New York Times, Op-Ed article, April 25
A Road Runs Through Tara
By COLM TOIBIN
Dublin — The house is built now that I have been dreaming about for
years. Every week I drive down from Dublin, due south through County
Wicklow into County Wexford. I was born and brought up near there.
This two-hour journey from Dublin to Wexford to the new house where I
write belongs to memory. There are a few spots along that stretch of
road that have all the resonance and flavor of childhood, but most of
the road has changed beyond recognition. The narrow winding road to
Dublin has become mostly motorway - anodyne, anonymous, flavorless. I
I wish I missed the old narrow, familiar road. But I do not. I love the
efficiency, the modernity, the coolness of the new road. I love getting
to Dublin in an hour and a half rather than two hours. I love driving
freely in the outside lane, rather than being stuck forever behind a
tractor or a cattle truck.
Nonetheless, when, a number of years ago, they were widening the road
that runs through a nature reserve called the Glen of the Downs, I
supported the protesters, mainly young people who moved there and lived
in the trees. I even stopped my car one day and gave them money to help
them in their campaign against the road builders. I spoke in a
television debate in their favor, pointing out that Irish governments
since independence have seldom been willing to put our precious heritage
before crude, quick development. They would, if the opportunity arose,
run a motorway through the Hill of Tara, the most important ancient
Until recently, this idea might be useful in a heated debate as a worst
case, impossible to contemplate, on a par with selling your granny. But
this now is the prospect we face in Ireland. Despite protests from many
distinguished archaeologists and historians, it seems likely that in the
next few weeks, the government will announce that it is going ahead with
plans to build a four-lane highway and a busy interchange close to the
Hill of Tara.
Tara, an hour's drive northwest of Dublin, was the seat of kings and
remains the site of legends. It was, from prehistoric times, given a
special status. It was where St. Patrick in the fifth century confronted
the pagan kings and druids. It was the center of the universe in many of
the ancient Irish sagas, the pinnacle of power.
In the 19th century, as Irish nationalism looked to a past unsullied by
the Danish or Norman or English invasions, it became a symbol of
Ireland's former strength and glory. On Aug. 15, 1843, for example,
Daniel O'Connell, the political leader, spoke at a momentous meeting
against Ireland's union with England. He extolled the grandeur of the
place where he stood: "Tara has historical recollections that give it an
importance, relatively, to other portions of the land, and deserves to
be so considered by every person who comes to it for political purposes,
and gives it an elevation and point of impression in the public mind
that no other part of Ireland can possibly have." Thus Tara became a
symbol for the whole island.
Emigrants from Ireland, like the O'Hara family in "Gone With the Wind,"
could conjure up the old country by calling their estate after its most
sacred place. Indeed, so sacred became its reputation at the end of the
19th century, and so much mystery surrounded what was buried beneath,
that a sect called the British Israelites began to dig there in search
for the Ark of the Covenant. They were greeted with much indignation by
Irish nationalists like Yeats, who believed that the Hill of Tara, where
the remains of 30 or soprehistoric monuments are somewhat visible to
this day, must have its mystery unraveled by the slow and painstaking
work of archaeologists.
I drove there on a Sunday afternoon under a low and threatening Irish
sky. It is not a set of ruined castles and broken stones. Its grandeur
lies in its commanding position and from hints and clues, like large
mounds, some circles and earthworks, that help us imagine what this must
have looked like when it was a set of great ceremonial buildings and
sites. And its grandeur lies underneath the ground, where for centuries
to come archaeologists will find not only treasure but also significant
evidence about early Ireland.
The proposed road will not cut through the actual hill, but it will run
close, slicing through a landscape that was once integrated with Tara.
The route of the road includes many important archaeological sites that
will have to be excavated thoroughly before they are destroyed by the
The National Roads Authority in Ireland has built up significant
expertise in doing these rescue missions according to best possible
practice. The interchange and the new road, however, will bring in their
wake not only traffic, but development like warehouses and light
industry. A rural idyll becomes an urban landscape.
The beauty and isolation of the valley, which has Tara on one side and
Skryne, another historical site of some importance, on the other, will
effectively be destroyed. A place of myth and mystery will look like
anywhere. It is called modernization.
For commuters who drive each day to work in Dublin from towns and
villages in County Meath, where Tara lies, it might cut 20 minutes off
the journey. It will make them happy as the road to Wexford makes me
happy. But it seems almost beyond belief that Ireland, awash with new
money and enormous economic confidence, cannot find another route for
the road and leave for generations to come a heritage that has been left
On one side of the argument there is a fierce pragmatism about the need
to bring Irish infrastructure into the 21st century. On the other side
there is a mixture of well-informed indignation and a lovely old
When I asked one of the opponents of the new road why he minded the idea
of powerful lights on it and the interchange, he replied, as though the
answer were obvious, "On a clear night Tara must be able to see the