Road Project Encroaches on Ireland's Hill of Tara

The Hill of Tara, one of Ireland's most historically important sites, is near a proposed site for a major highway. Many residents welcome the project as a way to relieve traffic, but others argue it endangers part of the nation's cultural heritage. The site, which includes tombs and mounds, was the seat of the kings of Ireland before the arrival of Christianity.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In Ireland, the Hill of Tara is one of that country's most historic sites, the ancient seat of kings with tombs dating back 5,000 years. In Celtic mythology, it's the dwelling place of the gods. Well, these days the gods have noisy neighbors. Tara lies off one of Dublin's busiest commuter roads. Now the government wants to build a four-lane highway through the surrounding valley. Reporter Sue Ellicott hiked the windy bluffs of Tara Hill to gauge local reaction to the plan.

(Soundbite of wind, clanking noise)

SUE ELLICOTT reporting:

I'm on Ireland's most famous hill. Below me lie fields dotted with sheep and stone houses. A path leads to a church inside a wall hidden by beech trees and a thousand shades of green.

(Soundbite of automobile)

ELLICOTT: The Irish government plans to build a highway through Tara's valley. Visitors will be able to see a bit of it from the summit. Yet, to my surprise as I drive around, no where do I see signs of opposition.

Ms. SANDRA FOLEY (Cafe Employee, Dunshaughlin): I come in at about 20 past 6. The traffic is constant, straight through all morning. Never stops. The new roads will take all of the heavy traffic away.

ELLICOTT: Sandra Foley works at a cafe in Dunshaughlin, a one-street town on the road from Tara to Dublin. A one-hour drive to local shops used to take her 20 minutes. She says most protesters are romantic outsiders.

Ms. FOLEY: We just call them tree huggers. And just--I think they've got nothing better to do than just try and uproot everything that's going on around, like, you know--the road needs to be built. End of story. That's it.

ELLICOTT: Gary Leach is one of those outsiders. He's passing through Tara on a 30-day cycling tour. He opposes the new road because he doesn't want Ireland to become another North America, where interstates have destroyed millions of trees.

Mr. GARY LEACH (Cycling Tour Participant): But if you step back and you look at the hardwood forests and you think about how beautiful this place must have been 200 years ago--and, my Lord, what have we done? If Ireland's going to do the same thing, maybe they should step back and say, `My Lord, what are we going to do?'

ELLICOTT: As Gary pedals downhill in the rain, a bus pulls into Tara's parking lot. Out steps a short, energetic woman in a safari jacket: Mary Gibbons, an archaeologist and tour guide to the sacred hill for 30 years. She supports building the road, but with some serious reservations about the bulldozing of history in an economic boom.

Ms. MARY GIBBONS (Archaeologist, Tara Hill Tour Guide): Our record so far isn't such a good one. You see, a lot of people feel that a lot of the present developers--that they have no interest in the cultural aspects of Ireland.

ELLICOTT: Any construction these days is a touchy subject. Ireland is in the throes of its biggest population changes since the 19th century, as workers flock from rural areas to cities. But Ms. Gibbons isn't strictly opposed to a new road because it's not going to go through the Hill of Tara at all. It'll go around it, through its valley, further away from the mythical site than the current road.

Ms. GIBBONS: The reason there's such a to-do about it is misinformation because when people first heard they're putting a road through Tara, well, that would be absolutely sacrilege.

ELLICOTT: What locals say they want more than a road is a train to Dublin. That way they wouldn't have to drive at all, and the tranquility of old Ireland could again be theirs.

Ms. MARY DENNEHY (Former Child Care Worker): It's terrible to come out in the morning at 5:00 and to hear the constant buzz and whiz and beep-beep and everything of traffic.

ELLICOTT: Mary Dennehy, a former child care worker, is at lunch at Tara's cafe. She objects more to the extra noise a new road will bring than the spoiling of a view she's known since childhood.

Ms. DENNEHY: Or I think we should have peace, but that's not the way it's going to be, and that's not the way it is at the minute.

ELLICOTT: Unless, of course, she drives to Dublin, where horse-drawn carriages still operate downtown, and closes her eyes.

(Soundbite of hoof beats)

ELLICOTT: For NPR News, I'm Sue Ellicott.

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