Celtic Cultural Sites in Crosshairs of Road Project The Irish government has embarked on a massive road-building program to cope with the country's steep economic expansion. However, a new proposed motorway will plow through some of Ireland's richest archaeological sites -- including the site of Tara, considered by many to be the birthplace of Celtic culture.

Celtic Cultural Sites in Crosshairs of Road Project

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Ireland's economy is booming but not without some growing pains. There's now a legal battle over plans to build a four-lane highway next to the site where Ireland's high kings were crowned in ancient times. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from the Hill of Tara.

Mr. VINCENT SALAFIA (Highway Opponent): There's no other place in Ireland like Tara. Tara is almost at this point a state of mind. It represents everything that is sacred, spiritual and indeed beautiful about the Irish people.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Vincent Salafia is leading a campaign to prevent a four-lane freeway being built beside the 5,000-year-old Hill of Tara. With house prices soaring in Dublin, many people have had to move out of the city, and the commute on the existing two-lane road from the town of Navan can take up to two and a half hours each way. Salafia says he's not opposed to a new freeway being built, but he argues it should take a different route. He says it's a question of whether Ireland can retain its cultural identity as its economy takes off.

Mr. SALAFIA: You have to ask yourself, is a Celtic tiger - is it a tiger like any other tiger? And I think this will define what is the nature of the Celtic tiger. Does it stand for purely for unbridled development at any cost, or can we still stand up and be proud not just of our economic success but of our ability to maintain our integrity?

GIFFORD: Well, they say that you can see 16 of Ireland's 32 counties from here on the top of the Hill of Tara, and I can believe it. It's a fantastic view out across rural Ireland. And Tara is not just the heart and soul of Celtic civilization. It's very important in the history of Christianity in Ireland. Legend has it that it was here on the Hill of Tara that St. Patrick first encountered the high king, who gave him permission to spread the Christian gospel throughout Ireland.

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GIFFORD: Back-hoes have already begun to clear the soil around dozens of archeological sites that lie along the proposed route, even though construction of the road itself is stalled by legal action. The government says whatever route the road takes, some archeological sites will be disturbed. But it says that much-needed infrastructure simply must be built.

Dàire O'Rourke, senior archeologist for the National Roads Authority, says the campaigners need to embrace Ireland's new identity.

Ms. DÀIRE O'ROURKE (National Roads Authority): The protesters do not have any rights over the word Celtic or what they feel to be Celtic or to be Irish. I mean, that's just nonsensical. Anyway, the whole concept of being Irish nowadays in the 21st century is different to even 30 years ago, when I was a child. Being Irish has developed and changed, and part of that new Ireland is development and infrastructure and heritage protection.

GIFFORD: Back at the Hill of Tara itself, visitors are torn. Frank Poole(ph), a Dubliner born and bred who's retired down the road to Navan, sums up the contradictory feelings of many about whether the motorway should be built.

Mr. FRANK POOLE (Dubliner): My heart tells me no, but my head tells me yes. Why? Well, this is my granddaughter. She lives in Navan, as do I, and I don't have to commute to Dublin. I don't have to go near Dublin at all, but this little girl's dad does, and he spends sometimes up to four hours on the road to and from work. So for people like him, we need to do something.

GIFFORD: The debate is not over yet. In March, Vincent Salafia's legal action to prevent construction of the freeway was defeated in Ireland's high court. He's now appealing to the supreme court and says he'll take it all the way to the European Court of Justice. Rob Gifford, NPR News.

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