TARA, Ireland -- Her name was Tea, and one Celtic legend says an ancient Irish king named Erimhon fell madly in love with her in Spain and enticed her back to his native land. As a wedding present, he gave her the most beautiful hill in all of Ireland and named it after her.
The Hill of Tara, as it is known today, rises gently from some of Europe's richest pastures, an emerald vista dotted with a network of man-made burial mounds, earthworks and monumental stones. For people who lived here beginning 6,000 years ago, this was the most sacred place on Earth, the site of coronations, festivals and myths, and the entry point to the netherworld where the dead dwell for eternity.
A group of local and national Irish officials and an archaeologist visit the tower of Skreen Church in County Meath, near the Hill of Tara, to assess the impact the proposed highway route would have on the area's antiquities.
(Alan Betson -- The Irish Times)
These days the Hill of Tara is not only one of Ireland's most legendary sites but the focus of one of its most bitter controversies. The country's road planners, seeking to ease traffic congestion in the booming exurbs of the capital, Dublin, 25 miles away, are preparing a four-lane highway through the picturesque Skryne Valley that lies just east of the hill.
Most local residents, frazzled by two-hour commutes down the narrow, two-lane rural turnpike that is their only direct route to Dublin, passionately favor the highway. But a determined band of opponents, spearheaded by archaeologists, environmentalists and preservationists, is fighting it every step of the way, threatening legal action that could hang up the project for a decade or kill it altogether.
This is very much a tale of modern Ireland and its new prosperity. Over the past decade, an economically stagnant isle has been transformed into the Celtic Tiger, with double-digit annual growth fueled by a high-tech boom and generous subsidies from the European Union.
Ireland's population, depleted for more than a century by emigration, famine and poverty, has now surpassed 4 million -- its highest level in more than 130 years. New housing is mushrooming across the countryside and road traffic has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.
One of the leaders of the Save Tara Skryne Valley Group is Vincent Salafia, 39, who left southern Ireland in 1983, as did perhaps half his high school graduating class. He went to college and law school in Florida and returned home seven years ago when the boom and a sense of homesickness proved irresistible. Salafia says he's keenly aware that he's fighting the impact of the same prosperity that drew him back to Ireland.
"It struck me things were changing very rapidly and that the Ireland I knew was disappearing," he says. "It's beginning to look more and more like Florida: a big building boom and no one paying attention to environmental or heritage issues."
The battle for Tara began in earnest two years ago after the National Roads Authority proposed the M3 motorway. The 70-mile road is designed to ease congestion heading from Dublin to County Meath, a blend of old farms and new housing tracts much like Virginia's Loudoun County of three decades ago. Meath's population has more than doubled over the past decade and is projected to double again during the next. Parts of the N3, the sole existing two-lane road to Dublin, carry two to three times the traffic it was designed for, and the accident rate is 50 percent higher than the national average.
On a typical evening, traffic heading northwest from Dublin slows to a crawl from the interchange with the M50 all the way to the burgeoning town of Navan 20 miles away. Tommy Reilly, a local politician who runs a newspaper shop in Navan, says that when he opens at 6 a.m., the main road, which goes through the middle of each town, is already choked with traffic and fumes of commuters heading south.
The national road planners looked at 10 different routes for a new motorway and settled on the one they contend would cause the least amount of damage -- including not only archaeological issues but impact on air and water quality and the number of houses and trees that would have to be removed. The state planning board held 28 days of public hearings and confirmed the choice.
There are 120,000 known archaeological monuments in Ireland and hundreds of thousands more beneath the surface; road planners argue that it's almost impossible to stick a spade in the ground without hitting something of value. Excavators marking out the roadway have already uncovered 38 archaeological finds.
Those deemed valuable will be recorded and packed off to the national museum in Dublin. "We have to live in the real world," says Michael Egan, spokesman for the National Roads Authority. "There's no perfect alternative but we've done our best to balance the issues."
The heart of the conflict is over the size and meaning of the Hill of Tara. Proponents of the motorway insist the hill should be seen solely as the oval promontory of a few hundred acres currently under state protection. By that reckoning, the new motorway would be at least a mile away -- in most places, farther than the current N3.