On the surface, the subject of roads appears bland and lifeless. But lay down a road in Ireland and you must first dig up a surface that hides thousands of years of history.
The controversy over the M50 motorway around Dublin is still rumbling after it ran smack into the walls of a medieval fort. But the row over Carrickmines Castle has become a sideshow in comparison to the ruckus over a planned motorway through the Tara/Skryne Valley in County Meath.
The plan is to push the proposed M3 through the valley and under the shadow of Tara Hill, seat of ancient Ireland’s High Kings.
So no surprise there’s a huge row. And not just that. The planned motorway route has even stirred one of the country’s major Sunday newspapers to mount a campaign, no less, something not seen in Irish journalism since the aforementioned monarchs were striding around the Boyne Valley.
The Sunday Tribune, in a recent editorial, made no bones about how it felt. If the M3 went ahead as currently planned, it opined, “the valley will be destroyed. There is no other word for it. To build the motorway, they must destroy the valley.”
The paper chastised politicians who had no vision, no foresight, no sense of history. “And as far as we are concerned, so souls.”
Not all politicians, of course. One D_il member who happens to chair the Oireachtas environment committee described the proposed route through Tara/Skryne as a plan “bordering on vandalism.”
Sean Haughey is Charlie’s son. He is a softer version of the old man, at least in terms of how he verbally assesses things. Charlie would not have used the word “bordering” had he taken a similar dislike to the proposed route.
For all his bad habits, Haughey Sr. had a strong sense of history, legacy and the aesthetic.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is cut from a different cloth. His is a practical bent, not much inclined to matters less tangible than, say, concrete, fiscal statistics, or a pint of plain in the smoke-free local.
Bertie was, however, roused from his hectic prime ministerial schedule at one point and made a trip into the sticks of Meath to survey the motorway route for himself. He said he couldn’t see Tara Hill from a point on the proposed motorway route where he planted his feet. And he made the salient point that the motorway was not actually cutting through, or rolling over, the hill itself.
Critics, both domestic and international, responded that Bertie’s verdict was an especially glaring example of the taoiseach’s myopia. Their argument has less to do with the motorway in its entire sense than with a four-lane, 15-kilometer stretch that will plow right through the valley and be clearly visible from Tara.
Also visible, they say, will be a floodlit interchange a mere kilometer from the summit.
To date, 42 archaeological sites have been found along the section of the proposed motorway that passes through a valley, described by Frank McDonald, environment correspondent of the Irish Times, as “softly rolling.”
According to McDonald, development in the valley might not stop at just a motorway.
“As if to compound its impact, rumors are rife in County Meath that developers have been acquiring options from farmers with land around the proposed interchange, with an eye on its potential for retail warehousing and other motorway-related development,” McDonald recently wrote.
Nobody is arguing against the need to widen other roads in the area. And while the need for an actual motorway has been questioned by some, most critics have contented themselves by pointing to an alternative M3 route a few miles to the east of what is laid down in the current plan.
As he was packing his bags for his new job as EU ambassador to the U.S., former Taoiseach John Bruton was asked for his view of the proposed route.
Bruton is a Meath man. His retirement from the D_il will mean a spring byelection in the county in which the M3 route plan is likely to figure as a major issue.
Bruton said it was evident from archaeological studies that Tara was “the center of a sacred space of interlinked monuments stretching over a comparatively large area.”
Short of running over the hill itself, it was, in Bruton’s view, “difficult to conceive of a route more likely to run into delays generated by archaeological excavations than this one.”
As if Ahern hadn’t enough problems with tribunals, planning scandals and Paisley, now it’s talk of sacred space. But Bruton’s thinking is on track, though delays in completing the motorway as currently envisaged will have as much to do with lawsuits than archaeological digs. And this is what could actually force a route change.
Few among the hordes of car-driving commuters daily grinding through the Meath countryside to and from Dublin are likely to lose all that much sleep at the thought of asphalt being laid atop what the bronze age has unwittingly bequeathed them. But they will for sure get their tailpipes up if the M3 is delayed for years by court action.
A move to the alternative route would appear to be an option worth looking at, though there’s certain to be controversy arising from that course too. Either way, there’s a battle of wills looming in the valley.
Ahern, his government, and the National Roads Authority, the body charged with building motorways, will be virtually impossible to move if they decide that the plan’s the only plan.
Stubbornness at certain critical moments is a trait that has contributed to making Ahern — “the most cunning of them all,” in Charlie Haughey’s words — a political survivor almost without compare in the history of the Irish state.
But Ahern might have to look again in this case. All those honking horns are voters desperate to get from here to there in less time than it takes to lose their collective sanity.
Perhaps, this time, it would be the smart thing for Ahern to bow to the High Kings and take the higher road.