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In Ireland, Commuters vs. Kings

But opponents contend that a realistic definition of the hill must include the adjoining valley and nearby Hill of Skryne, all of which formed a coherent civilization from the Iron Age and are honeycombed with dozens of invaluable archaeological sites and a rich, if largely buried, history.

"There are monuments and sites throughout the area that define the core zone of the Hill of Tara and the royal domain around it, and the motorway is literally going right through the middle of it," says Conor Newman, an archaeologist at the National University of Ireland at Galway, who has studied the region for 13 years.

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)

On a clear day much of Ireland's heartland is visible from Tara's crest. Its features include the Mound of Hostages, which is aligned to the rising sun and full moon, and dates to 2500 B.C., and the ancient coronation stone known as the Lia Fail, scene of the inauguration of the 142 kings said to have reigned here. St. Patrick, Ireland's patron saint, journeyed to Tara in A.D. 433 to challenge the power of the wizards.

In more recent times, 400 Irish patriots died in a battle with British soldiers atop the hill, and author Margaret Mitchell took the name for Scarlett O'Hara's plantation in "Gone With the Wind."

Opponents have gathered support from dozens of archaeologists and historians throughout Ireland and the world, including the Archaeological Institute of America and the European Association of Archaeologists. Many local residents resent this invasion by outsiders, known derisively as "blow-ins."

Michael Cassidy, president of the Navan Chamber of Commerce, says the lack of adequate roads means the area cannot attract new businesses that would bring jobs and save many residents from heading south to Dublin every morning. He resents campaigners who have moved to the area simply to oppose the road. "These people are going on the national airwaves claiming to be residents and it's not true," he says.

Michael Slavin, a local historian who has written about the hill and leads a group called Friends of Tara, says that 90 percent of the residents of County Meath support the project, but that opponents have mobilized the news media and international opposition through distorted arguments and use of the Internet. "To say the motorway is going through the Hill of Tara is like saying the Washington Monument could be destroyed by a highway built two miles away," he says.

The next decision is in the hands of Dick Roche, the environment minister, who has to decide whether to give the excavators permission to dig up and move archaeological finds. No matter what he decides, both sides expect the matter to wind up in court.

"We realize we can't freeze-frame the whole country," says archaeologist Newman. "But the Hill of Tara has exceptional importance and status conferred upon us by our ancestors from pre-history."

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