economic downturn. When prudence
was called for we got steely political and institutional determination to keep this gravy train
going, plough through the naysayers and speak up the promise of unending economic growth.
Campaigns of the magnitude of the one surrounding the M3 motorway are complex
and multifaceted; a loose alliance of concerned citizens organising petitions, protest marches,
letters, position papers, gatherings, etc. They have multiple defining moments. Though their
outcome may ultimately be decided in the Dáil or Seanad, at Oireachtas Committees or even
in the courts, of absolutely crucial importance is how these different strands are mediated by
the press and on the airwaves. These opinion-shapers exist in a hierarchy, with radio and TV
probably exerting greater influence on public opinion than print media. Throughout the M3
campaign there was a palpable sense that dealing in the currency of sound-bites, many
national broadcasters were paralysed when faced with the apparent complexity of
archaeological and historical arguments against the route of the motorway. Even more
depressing was the way broader, philosophical concerns were totally ignored. In this
respect, TV and national radio coverage trailed far behind the print media in terms of
penetrative and reflective analysis. While more systematic assessment than has been
possible here may prove otherwise, it seems that arguments against the proposed motorway
route achieved greater purchase amongst print journalists than they did in broadcast
journalism. In the long run, however, the latter may have been the more important
Regardless, the starting point in all such debates is a priori familiarity; the extent to
which the pump is already primed; which in this case meant the familiar experience of traffic
jams versus the unfamiliar one of historic landscapes; the tangible value of a promised
reduction in commuting times between Navan and Dublin versus the intangible relevance of a
place with historical associations. Stated simply, even though the existence of Tara’s wider
historic landscape had been published (Bhreathnach and Newman, 1995) and acclaimed as an
important breakthrough in our understanding of Tara as early as 1995, it had not yet
translated into public awareness or a tangible aspect of a visit to Tara or for that matter
residency there. The general concept of heritage landscapes was not yet embedded in public
consciousness as a normative dimension of public heritage in Ireland, despite being one of
the most significant paradigms in cultural geography, heritage management and social
science for at least a quarter century. Had, for instance, this aspect of the Brú na Bóinne
World Heritage Site been understood, encouraged and grown from the get-go a fuller
understanding of the co-dependency of landscape and monument might have emerged,
leading to a better appreciation of the why of safeguarding different aspects of the wider
landscape context and bringing us closer to genuine shared stewardship. Instead, the initial
delivery was characterised by an obsession around the passage tombs, in particular
Newgrange, and fixation on the Neolithic aspects of the landscape, fuelling perceptions that
the only reason one might want to go there was to access the five-and-a-half thousand years
old corbelled chamber. But the Boyne Valley has so much more to offer, and likewise Tara,
where the best kept secret is that the monuments on the state-owned land on the crown of the
hill are only a taster of what this beautiful and historic landscape has to offer. Commendable
and imaginative efforts are now beginning to draw out the educational and leisure
opportunities present at both places and to reverse some of the negative consequences of the
systematic compartmentalisation of what have been decreed as the iconic aspects of the
landscape, namely the monuments.
Compartmentalisation is out of step with best international practice, e.g. the Council
of Europe’s European Landscape Convention (2000) and Framework Convention on the
Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (2005). It runs contrary to common sense which
recognises that relic landscapes exist in living landscapes: landscapes are temporal mosaics of
natural and cultural elements that, because they bear the handprints of by-gone generations,
are also pages of our own history book. The past work of women and men preserved in the
fields, burial grounds, villages and towns around us represents a unique and irreplaceable
historical inscription and contributes enormously to the character of places. The values
memorialised and newly forged amongst these are dynamic; consequently managing the
historic dimension of the landscape is about navigating and negotiating the processes of
change so that values that are of agreed and enduring significance are not unwittingly or
unknowingly undermined by the destruction of the antiquities and places that provide access
to them or are their touchstones.
Such is also good social policy because the connections that people maintain with
places are fundamental to human well-being. The combination of tangible and intangible
attachments to physical things that makes up places manifests in cartographies of the familiar,
of home (Baek, 2013). The temporalities of the landscape, on the other hand, the presence of
the past and the presence of absences that impart a sense of pastness, provide a kind of
existential bulwark against social displacement and assume even greater importance in the
context of aging populations. Attachment to place is always historical; it always has time-
depth. Vestiges of the past are not just portals to historical knowledge and remembrance,
they are of ontological importance and thus play a primary role in place- and community-
making. Temporality is the keystone of place-making: it takes time to make a place, literally
and ontologically. Our investment in place is so thorough that reciprocal imprinting occurs
between ourselves and the world we inhabit. As long as we ignore this dimension of human
behaviour, changes to inhabited landscapes will give rise to displacement.
Reflection on the patina and stratigraphy of time and history on the landscape is a
recurring theme in the contemplative arts, resulting in a significant and important
compendium of poetry, literature, art and music over the centuries. Likewise, analysis of the
historical record, in its fullest sense, is a crucial action in the name of self-knowledge and is
central to any civilised society. Consideration of the ontological values of the time-depth or
temporality of landscape, however, is rare nowadays outside of the world of metaphysics
even though it seems to have been a preoccupation of many early cultures, albeit focused
through a mythopoeic lens. It also occupies a central position in particular in Heidegger’s
proposition that the empirical intuitions of space and time are foundational to being-in-place,
vis-à-vis the relationship between humans and the world around them, what Berque (2000)
refers to as écoumène. Because we so rarely consider its value from this perspective we
render the historical record susceptible to categorisation as a dispensable add-on to modern
living. Given that temporality is essential, and that our consciousness of time-depth issues
forth from, inter alia, encountering the things around us, care and attentiveness to temporal
inscriptions in the landscape are axiomatic to our well-being as a species. All of these
aspects of the historicized world blend together to inform its phenomenal (in a Husserlian
sense) value. But it is a complex blend and one not easily communicated, which is perhaps
why metaphor and symbol are often more effective vehicles for circling the idea. Many of
the values of landscape are lost in translation from poïetic to scientific language. The
qualities of ambivalence and multivalence so crucial to poïetic discourse about landscape
represent both strength and weakness. While they are sensitive to the synaptic and protean
nature of the relationship between people and place, too often to decision-makers they signify
romantic idealism instead of empirical cogency, the sort of stuff, putting it crudely, that is
‘soft’ around the edges, defies mapping and measurement and is anathema to one-size-fits-all
regulatory guidelines. Thus are the lines drawn.
This shortcoming is by no means peculiar to Ireland. Even bodies charged with and
successful at heritage conservation falter when it comes to articulating analytical theses in
support of their remit. The autumn 2012 issue of the American National Parks Service
quarterly Common Ground, comes with a supplementary booklet entitled The Keys to
Preserving America’s Heritage: (1) stewardship, (2) relevance, (3) education, (4) workforce.
Stewardship gets about 2 ¾ pages, education about the same, but relevance gets only 12 lines
(Anon, 2012). The complex challenge of parsing metaphysical concepts into plain English
notwithstanding, if we are not alive to all of the reasons why such things are important we
expose ourselves to the perils of compartmentalised thinking and unilateral decisions. In
contrast, in the summer 2003 issue of the same journal Jarvis’s editorial reflects on the high
calling of the Parks Service voiced by speakers at the Discovery 2000 Conference, St. Louis,
Missouri. They declared that it was the Service’s task to make this great experiment in
democracy succeed (Jarvis, 2003: 2): referring to a genre of stewardship that combines
research, interpretation and education, Jarvis observes,
‘[T]he fact that the great places of history, and their associated resources and stories,
have been placed in our care [..] carries with it a great responsibility beyond mere caretaking.
In our care are the places where our democratic society has evolved, exploded, retreated and
He (2003; 2) thus affirms that the aggregate of places in care and the stories that they
embody create the foundation of our democracy. It is incumbent on us, as the stewards, to
make that connection. As exemplified with the M3 controversy, this chapter argues that
during its final years at the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government the
Heritage Services set itself a far less ambitious role.
The true weakness of compartmentalised thinking was revealed during the Celtic
Tiger years by the absence of resistance from the body politic to commoditization of land, a
phenomenon that utterly undermined the sense of landscape as enriched, shared, human
habitus. Driven by profit-first agendas, such thinking de-coupled ordinary people from the
landscape, clearing the way for some unconscionable planning decisions. It would be unfair
on those years, however, to suggest that every development project was a sociological failure.
Quite the opposite in fact, which goes to show that good design, good architecture and the
development of integrated, coherent, people-friendly places was not beyond our ken, it is just
that too often good planning capitulated to quick profit. My sense, however, is that the post-
boom crisis has weakened the grip of this ideology, replacing it with a desire to reclaim
Ireland, its landscape and a model of inclusive, participatory citizenship.
But this is now and that was then. Developers ruled and motorways opened up more
green fields for development than any other government policy. The key to profiting from
road building was not in buying land on the route of a motorway; which would in any case be
compulsorily purchased; but to acquire land around the exits and interchanges, land ripe for
housing estates, industrial parks, services and shopping centres. A glance at the property
pages of newspapers during the Celtic Tiger years reveals the appetite for development land
with ready access to the motorway network. Proximity to Dublin and Navan, which was
growing exponentially, turned the M3 into a potential cash cow (Lee, 2005). Between this
demand, traffic modelling to identify the configuration that would maximize traffic draw off
existing roads onto the new motorway, and cost benefit return (i.e. tolls), the ‘emerging
preferred route’ became very quickly fixed. Private partners would want to invest only in the
configuration that maximised potential toll revenues, and land-owning developers, having
invested in the land, would not want to see the route changed either.
Such are the commercial opportunities and machinations surrounding developments
of this nature. The case of the M3, however, was different in one crucial respect; the chosen
route passed through the archaeological, historical and mythologized landscape of Tara. One
might reasonably expect that the state’s regulatory body, the Heritage Services, would have a
lot to say about that, that it would prepare a dossier, and that it would either stand over or
critique the research that demonstrated the heightened importance of this landscape. But this
watchdog did not bark. As far as can be ascertained, no dossier of any substance was
prepared. Signing off on the archaeological methodology agreed with the National Roads
Authority (NRA), the state service in effect put its imprimatur on testing followed by
excavation as an appropriate conservation measure in respect of these monuments and this
landscape. This illustrates the very narrow definition of conservation and heritage
management, by international standards, adopted by the Heritage Services at this time. One
would be forgiven for thinking that rather than seeing it from the perspective of a motorway
threatening a landscape and its monuments it was the other way around, the monuments
represented an impediment to a motorway and the role of the Heritage Services was to
facilitate the latter. Moreover, contrary to pronouncements about the exceptionally close
scrutiny and exacting archaeological constraints applying in this development (Minister Dick
Roche, RTÉ News, 2005), the archaeological conditions that were imposed were quite
routine. In any case, applauding the archaeological methodology is to miss the point which is
that excavation ahead of development was an utterly inadequate and inappropriate action in
respect of the conservation management of this unique cultural resource.
The Heritage Services collectively refers to three offices: National Parks and Wildlife,
Built Heritage and Architectural Policy, and National Monuments. The extent to which the
three offices work in concert, as best international practice would expect and advocate, has
varied historically. To encourage an integrated approach to heritage management on the part
of the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, the former minister Michael D. Higgins
combined these functions into one executive agency called Dúchas. Assembled as such,
however, this triad seems to have posed too coherent and united a front on behalf of heritage
and was duly dismantled by a subsequent Minister in the Department of the Environment,
Heritage and Local Government, Martin Cullen. He also ushered in a series of extraordinary
amendments to the National Monuments Act (Newman 2007: 83-4). Described by Cullen as
‘rationalisations’, they were designed to ease the passage of development projects through the
planning process and fend off appeals and objections. The now infamous provision
conferring on the Minister authority to order the destruction of a National Monument - paving
the way for the removal of the National Monument at Lismullin which was located on the M3
route - detracted attention from what is surely one of the worst cases of malign and vindictive
engineering of the legislature. Section (3) of the 2004 amendment of the National
Monuments Acts reads as follows:
Where an archaeological object is found as a consequence of work undertaken by Dun
Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council relating to work on the South Eastern Route, then
section 8 of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1994 shall not apply to the land
or any premises under which or in the vicinity of which the archaeological object has
been found. (emphasis added)
The relevant section of the 1994 Act says:
8. (1) Where the finding of an archaeological object has been reported to the Director or
a designated person under the provisions of the National Monuments Acts, 1930 to 1994,
the Director may inspect, or cause to be inspected by a designated person, the land or
premises under which or in the vicinity of which the said object has been found.
(2) The Director or a designated person may enter on any lands or premises and there do
all such things as may be reasonably necessary for performing his functions under the
National Monuments Acts, 1930 to 1994, including carrying out an inspection or
excavation where the Director considers that an archaeological object or the site thereof
is in immediate danger of destruction or decay.
(3) No person shall impede the Director or a designated person in the exercise of his
functions under this section.
The back-story to this is that the National Museum of Ireland had publicly queried the
position adopted by the National Monuments Service (NMS) over Carrickmines Castle which
stood in the way of part of the South Eastern Route of the M50 motorway in Dublin. The
exception created in the 2004 amendment effectively debarred the National Museum of
Ireland from further interference and removed the prohibition against impeding the director
of the Museum from entering the land.
Martin Cullen’s legacy was to steer heritage management through an 180˚ turn and drive
it in the opposite direction to all international best practice and recommendations.
United they stand, divided they fall
From what little there is available to read on the NMS’s response to the impact of the M3
motorway it seems that most of its observations concerned excavation and recording
methodologies. No real cognisance was taken of the historical, literary or mythological
record or to the manner in which, as discussed already, such remain attached to and enrich the
landscape. For the NMS and, as we shall see, the NRA this was about a narrow definition of
archaeology and individualised archaeological sites. This is evidenced most starkly in the
spread-sheet supplied by the NMS but completed by the NRA in respect of values attaching
to sites where archaeological material had been found during test trenching along the route of
the M3. Its main purpose being to identify monuments/sites meriting National Monument
status, fourteen criteria are listed (more than half of which do not feature in the definition of a
National Monument in the 1930 Act). In all 38 cases under headings of ‘Historical
Significance’ and ‘Cultural Significance; distinctions that are highly dubious in the first
place; the values are listed as ‘NONE’. Likewise, to the question Group Value/Relationship
with other Monuments’, the verdict is ‘NONE’ in every case. Under the heading
Known/Informed Archaeological Potential the answers are more variable but consequently
serve only to create the fallacy of sites having archaeological potential but no cultural value.
Absurdity aside, this latter speaks to the separation of archaeology and archaeological values
from the mainstream of scientific research into and management of the interwoven complex
of assets and values that is heritage. As argued in the final section of this chapter, this
seperation evolved into an isolation that has damaged the standing of archaeology.
We will probably never know the influence the spread-sheet exerted on the NMSs
deliberations. Had the form been filled out by the Heritage Services some independent value
might be claimed but the fact that it is the work of the NRA suggests that it has none. Would
that this was an isolated instance of operational failure regarding a regulatory body, but
unfortunately it is not. We are all too aware nowadays of the consequences of the soft and
naïve regulation that characterised the Celtic Tiger years but lessons will remain unlearned if
we focus only on the bodies officially charged with regulation and not on the other dogs who,
in failing to bark, continue to make the role of independent and professionally qualified
critical observers more difficult.
While it may be surprising to learn that the NMS all but ignored any other than the
most narrow archaeological considerations, its position suited the NRA because it allowed it
to frame this as a fight between two different schools of archaeological thought. Some in the
media swallowed the line. Writing about the M3 controversy John O’Keeffe (2004), then
Irish Independent property editor had this to say:
The debate of course highlights the important distinction between professional and non-
professional archaeologists, often academics. Academics are often criticized for living in
ivory towers with a very weak grasp of reality. This is of course entirely correct.
He continues:
Unlike their colleagues who criticise [meaning ‘academics’], they are on the coal face and do
not have the luxury of never having to make a decision or professionally access digs or finds.
On the coat-tails of this offensive, the late Daire O’Rourke (2004), then Head of Archaeology
with the NRA, wrote:
A number of academic archaeologists are opposed to the M3 Clonee to Kells scheme, as the
area round Tara is their particular study area. The main opponents to the NRA’s
archaeological programme are non-archaeologists, including a number of historians.
This effort to play down the number of archaeologists opposed to the routing of the
motorway notwithstanding, the important point is its implicit dismissal of the views of
historians and others whose concerns spoke to internationally accepted definitions of tangible
and intangible heritage.
O’Keeffe (2004) was not the only journalist who failed to realise that most of the
senior archaeologists in the country had voiced concern about the impact of this road on the
Tara landscape, or that virtually the only archaeologists arguing against the existence of the
wider historical landscape of Tara were employed either directly or indirectly by the NRA.
Such is reminiscent of the kid-gloved treatment of economists working for the major property
lending houses whose talking up of the economy was rewarded with unfettered airtime: Jim
Power’s (Friends First) now infamous countering of Morgan Kelly’s predictions of a 50 per
cent crash in house prices on a Prime Time Special (RTÉ, 2007) is mirrored by Marie Hunt’s
(2007) dismissal of Richard Curran’s prophetic documentary Future Shock – Property Crash:
[I]t is simply technically incorrect to assume that that Irish house prices will decline
significantly simply on the basis that this has occurred in other economies where the
fundamentals were so different. [..]The sensationalist approach of last night’s programme is
in our view irresponsible.
The principles of free speech and unbiased, non-judgemental journalism are
axiomatic, but so is the imperative to discriminate between vested interests and disinterested,
expert advice. Discrimination between the two is what underpins democracy. Central to this
is good investigative journalism and connectivity between decision-making and research-
derived expertise. For this to occur we need to recognise the important role that an
independent research community can and ought to play in democratic governance (Robinson,
2004). There is something sycophantic about the way we trumpet the value of education and
yet at the same time deride intellectualism. Rather than speaking to qualities like qualified,
considered, knowledgeable and objective, the terms ‘academic’ and ‘intellectual’, particularly
when referring to humanities disciplines, have become by-words for out-of-touch, eccentric,
mildly comical, privileged and somewhat irrelevant. We need to integrate insights arising
from the humanities into public policy in a more holistic way and put an end to the notion
that they do not belong to ‘real life’.
A radio programme broadcast in 2004, The State We Are In: If These Stones Could
Speak (RTÉ, 2004), illustrates both the power and the vulnerability of the media. During the
programme Frances Shanahan discusses what is known as ‘archaeological mitigation’ along
the route of the M3 with the project archaeologist who counts aloud the number of new
archaeological sites found by geophysical prospection during the Environmental Impact
Statement (EIS) stage of the development: one, two, three, four, five, six. These were the six
with the most clearly legible signatures. Including these, however, definitive and suspected
archaeological remains were recorded in 26 of the 30 areas closely surveyed geophysically
(reported to the NRA in January 2001). By the time the programme was broadcast test
trenching had already confirmed archaeological remains at 38 different locations in the
Gabhra Valley. This was widely reported almost a month before the broadcast (O’Brien,
2004). In all 167 archaeological sites were excavated along the 60km between Clonee and
In a similar vein NRA press officer Brian Cullinane (2004) wrote to the papers
declaring that just two archaeological sites were impacted along the M3, and that geophysics
had identified a further three. In the virtual world of media contradictory truths can exist
concurrently as long as they never come into contact with one another. The role of the
regulators, including the press, is to highlight contradictory information and to play their part
in protecting the public from what former Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local
Government Dick Roche referred to as misinformation, disinformation and downright
distortion (Newman, 2007). The fact that this remark was directed at the campaigners is
Such bullish interventions became something of a hallmark of government in the
years leading up to the economic collapse, and describe the landscape and climate that the
regulatory bodies operated in during these years, some more closely influenced by the body
politic than others. While the record speaks to the sympathies of the chief archaeologist of
the Dept. of the Environment, Heritage, and Local Government, it is also fair to say that
heritage protection was some way down the list of priorities during the ten years of Fianna
il/Progressive Democrat government (1997-2007). This is reflected in a succession of
ministers who brought the cabinet’s pro-development ideology to the environment/heritage
portfolio: as already observed, Martin Cullen’s interventions in Dúchas and the National
Monuments Act sent out an unambiguous message. It was echoed in his successor to the
environment/heritage portfolio Dick Roche’s acrimonious dispute with An Taisce, which
included the threat to rescind the prescribed status of An Taisce under the Planning Act. At
around the same time (2004) Martin Cullen cancelled funding for An Taisce’s work in the
area of planning. An indefatigable critic of planning policy throughout these years, An
Taisce was a thorn in the side of government and developer alike and was now paying the
price; archaeology likewise, with the 2004 amendment to the National Monuments Act
(Fenwick, 2005: 19).
Bullishness was not confined to the government, lobbyists and hubristic developers.
In deciding to ignore the opinions expressed even by their own archaeological consultants
and go so far as to contest the evidence that the Gabhra valley is an intrinsic part of the Tara
landscape, the NRA placed their own archaeological staff, associates and sub-contractors in
the unenviable position of having to defend the indefensible. Despite avoiding a handful of
sites, the determination of the NRA to drive this road through forcefully asserted a view that
was implicit in the NMS’s approach to the M3 that the mandate and imperatives acting on
professional archaeology could, in the final analysis, always be satisfied by excavation. More
importantly, it reinforced the notion that this principle could be applied independently of
other considerations, such as history and heritage, so that when it came to ‘archaeological’
sites, excavation-as-a-form-of-conservation trumped all other concerns. Hence we get the
very dubious term ‘preservation by record’, not the NRA’s invention but one that suited its
purpose perfectly.
The term ‘preservation by record’ is spin in its purest form: a virtually meaningless
phrase that makes something unpalatable sound positive. It is most prevalent in the lexicon
surrounding pre-development excavation but, for obvious reasons, has not been universally
adopted by archaeologists. While no-one disputes the importance of salvaging information
that would otherwise be lost forever, nor the commendable advancements that have been
made in the arena of pre-development/rescue archaeology, such is not preservation but rather
the compilation of an archival record of data for analysis and interpretation. Contravening all
principles of conservation it represents a compromise of last resort, however it became so
normative where motorways were concerned that it seemed to be the default action of first
resort. This highlights the shallow embedding of the principles of heritage conservation in
Irish spatial policy and, importantly, how development of those principles stalled during these
years. Above all it testifies to a fairly wholesale capitulation to development. If the Tara
landscape could be run over what hope was there that heritage could ever out-value
Conservator-Restorers are mandated to preserve the materiality of cultural heritage
and, at least in other countries, do so in the context of cross- and trans-disciplinary dialogue
surrounding the values of heritage (what Dúchas was beginning to do). Not so, apparently, in
Celtic Tiger Ireland, where decisions regarding conservation of the monuments and heritage
landscapes through which this and other motorways ran were pretty well left up to
archaeologists in the NMS. Their failure to apply modern conservation and heritage
management theory meant that the archaeology-trumps-all perspective came to dominate. As
a consequence, a lop-sided view of the value of the material heritage, including sites and
monuments, emerged. Archaeologists found themselves variously in-step with a public who
tolerated archaeologists pursuing their own concerns as long as the net result was
unencumbered development, or out-of-step with a public who questioned the desirability of
archaeological interference with sites and monuments if that meant attempted cultural
sterilization ahead of development (of course no place can ever be culturally steralized). Not
only did archaeologists become harbingers of development but many in the public became
increasingly uncomfortable with the maxim that once archaeologists got what they wanted
from a site there was nothing left worth preserving.
Archaeologists have always rightly maintained that public good is created from the
knowledge generated and disseminated through research, even research that is destructive.
However, there is no algorithm regarding the optimal balance between knowledge gained
through destructive scientific processes (e.g. excavation) and consequent loss of material
integrity. Research excavation is materially destructive but the extent of impact is modulated
in order that the knowledge gain is a reasonable trade-off vis-à-vis material loss. In any
event research excavation is always only a sample, the site or monument is returned to its
former appearance and the context remains undisturbed. Rescue excavation ahead of
development, where in the end every trace of the site/monument is erased, raises the ante
considerably because it usually heralds substantial changes to the context as well: the
site/monument is gone and the landscape setting is changed utterly. In such cases
knowledge gain from excavation is manifestly only one consideration. In the case of the M3
the knowledge gain should have been gauged against the effect of an impermeable linear
concrete barrier bisecting the entire length of the landscape on the ability of ours and future
generations to experience, understand and benefit from that landscape. Leaving aside the
considerable legacy of mis-information propagated by denying the existence and relevance
the wider landscape, this is the nature of the impact. In real terms it is measurable case-by-
case: parts of a once sacred river, named after a sovereignty goddess, flowing through a
cosmographical landscape between two hills associated with the ancient institution of sacral
kingship have been culverted; an ancient burial ground (fert) placed deliberately on the banks
of the Gabhra is under a motorway; and instead of standing sentinel over the valley, the
ancient defensive earthwork of Rath Lugh now overlooks a motorway. The scale of the
impact, however, is more difficult to calculate because it involves appraising a wide range of
existing and potential cultural and economic values. Gone, for instance, is the possibility of
planning an intact heritage trail across the valley from Skryne to Tara. The scale of the
impact on public sensitivity to the value of protecting heritage is immeasurable.
The familiar retort that the majority of sites were unknown before the development
and shouldn’t that make the archaeologists happy, blithely ignores the fact that the sites
would have been discovered eventually, and in more benign circumstances, when
considerably more of their values could be developed. And, it is not about ‘making
archaeologists happy’. Regardless, the quantity, range and calibre of the sites has confirmed
beyond doubt the exceptional historical importance of this area and proven correct informed
predictions that, owing to its superior historical importance, multiple sites would be impacted
along this route. A very high price has been paid to confirm this.
By treating the sites/monuments as entities unrelated to one another or to anything
else for that matter, such as the nearby hills of Tara and Skryne, the assessment of gains and
losses was restricted further; there could be no compound loss because there was no
compound whole to begin with. Again, fault lies with the regulatory body but it also places a
question mark over the suitability of existing regulatory processes. As Stocker (2013: 95) has
recently observed the cultural meaning of this landscape was too complex to be resolved by
an Environmental Impact Assessment. This is only partly true because sensu stricto an EIS
is only as comprehensive as the regulatory body requires it to be. It is incomprehensible
that, knowing about the findings of the Discovery Programme (Bhreathnach, 1996b; 1999)
and unequivocal warnings in preliminary reports by two separate archaeological
consultancies against routing the M3 through this landscape, the regulatory body accepted an
EIS from which such warnings were effectively excised, reducing it merely to a list of
affected sites.
In an effort to close the gap between theirs and traditional research excavations,
perhaps to present a more positive face, the NRA framed the work along the M3 corridor as
research. Accordingly, in July 2005, along with Meath County Council it published The M3
Clonee to North of Kells Road Scheme Archaeology Research Framework, declaring that the
results would be, inter alia, integrated into a wider archaeological landscape study(Anon,
2005: 6) undertaken collaboratively with the UCD School of Archaeology. Ordinarily such
would be applauded, except in this instance, contrary to established protocols of research no
direct reference was made to the on-going research on the Tara landscape, the existence of
which is visible only indirectly via the Select Bibliography at the end of the document.
Ironically, Tara is present throughout this document by virtue of the fact that it is studiously
and glaringly omitted. On the other hand, the frequent references to landscape in the
Research Framework (Anon, 2005) reveals the centrality of this paradigm to contemporary
archaeology, serving only to reinforce the betrayal perpetrated on the Tara landscape.
Research is as much about why as about how, because, as in any field of human
endeavour, knowledge gain can be eroded or negated by the manner of its contextualisation:
the unearthing of so much useful archaeological data in the Tara landscape is somewhat
cancelled out by the denial-in-kind of its context. Mentioning the word Tara only once, the
Research Framework (Anon, 2005: 3) effectively wound the clock back on existing research
and, skimming across chronological lines, inadvertently or otherwise positioned the
archaeological sites along the M3 ‘away from sacred space on the Hill itself. The language,
as one might expect, has been very carefully crafted and could, at a stretch, be interpreted to
mean almost anything. As such it speaks to discomfiture surrounding an inconvenient truth.
Now that the motorway has been built it is gradually becoming safe to mention the
sites and monuments excavated along the M3 and Tara in the same breath. The extraordinary
complex at Lismullin has evolved from being a site whose location beneath the important
ceremonial complex on the Hill of Tara may suggest that [it] is a ceremonial site serving
smaller or lesser political units (Anon, 2007: 4) to being just one component of a wider
archaeological landscape [..] dominated by the extensive remains on the Hill of Tara”
(O’Connell, 2013, 4) and a place where excavation has provided a rare glimpse of settlement
evolution and ritual practices in the wider Tara landscape (O’Connell, 2013: 1). In time its
place in the sacred landscape of Tara will be reclaimed, except that it is too late to experience
the natural amphitheatre chosen so carefully for it. As another precious link between past
and present is severed, President Higgins’s words (2013) seem relevant: ‘[K]nowledge of
history is intrinsic to citizenship. [..] Knowledge of history allows us to debunk myths and
challenge inaccuracies, as well as to expose deliberate amnesia or invented versions of the
Anon. (2007) M3 CloneeKells Motorway Project: information on archaeological
investigations at Lismullin, Co. Meath,,7286,en.pdf (retrieved 19
September 2013)
Anon. (2005) The M3 Clonee to North of Kells Road Scheme: Archaeology Research
Framework, Meath: National Roads Authority and Meath County Council.
Anon. (2012) The Keys to Preserving America’s Heritage: (1) stewardship, (2) relevance, (3)
education, (4) workforce, American National Parks Service.
Baek, J. (2013) ‘Tetsuro Watsuji’s fudo, ethics and sustainability’, in C. Newman, Y.
Nussaume and B. Pedroli (eds), Landscape and Imagination: towards a baseline for
education in a changing world. Conference, Paris 2-4 May 2013, Florence: Uniscape, pp. 43-
Berque, A. (2000) Écoumène. Introduction à l’Étude des Milieux Humains, Paris: Belin.
Bhreathnach, E. (1996a) ‘Temoria: caput Scotorum?’, Ériu 47: 67-88.
Bhreathnach, E. (1996b) ‘Cultural identity and Tara from the Lebor Gabála to George Petrie’,
Discovery Programme Reports 4, Dublin: Discovery Programme and Royal Irish Academy,
pp. 85-98.
Bhreathnach, E. (1996c) ‘The documentary evidence for pre-Norman Skreen, Co. Meath’,
Ríocht na Midhe Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical Society 9: 37-45.
Bhreathnach, E. (1999) ‘Authority and supremacy in Tara and its hinterland c. 950-1200’,
Discovery Programme Reports 5, Dublin: Discovery Programme and Royal Irish Academy,
pp. 1-24.
Bhreathnach, E. (2005) ‘The medieval kingdom of Brega’, in E. Bhreathnach (ed.) The
Kingship and Landscape of Tara, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 410-422.
Bhreathnach, E. and Newman, C. (1995) Tara, Dublin: Stationary Office.
Comptroller and Auditor General (2011) Report on the Accounts of the Public Services 2011,
Dublin: Stationary Office.
Council of Europe, (2000) European Landscape Convention, Council of Europe: Florence.
Council of Europe (2005) Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for
Society, Council of Europe: Faro.
Cullinane, B. (2004) ‘Letters’, Irish Independent, 28 February
Doherty, C. (2005) ‘Kingship in early Ireland’, in E. Bhreathnach (ed.) The Kingship and
Landscape of Tara, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 3-31.
Doyle, J.S. (2005) ‘Motorway mania is driving us in the wrong direction’, Irish Independent,
08 February.
Fenwick, J. (2005) ‘The geophysical survey of the M3 toll-motorway corridor: a prelude to
Tara’s destruction’, Ríocht na Midhe Records of Meath Archaeological and Historical
Society, 16: 8-22.
Fleming, D. (2008) ‘Heaney hits out over tar on Tara’, BBC News, 01 March 2008.
( (retrieved 01 September
Higgins, M.D. (2013) ‘Remembering the 1913 Lockout’, Michael Littleton Memorial
Lecture, 19 June,
extended-lecture-tuesday-18th-june-2013/ (retrieved 19 September 2013).
Hobsbawm, E. (1994) The Age of Extremes: the short twentieth century, 1914-1991, London:
Hunt, M. (2007) ‘”Future Shock Property Crash programme irresponsible journalism says
CBRE’, Press Release, CB Richard Ellis, 17 April.
Jarvis, J.B. (2003) ‘The great experiment’, Common Ground: National Parks Service
Quarterly: Summer: 2.
Lee, J. (2005) ‘Tara tycoons. Political cronies poised to make fortunes as controversial
motorway runs close to ancient site and right through their land’, Ireland on Sunday, 13
Mac Giolla Easpaig, D. (2005) ‘The significance and etymology of the placename Temair’, in
E. Bhreathnach (ed.) The Kingship and Landscape of Tara, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp.
Murphy, C. (2012) ‘Tolls rise will drive cars off roads – AA’, Herald, 21 October.
Newman, C. (1997) Tara: an archaeological survey, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.
Newman, C. (2005) ‘Re-composing the archaeological landscape of Tara’, in E. Bhreathnach
(ed.) The Kingship and Landscape of Tara, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 361-409.
Newman, C. (2011) ‘The sacral landscape of Tara: a preliminary exploration’, in R. Schot, C.
Newman and E. Bhreathnach (eds) Landscapes of Cult and Kingship, Dublin: Four Courts
Press, pp. 22-43.
Newman, C. (2007) ‘Misinformation, disinformation and downright distortion: the battle to
save Tara 1999-2005’ in C. Newman and U. Strohmayer (eds) Uninhabited Ireland, Tara, the
M3 and public spaces in Galway, Galway: Aarlen House, pp. 61-102.
Ní Chatháin, P. (1991) ‘Traces of the cult of the horse in early Irish sources’, Journal of Indo-
European Studies 19: 123-131.
Oaks, L. S. (1986) The goddess Epona, in M. Henig and A. King (eds) Pagan Gods and
Shrines of the Roman Empire, Oxford University Committee for Archaeology Monograph
No. 8: 7784.
O’Brien, T. (2004) ‘Site excavations on M3 may cost €30m. Council told 38 archaeological
sites identified near hill of Tara’, Irish Times 05 October.
O’Connell, A. (2013) Harvesting the stars: a pagan temple at Lismullin, Co. Meath. NRA
Scheme Monographs 11, Dublin: Wordwell.
O’Keeffe, J. (2004) ‘When it comes to Ireland’s heritage, NRA archaeologists do it better’,
Sunday Independent, 12 September.
O’Rourke, D. (2004) ‘Letters, Sunday Independent, 19 September.
Petrie, G. (1839) ‘On the history and antiquities of Tara Hill’, Transactions of the Royal Irish
Academy 18: 25-232.
Robinson, M. (1994) ‘Special Introduction’, The role of the university in society. Proceedings
of the conference held in Dublin Castle on 20-21 May 1994, Dublin: Ollscoil na hÉireann
National University of Ireland, pp. 7-9.
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Stocker, D. (2013) Book Reviews’, Landscapes 13 (2): 92-5.
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Throughout this essay I use the words ‘history’ and ‘historical’ in their broadest senses.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
explores the sacralisation of the landscape of Tara, combining archaeological, placename, topographical and mythological data to map and narrate the landscape associated with the sacral (World) kingship associated with Tara.
"L'être humain est géographique" : il doit donc y avoir une place pour une "ontologie", une étude de l'être de la géographie. Si l'écoumène signifie pour le géographe l'ensemble de l'espace dans lequel s'inscrivent les sociétés humaines (et donc leurs empreintes, leurs territoires), il devient pour le philosophe un formidable terrain d'investigation sur les rapports entre une définition objective du lieu (le "topos") et celle de la place (la "chôra"), cet endroit si particulier où se développement certaines sociétés humaines. Il s'y tisse alors des relations entre l'être humain et ses réalisations symboliques et techniques dans l'espace. Augustin Berque développe ici le résultat de longs travaux et multiples pérégrinations ; il rassemble son expérience de l'Asie, de l'Europe, du Japon, pour livrer un essai de philosophie de la géographie, une tentative de réponse à une interrogation majeure : pourquoi y a-t-il ceci plutôt que cela ; pourquoi ici plutôt que là ? "L'être humain est un être géographique. Son être est géographique. S'il ouvre à l'absolu, ce dont les diverses cultures ont des visions différentes, il est d'abord, et nécessairement, déterminé par une certaine relation à ce qui fait l'objet de la géographie : la disposition des choses et du genre humain sur la Terre, sous le ciel. Cela constitue le "là" et l'"il y a" sans lesquels il ne saurait y avoir d'ontologie ; faute pour commencer d'êtres humains pour en jaser." "–Mattieu Reno"
Dr Mark Horton, junior research fellow at St. Hugh's College, Oxford, and his wife, Kate Clark, a research fellow at the Institute of Industrial Archaeology at Ironbridge, have prepared a detailed report on their archaeological survey of Zanzibar and Pemba islands in 1984. They intended to follow up this year. Meanwhile, this note draws attention to some of the more important findings so far.
Cultural identity and Tara from the Lebor Gabála to George Petrie
  • E Bhreathnach
Bhreathnach, E. (1996b) 'Cultural identity and Tara from the Lebor Gabála to George Petrie', Discovery Programme Reports 4, Dublin: Discovery Programme and Royal Irish Academy, pp. 85-98.
Authority and supremacy in Tara and its hinterland c. 950-1200
  • E Bhreathnach
Bhreathnach, E. (1999) 'Authority and supremacy in Tara and its hinterland c. 950-1200', Discovery Programme Reports 5, Dublin: Discovery Programme and Royal Irish Academy, pp. 1-24.
The medieval kingdom of Brega
  • E Bhreathnach
Bhreathnach, E. (2005) 'The medieval kingdom of Brega', in E. Bhreathnach (ed.) The Kingship and Landscape of Tara, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 410-422.