Paving over the past

Spotted by Best of Both Worlds. Poet Paul Muldoon, recent interview noted here, picks up on the contrasting approaches from the once-and-future-Toaiseach to two historic sites in Ireland.. the Tara-Skryne Valley – where the discovery of a national monument has meant work on the M3 motorway has, probably only temporarily, been halted – and the Boyne Battle site – where a tourist centre is being built.. to the delight of certain visitors..

It seems strange, to say the least, that the idea of the scene of the Battle of the Boyne as a tourist destination is being bandied about while Tara is being bulldozed. If Bertie Ahern does happen to be returned as prime minister, it’s still not too late for him and Fianna Fail to go down in history as the government that paved the way for a new era of Irish cooperation rather than the government that, at least with regard to Tara of the Kings, literally paved the way.

In the article Paul Muldoon points to the historic strangeness of building a visitors’ centre at one site while building a motorway through the other.

With the end of the Northern Ireland conflict and the power-sharing agreement of the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, this area of County Meath has rapidly become the most disputed terrain in the country. Even the nearby scene of the Battle of the Boyne, where in 1690 William of Orange defeated James II to reassert English Protestant rule over Ireland, and which was visited recently by Ian Paisley and Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in a spirit of great joviality, joshing and gift-giving, is now likely to be relegated to the status of theme park.

What makes the Tara-Skryne Valley so special is not only the battle once fought there, but a remarkably high concentration of ceremonial monuments including the Hill of Tara itself, which was, and is, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.

Archaeologists calculate that the oldest of the monuments, the Mound of the Hostages, was raised in about 3000 B.C., thus making it roughly contemporaneous with the construction of Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. This monument contains a chamber in which, at the festivals of Imbolc (Feb. 1) and Samhain (Nov. 1), the rising sun is perfectly aligned, just as at the winter solstice in the great passage tomb at nearby Newgrange, a shaft of sunlight penetrates the inner sanctum of a massive mound whose white quartz facade is glisteningly reminiscent of the Portland stone of the Parliament buildings in Belfast.

Also nearby is the Hill of Slane, on which St. Patrick is reputed to have lighted a fire to get the attention of King Laoghaire and begin to obscure the light of the sun god with the light of God the Son. It was from the Mound of the Hostages that the coronation stone of Laoghaire and countless other Irish kings, the six-foot-tall, phallic Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, was moved to the nearby memorial honoring the 500 or so United Irishmen who died at the Battle of Tara Hill.

Some believe that the Stone of Scone, long used for the coronation of British monarchs, may also be traced back to Tara, having been removed by St. Columba to Scotland and thence to Westminster Abbey by Edward I.

And it was at Tara in 1843 that the political leader Daniel O’Connell, known as “the Liberator,” spoke to an estimated million people — the largest of a series of “monster meetings,” as they were termed — in support of Catholic Emancipation, the repeal of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and the restoration of the Irish Parliament. This location was chosen by O’Connell precisely because of its profound significance in the Irish psyche.

It’s an irony, then, that Prime Minister Ahern and the Fianna Fail government of the Republic of Ireland (the party name, which means “Soldiers of Destiny,” suggests an intimate relationship with the Stone of Destiny) have seemed to be standing by while the Tara-Skryne Valley is threatened with destruction by the building of a 70-mile motorway to ease the commute between County Meath and Dublin to the south.

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