Expert Opinion

Letter from Archaeological Institute of America

(Letter to the Editor, The Irish Times, 01.04.04)

Madam, – On behalf of the Archaeological Institute of America, of which I am president, I am writing to express my concern about the proposed construction of the M3, a major four-lane motorway with intersections, through the landscape surrounding the site of Tara.

The Archaeological Institute of American (AIA) is the oldest and largest archaeological organisation in North America and includes more than 8,000 members in the US and Canada, including professional archaeologists, students, and people of all walks of life who are interested in archaeology and concerned about the preservation of archaeological heritage worldwide.

As a site of international significance, Tara deserves protection, and any proposed changes in the environs of the site should be handled with the utmost sensitivity and with a view towards minimising their impact on the site.

It is a common misconception that the site of Tara consists of just the antiquities on the Hill. But this is not the case.

Recent research by the Discovery Programme has shown that the site extends into the Tara/Skreen valley, and that the hill was ringed by settlements, religious monuments, ceremonial entrance and route-ways, as well as strategically placed fortifications. Large ritual and settlement sites are a well-known international phenomenon and Tara is famous in archaeological and historical circles all over the world as a particularly important and well-preserved example.

One would expect the highest measure of protection for this unique site. The necessity of viewing the site within its archaeological and environmental context was recognised in the first archaeological report submitted to the contractors by Margaret Gowan and Co. who wrote: “The monuments around Tara cannot be viewed in isolation, or as individual sites, but must be seen in the context of an intact archaeological landscape, which should not under any circumstances be disturbed.”

In view of this advice we are shocked that planning permission has been granted, and are particularly alarmed at the news that trial trenching is already beginning on an unusual scale, and is likely to do irreparable damage to the site.

We appeal to the Irish authorities as a matter of urgency to move this section of the M3 away from the Tara/Skreen valley and to save this precious legacy from our shared past for posterity.

– Yours, etc.,

JANE C. WALDBAUM, President, Archaeological Institute of America, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI, USA Destruction of Archaeological Sites in Ireland

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From the 2001 ‘Archaeological Features at Risk Report’ commissioned by Heritage Ireland


The Archaeological Features at Risk Report has indicated how much of the archaeological heritage of Ireland has been lost and the vulnerability of the remaining portion. The report indicates that in the areas studied, 34% of the monuments known to have existed have been destroyed. It suggests that in recent years the rate of destruction, far from decreasing through improved legislation and raising awareness, has in fact accelerated.

General Conclusions 3.3.1 The destruction of archaeological monuments in Ireland has not stopped but has accelerated dramatically in recent years. This is a major problem facing Irish archaeology and one which appears to be getting worse, not better. The destruction of so many monuments in 1998 alone is of extreme concern. These monuments are irreplaceable and are now lost for future generations. If the rate of destruction is allowed to increase, next to nothing will remain of our archaeological heritage in a little over a hundred years.

3.4.2 There is a perception outside the archaeological world that Ireland is full of monuments, and that the loss of a few ringforts or fulachta fiadh is insignificant – a view which must be challenged in the strongest manner. This report has demonstrated that the number of monuments surviving to date is, in most cases, less than 60% and as low as 30% in one county. Yet the rate of destruction in recent times has risen dramatically. It is time that the problems highlighted in this report are aired on a very public platform. All sectors of the community must be made aware of archaeological monuments, what is happening to them, what is encouraging their damage or destruction, as well as the fact that they are an irreplaceable part of our heritage. Language, dress and culture can be, and have been, revived. Archaeology is different. What is gone cannot be replaced. All that can be achieved is the preservation of what survives. This can only happen with the knowledge and participation of all. To achieve this, all forms of mass media, such as newspapers, radio and television, should be utilised to highlight the problems currently faced by Ireland’s archaeological heritage.

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Letter to the editor, The Irish Times, Signed Internationally By Thirty Academics, 23.02.04


The Hill of Tara constitutes the heart and soul of Ireland. Our ceremonial and mythical capital, its very name invokes the spirit and mystique of our people, and is instantly recognisable worldwide.

An Bord Pleanála’s recent approval of the Government’s scheme to divide the Tara/Skryne valley with the M3 motorway spells out a massive national and international tragedy that must be averted.

This narrow valley is one of the most culturally and archaeologically significant places in the world. Many monuments predate the Egyptian pyramids. The chamber within Tara’s Mound of the Hostages is perfectly aligned with the full moon of Lughnasa and the rising sun of Samhain and Imbolg.

The Hill of Tara has been a sanctuary for every generation since. It is precisely because it has remained intact, unlike many comparable Continental sites, that it holds a special key to understanding the continuous progression of European civilisation.

We are only just beginning to understand and appreciate how the Mound relates to the hundreds of other monuments in this archaeological complex, many of which will be destroyed if the valley is sliced in two.

The Hill of Skryne, containing the 12th-century Skryne Castle, is also a national monument and an early religious and ritual centre.

Both Tara and Skryne are part of the same cultural and natural landscape of The Boyne Valley and cannot be separated from the River Boyne, or from each other.

Let us be clear: excavation is destruction, not “preservation” in the true sense. Moreover, serious questions have now been raised in the Dáil as to the standard of “preservation by record”, with over 1,500 excavation reports currently missing.

Every effort should be made to preserve national monuments in situ, according to stated Government policy, as well as the Council of Europe’s Valetta Convention (The European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage), to which Ireland is a signatory.

The Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, signed by Ireland in Paris, in 1972, resolved to protect parts of the cultural or natural heritage that are of outstanding universal value and therefore need to be preserved as part of the world heritage of mankind as a whole.

Tara warrants UNESCO protection, if ever an Irish site did. We call on the Government, particularly the Taoiseach, the Minister for Transport and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to review this decision and choose one of the many intelligent options that are still available. These include: improving the existing N3, as per the original advertised scheme; re-opening the Navan-Dublin railway line, which is widely supported in the locality; or simply moving the M3 away from this delicate archaeological landscape. In the alternative, we ask our public servants to place these viable options before the Irish nation, openly and democratically, and let Irish taxpayers decide for themselves if their money should be spent destroying this singular element of Irish identity.

– Yours, etc.,

Dr EDEL BHREATHNACH, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute, University College, Dublin;
FRANCIS JOHN BYRNE, Early Irish Historian;
NICHOLAS CANNY, Department of History, University College, Galway;
MÁIREAD CAREW, Archaeologist and writer;
PROF THOMAS CHARLES-EDWARDS, Faculty of Modern History, Oxford University;
JULITTA CLANCY MBE, Meath Archaeological and Historical Society;
Prof THOMAS OWEN CLANCY, Department of Celtic, University of Glasgow;
Dr HOWARD CLARKE, School of History, University College, Dublin;
Dr MARK CLINTON, Archaeologist and writer;
Prof CHARLIE DOHERTY, Department of History, University College, Dublin;
Dr SEÁN DUFFY, FTCD, Department of History, Trinity College, Dublin;
MÁIRE HERBERT, Department of Old Irish, University College, Cork;
Prof BART JASKI, Celtic Department, University of Utrecht;
Dr RAIMUND KARL, Department of History and Welsh History, University of Wales, Bangor;
Prof MÍCHEÁL MAC CRAITH, Department of Modern Irish, NUI, Galway;
Prof KIM McCONE, Department of Medieval Irish Studies, NUI Maynooth;
Prof NEIL MCLEOD, Murdoch University, Australia;
Prof JOSEPH NAGY, Department of English, University of California, Los Angeles;
Dr MUIREANN NÍ BHROLCHÁIN, Department of Medieval Irish Studies, NUI Maynooth;
Dr MÁIRE NÍ NEACHTAIN, Department of Irish, University of Limerick;
KENNETH NICHOLS, Retired statutory lecturer, University College, Cork;
Prof TOMÁS Ó CATHASAIGH, Irish Studies, Harvard University;
DONNCHADH Ó CORRÁIN, Department of History, University College, Cork;
DÁIBHÍ Ó CRÓINÍN, Department of History, NUI Galway;
VINCENT SALAFIA, Save Tara/Skryne Valley Campaign, PO Box 30, Tara, Co Meath;
Prof RUAIRI Ó hUIGINN, Department of Modern Irish, NUI Maynooth;
Prof ALFRED SMYTH, Chair of Medieval History, Canterbury University;
PÁDRAIGÍN RIGGS, Department of Modern Irish, University College, Cork;
Dr NANCY STENSON, Department of Linguistics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis;
Rev Dr R. STIEFEL, University of New Hampshire.

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Former Taoiseach (Head of Government), John Bruton, In A Letter To The National Roads Authority

[This is a very long and detailed letter, we have therefore left out some of the specialised archaeological paragraphs, map and report references, local details etc., to give a better general reading. The sense of the letter is intact.]

10th February 2004

Dear Michael,

I wish to raise with you my concerns about the proposed route for the motorway between Tara and Skryne. I have received correspondence from the National Roads Authority on the matter and have also discussed it with a number of archaeologists and historians.

It is undoubtedly the case that the proposed scheme did go through all of the analysis and procedures. It is the case that An Bord Pleanala weighed up the various points of view and reached the conclusion that this route is acceptable.

But that does not mean that this is the right decision. It just means that it went through the right procedures.

My worry is that this particular route will result, at the end of the day, in far greater expenditure and a slower completion of the much needed new road than if, even now, you choose one of the less archaeologically sensitive of the original six alternative routes that were originally available for consideration.

As a taxpayer I am very worried that we will eventually find ourselves having to pay out a very substantial sum of money because of delays associated with sites that prove to be of immense archaeological significance which may not even yet have been identified either by the fieldwalking survey or the geophysical survey.

I would draw your attention to the archaeological survey of Tara edited by Conor Newman and published by the Discovery Programme in 1997.. It seems to me, looking at this map, that the proposed route goes right through the centre of the heaviest concentration of potential sites as displayed on this map. That is hardly a wise course for us to be taking.

The study I have referred to also indicates that Tara is the center of a complex of monuments and the regrettable fact is that the proposed route for the roadway is going right through the middle of this complex

It would also appear that Tara was part of a comprehensive landscape which had a sacred purpose in the eyes of our ancestors. The proposed motorway will radically and irreversibly change that landscape both physically and in terms of the noise that it will generate in an area that is otherwise comparatively peaceful.

I believe that in this respect the scope of the EIS was deficient, in that it took a very narrow view of what alternatives were to be examined, and we believe it is in violation of the E.U. Directive on environmental impact assessments which, as I would understand it, requires that alternatives in the totality be examined, as opposed to merely looking at alternative routes.

It is undisputed that many more sites will be discovered in the process of constructing the M3 motorway. Given the sensitivity of the landscape, the density of archaeological remains, the evidence of the experts on Tara’s archaeology and the fact that this route was identified from the very outset as the least desirable from an archaeological point of view in the route selection process, it is incredible that this route was put forward and approved.

The major 26 acre interchange planed for Blundelstown (c 1km from the northern end of the Hill of Tara) will be a permanent scar on this landscape, seriously affecting the enjoyment of the magnificent and hitherto unspoilt views from the Hill of Tara.

Furthermore, it is no great answer to say that all of those sites will be archaeologically excavated. As you know, as archaeological excavation by definition involves the destruction of an archaeological site. A site that is not excavated is intact, whereas a site that has been excavated no longer exists.

In any event, the record of Irish archaeologists in putting in place proper reports of their activities on sites such as this is nothing short of deplorable. As you are not doubt aware, of 6,700 licensed excavation authorized between 1997 and 2002, an alarming 1,514 excavations have not yet been the subject of reports lodged for public inspection.

Thus there is nothing available for the public for almost 25% of the licensed excavations. I have no doubt that this will be the pattern with some of the excavations that will now be necessitated by the choice of this particular route.

I feel that you should sit down, as a Roads Authority and ask yourselves in all seriousness whether or not it might be wiser, even at this late stage, after all the time and effort you have invested in this route, to pick one of the other routes. I realize that this is not an easy thing to contemplate, but in the long run it could prove to be a much less expensive option than going ahead this route.

As I said at the outset, my concern as a local public representative is that a new road be provided at the earliest possible time. My worry is that going ahead with this route may not, in fact, prove to be the quickest way of getting the road but in fact the slowest and most expensive because of all the delays that will be necessitated by the archaeological discoveries that will emerge.

Yours sincerely, John Bruton, T.D.

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The M3 and Tara: Profit and Loss

Article for The Meath Chronicle Newspaper 12.06.04 by archaeologist Joe Fenwick, National University of Ireland, Galway

Bad planning decisions are not set in stone, despite what the National Roads Authority (NRA) and Meath County Council (MCC) would have us believe. Sometimes it is necessary, in exceptional circumstances, to reverse a poor planning decision. Tara is just such an exception.

Surely in the knowledge of Tara’s singular cultural importance no right-minded person would contemplate a development of this scale on an otherwise ‘intact archaeological landscape’. In this instance absolute priority should have been given to cultural heritage above all else. Unforgivably, it was not. This, despite unequivocal warnings given by the NRA/MCCs own consultants of the pitfalls of driving a motorway through the Tara/Skryne valley.

As early as 2000, archaeological consultants, Margaret Gowen and Co. Ltd., advised in their report that “the monuments around Tara cannot be viewed in isolation…but must be seen in the context of an intact archaeological landscape, which should not under any circumstances be disturbed”. Regarding the option through the Tara/Skryne valley the same document warns: “No mitigation would remove the effects of this route on the Hill of Tara or on its outlying monuments. It would have severe implications from an archaeological perspective”. Curiously, these recommendations are not contained in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Consultants Halcrow Barry in their Route Selection Report (2000/1) state that ” the most heavily favoured routes [by the public] were F and A [to the east of Skryne and the west of Tara respectively].” The routes through the Tara/Skryne valley were not favoured. This report also addresses the route options under various environmental headings and that to the east of Skryne emerges the clear front-runner (coincidentally, this was the option also preferred by Dúchas The Heritage Service). This report does not recommend the route ultimately chosen by the NRA/MCC and, remarkably, its findings are entirely omitted from the EIS.

Geophysical survey was conducted along the so-called ’emerging preferred route’ through the Tara/Skryne valley in 2000. This technique provides a cost-effective and non-invasive means of ‘seeing beneath the soil’ to reveal the hidden archaeology. The geophysical investigation was limited to this ‘preferred’ route and so did not inform the selection process. Despite this, in addition to the two known archaeological monuments lying in the path of the proposed route, this survey identified a further 26 potential sites. Many of these new sites are unusually large and complex and, considering the context, are surely of special significance. The remarkable number of monuments discovered should have prompted the NRA/MCC to reconsider their ‘preferred’ route but it did not. Only a ‘synopsis’ of this geophysical report is contained in the EIS and the geophysical images are wholly omitted.

During all this time, the experts on Tara, namely Mr Conor Newman and Dr Edel Bhreathnach (former Directors in the The Discovery Programme) were never consulted. More disappointingly, it appears that Mr Newman’s evidence to An Bord Pleanala fell on deaf ears, as no great weight was placed on archaeological or heritage issues in the final ruling.

What then is the compelling reason why the route must go through the Tara/Skryne valley? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the M3 is a Public-Private Partnership (PPP), involving state funding (our taxes) and private investment (for personal profit). Irrespective of the toll-charge the real cost, in terms of cultural destruction, will be too great a price to pay. We should not have to lament the desecration of the Tara landscape as we commute our way from Cavan to Dublin along the 4-lane toll-motorway and 32 acre floodlit interchange in the shadow of the Hill. How will this embarrassing situation be perceived by the EU; the source of generous European Regional Development and Cohesion Funds over the years?

This decision can and must be overruled. It is possible to plan a satisfactory solution without compromising Tara. The ultimate decision should not lie in the hands of those non-elected and increasingly dictatorial bodies such as the NRA. It is high-time that local politicians sit up and listen to their electorate and not be bullied by the selfish interests of big business hiding behind the skirts of so-called ‘infra-structural development’. There is mounting public outrage and opposition to the motorway from home and abroad, including every professor of archaeology and history in Ireland, every leading British archaeologist, the European Association of Archaeologists and the Archaeological Institution of America.

In the case of Tara, the planning decision goes beyond issues of archaeology. It is fundamentally an issue of national pride and the value that we place on our unique cultural heritage. Tara is Ireland’s premier archaeological and historical site. To desecrate this enduring symbol of our national and cultural identity is to destroy what we are.

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Joint-Letter To The Irish Times Signed By Seventeen Academics 22/09/2004

Dear Sir/Madam,

Tara is under threat. The National Roads Authority continues to perpetuate the fiction that Tara is confined to the cluster of monuments on the hilltop. This is not the case. The hilltop is but one element of what our ancestors understood Tara to be in antiquity. The hilltop is part of a wider, integrated, archaeological and historical landscape. That part lying to the eastern side of the hilltop was especially important in prehistoric times and subsequently, in the early historic period, it became the royal demesne of the kings of Tara.

The planned route of the M3 toll-motorway and major floodlit interchange at Blundelstown, (lying little more than 1.5km from the ‘Banqueting Hall’ on the hilltop) will cut through the heart of this exceptionally sensitive landscape. In so doing it will irreparably damage the cultural integrity of this nationally and internationally significant archaeological complex. The construction of housing and industrial estates that will inevitably follow in its wake will destroy Tara’s environmental context forever.

It was acknowledged as early as 2000 in the N3 Navan to Dunshaughlin Route Selection report and reiterated in the Environmental Impact Statement (2002) that “this section of the M3 runs through one of the richest and best-known archaeological landscapes in Europe”. Ironically, this is once again confirmed by the recent announcement from the NRA that test trenching along the proposed route between Navan and Dunshaughlin alone has uncovered no fewer than 28 archaeological sites and major complexes. This news, though alarming, is entirely as predicted by experts researching Tara. As usual, one can expect yet further discoveries in advance of road construction.

Irrespective, however, of the large numbers of monuments, the destruction of this intact archaeological landscape is too great a price to pay should this development proceed as planned. We are not opponents of progress and development, but sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, it is necessary to question and reconsider major development decisions. The case of Tara is just such an exception. Are we in danger of repeating the same bitterly regretted mistakes as were made at Stonehenge? In that instance a major road has to be replaced by a tunnel, at enormous expense, in an attempt to ameliorate the irreversible damage inflicted on Britain’s foremost archaeological monument and cultural landscape.

In the case of Tara and the M3 there are viable and realistic alternatives where both infrastructure and heritage can be successfully accommodated (without requiring a tunnel). Tara is the crossroads at which we should pause to reflect on the direction we, as a nation, choose to take with regard to our unique and valuable heritage. We cannot afford to get it wrong.

Yours, etc.

Dr Edel Bhreathnach, Micheál Ó Cléirigh Institute, University College Dublin.
Mr Charles Doherty, Early Irish History, School of History, University College Dublin.
Professor George Eogan, PhD, D.Litt, (Dublin).
Mr Joe Fenwick, Department of Archaeology, National University of Ireland, Galway.
Dr Elizabeth FitzPatrick, Department of Archaeology, National University of Ireland, Galway.
Professor Dennis Harding, MA, DPhil, FRSE, Abercromby Professor of Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.
An tUasal Seamus Mac Gabhann, editor Ríocht na Midhe (Journal of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society), National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
Dr Finbar McCormick, School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology, The Queen’s University of Belfast.
Mr Conor Newman, Department of Archaeology, National University of Ireland, Galway.
Professor Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, Scoil na Gaeilge, National University of Ireland, Galway.
Professor Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Department of History, National University of Ireland, Galway.
Professor Etienne Rynne, MRIA, FSA, (Galway).
Professor Alfred Smyth, Dean of Arts and Humanities, Canterbury Christ Church University College.
Professor Charles Thomas, FBA, Hon MRIA (Cornwall).
Professor John Waddell, Department of Archaeology, National University of Ireland, Galway.
Mr Richard Warner, MRIA (Belfast).
Dr Niamh Whitfield, PhD, FSA (London).

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