Where the relics meet the road: Ireland's highway dispute

Archaeologists hope to stop a plan to pave the valley beneath the Hill of Tara.

A sacred hill, where ancient kings were once crowned and buried, is now at the center of a dispute about the rush of modern life in this newly wealthy country.

In the valley below the famous Hill of Tara - ancient Ireland's ceremonial seat and the island's most important prehistoric site - the government is planning to build a major highway to Dublin.

The highway has bitterly split the country, pitting the preservation of Ireland's Celtic past against its rapidly changing present; the ancient capital against the modern one.

The hilltop commands spectacular views of the valley below, where the ancient elites lived. The highway's opponents say the serene valley will be ruined by a highway that will inevitably bring unwanted development.

As children race up and down the burial mounds and sheep graze nearby, visitors atop the Hill of Tara are disappointed when told of the planned four-lane highway. "It's a pity," says Franco Leone, of San Vito, Italy. "But that's progress, how can you stop it? Hopefully the people can block it."

As legal challenges to the project make their way through the court system, initial archaeological work in preparation for the construction has already begun, unearthing sites up to 9,000 years old. Archaeologists warn that the heavy machinery used in the excavations could destroy fragile artifacts.

"If, in the face of an international outcry, the authorities can get away with the destruction of a landscape that has been sacred for 4,000 years, they can get away with virtually anything," wrote the Irish Times' cultural critic Fintan O'Toole.

Despite provoking outrage around Ireland and drawing fierce opposition from the director of the National Museum, the planned highway is popular with locals. As Dublin sprawls and housing costs balloon, the commuter belt is expanding farther into bucolic County Meath. Commuters to Dublin often spend more than two hours driving along country roads from here to the capital, a distance of less than 30 miles.

Even Michael Slavin, owner of the nearby Old Book Shop and author of The Book of Tara, supports the highway.

"I can live with the road, simply because I don't think it will harm Tara," he says while stacking books in a small stone building that was once a stable.

But on the road leading up the hill, a small sign protests, "No Tara Road." A statue of St. Patrick welcomes tourists to the visitors center, an old church. Legend has it that St. Patrick converted one king, Laoghaire, to Christianity in this spot during the fifth century.

Tara's legendary mounds are colorfully named, if misleading. The Mound of Hostages, once thought to have been a prison, is actually the oldest burial ground, dating back almost 4,000 years.

Archaeologists say that no one lived within the hilltop ring fort called the Royal Enclosure - the inner sanctum was used only for ceremonies. With the coming of Christianity, the pagan rituals and festivals faded away, but Tara retained a symbolic significance for the kings of Leinster Province.

Later, Ireland's struggle for independence enveloped the hill; a mass grave of dead rebels from the 1798 revolt is marked by a tombstone. In 1843, hundreds of thousands gathered on the hilltop to hear patriot Daniel O'Connell.

An alternative to a highway, some campaigners say, is a railway, an option favored by Deb Highfield, who visited from London. Stonehenge, the ancient English site, has lost its tranquility since a new road was built near it, she says.

"As a visitor, I think a road here is a bad idea," she says. "But if I lived here and had to commute to Dublin, I might have a different idea. You have to find a balance."

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