The Hill of Tara in the Skryne Valley of County Meath, Ireland is an ancient place. Archaeological evidence suggests that it served as a ceremonial meeting place for the Neolithic residents of Ireland. While the ways of life of these vanished pre-Celtic people remain shrouded in mystery, their stone structures still dot the Irish landscape, having been protected for millennia through local taboos that imbued these artifacts with sacred, magical qualities. Atop its summit stands the Lia Fail, the Stone of Destiny, before which 142 kings were crowned from 3,000 B.C. until the 12th century A.D. St. Patrick came to Tara in the 5th Century to convince King Laoghaire to allow Patrick to continue converting Celtic pagans to Christianity. Thus, Tara has been a sacred site to the early peoples of Ireland, and also to modern Irish whose Catholicism forms a central component of their personal and nationalistic identities. Indeed, Tara symbolizes a sacred crossroads in Irish history - one where the transformation of the very soul of Ireland was negotiated in a relatively peaceful manner.

Figure 1. The Mound of Hostages on the Hill of Tara.(Source: JE Martin, Photograph Taken 23 April, 2014).
Figure 1. The Mound of Hostages on the Hill of Tara. (Source: JE Martin, Photograph Taken 23 April, 2014).

In recognition of Tara as both the birthplace of Ireland's contemporary Catholic heritage and the ancient center of Celtic political power, Irish leaders and revolutionaries have evoked the site's power so as to spark and legitimate anti-colonial rebellions against the British in recent historical times. During the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the revolutionary group, United Irishmen, chose the Hill of Tara to establish a strategic camp. These rebels were ultimately defeated by British troops and the Lia Fail was moved to mark the graves of the four hundred men who died in the battle. Forty-five years later, the storied Irish republican, Daniel O'Connell, chose Tara to host one of his 'Monster Meetings', at which 750,000 supporters rallied to repeal the Act of Union between England and Ireland. These political events have now become part of the mythology of Tara and contribute to the symbolic repertoires of action that remain available to contemporary political and cultural activists seeking to mobilize supporters against new perceived threats to the Irish nation.

Figure 2. The Lia Fail at the Hill of Tara. (Source: Allyn Folks, Jr., Photograph Taken 11 November, 2013).  
Figure 2. The Lia Fail at the Hill of Tara. (Source: Allyn Folks, Jr., Photograph Taken 11 November, 2013).   Figure 3. Celtic Cross at the Hill of Tara. (Source: Marion Wacker, Photo Taken 7 October, 2013).

Perhaps most striking to modern-day visitors to the Hill of Tara is the natural beauty of the landscape, which remains relatively unaltered and unexcavated. Only two of the dozens of monuments on the hill have been fully unearthed, leaving sightseers with a virtually empty natural canvas on which to reconstruct in their own imaginations the political, spiritual and ceremonial events that have taken place on the site over the course of millennia. While Tara's landscape is certainly powerful enough to evoke awe in the minds of transient tourists, its influence on the Irish people goes far deeper. For them, Tara is a place where the past and the present unite. Certainly the historical events that transpired at Tara, and the people who chose to assert their authority on the hill, give the site much of its mythical relevance. But perhaps more significant than what occurred at Tara are the reasons ancient and contemporary leaders chose this place as their font of power and authority. Standing atop the ancient site, one can surmise that there is something about the land itself, something perceived as timeless and powerful that drew them here time and again.

Figure 4. Map shows the location of the M3 motorway (in blue). Source: TaraWatch (retrieved from
Figure 4. Map shows the location of the M3 motorway (in blue). Source: TaraWatch (retrieved from

However, a modern day visitor standing on the Hill of Tara, taking in the beauty, the history and the magnitude of the place, is likely to notice something more than the sweeping landscape and a couple of monuments. They are likely to notice a road. From the perspective of a tourist who may be accustomed to the proliferation of roadways and the congestion of superhighways, this may seem like a rather small and insignificant road. To the Irish people, however, that road is no small thoroughfare. To some, it means a twenty-minute faster commute from the peripheral suburbs of Dublin to their jobs downtown. To others, it represents the development and progress that signified Ireland's economic rebirth during the Celtic Tiger era. And to many others, that road symbolizes a grievous attack on Ireland's cultural heritage - one that threatens the very soul of the nation. Thus, although past and present unite at Tara, the site has contested meanings for the Irish people in terms of who they think they were in ancient times and in the days before independence, and also to who they think they are today.

With so many interests at stake, it is perhaps not surprising that the building of the M3 motorway through the heart of the Tara-Skryne landscape has been so controversial. A deeper look reveals how this issue has evolved into a discursive battle to define Ireland's national identity in the context of rapid modernization and globalization. This paper traces the controversy over the M3 motorway and examines how the opponents' discursive strategies reflect key nationalistic themes that have been activated by Irish political actors over time during historical episodes of contention and nation-state building3. This is a theoretically compelling exercise because it reveals the durability of nationalistic symbols over time and in diverse political contexts. In the case of Ireland, it demonstrates how citizens make sense of themselves in terms of their past and how culturally significant spaces play a central role in the process of national identity construction and state building in this relatively young republic. It also provides insight into the strategic aspect of identity formation as it is linked to frame alignment processes in a manifestly inter-connected world. This process is complicated by conflicting pressures of modernity and the allure of economic prosperity that also vie for pre-eminence as national interests.

The Controversy

Planning for the construction of the M3 motorway began in 1999 to alleviate traffic congestion on older roads that was exacerbated by rapid development and suburbanization accompanying the unprecedented economic growth of the Celtic Tiger era. The idea for the four-lane tollway was born through the planning process of the Meath County Council, and in partnership with Ireland's National Roads Authority (NRA), which provided funding, and Cintra, a Spanish company, which would be the primary contractor for the project. The County and the NRA contended that the roadway was a necessary upgrade to the region's antiquated transportation infrastructure, which had become one of the most congested and hazardous in the country, and essential to promoting economic development in the county (Irish Times 2007). In 2003, following a 28-day oral hearing covering potential cultural and archaeological impacts of the roadway, the proposed route received formal approval by An Bord Pleanala, the independent statutory body that oversees applications for infrastructure development projects in the country.

Notwithstanding the County's claim that the road was needed to alleviate traffic congestion, about which many of Meath's 20,000 commuters had been railing for years, the proposal sparked almost immediate outrage from a vocal faction of concerned citizens who worried that the construction would demolish dozens of unexcavated monuments in the valley and unacceptably alter the quality of the site by changing the contour of the hill and separating the central area of Tara from its outlying features. Thirty academics from Ireland and around the world, who were amongst those concerned, wrote a letter of protest to the Irish Times, calling on the government to avert the "massive national and international tragedy" that would occur if the motorway was completed as planned (Hesse 2006). Acting on similar concerns, the World Monuments Fund and the Smithsonian Institute placed the Hill of Tara on their most endangered sites list.

Over the next few years, mobilization in opposition to the motorway intensified. The group at the heart of the resistance was TaraWatch, a loosely structured internet-based organization led by Dublin lawyer Vincent Salafia. Throughout their campaign, TaraWatch utilized an array of institutional and extra-institutional strategies of action to garner support for its cause. These included direct protest, letter and petition writing campaigns, lawsuits, and appeals to the international community. While construction on the road continued, TaraWatch gathered supporters. At the height of the conflict in 2009, the group had over 13,000 official members, a sizeable support network amongst the Irish diasporic community in the United States, active membership involved in protest events as far away as Australia, New York, and Los Angeles, and backing from internationally-known Irish celebrities, including Bono, Jonathan Rhys Myers, Gabriel Byrne and Stuart Townsend (Tara Watch 2010). Archaeological, governmental and public interest organizations from around the world, including the Archaeological Institute of America, the International Celtic Congress, the City of Chicago, and the Massachusetts Archaeological Society issued public statements denouncing the construction and joined TaraWatch in urging that the road be re-routed outside the Tara complex (Tara Watch 2010). While TaraWatch certainly had support from community members, as evidenced by the turnout of over 1,500 people at a protest event on the Hill in 2007, the movement itself was really driven by the efforts of intellectual elites, like Salafia and the various academics, celebrities and other professionals who gave voice to the roadway opposition. In fact, proponents for the roadway contended that the M3 maintained significant support from local citizens, pointing to the emergence of the civic group, Meath Citizens for the M3, and the results of surveys conducted by that group suggesting support from 90% of Meath County residents (Irish Times 2007).

Figure 5.  Protest Sign Outside Tara. (Source: Kathryn Rotondo, Photograph Taken 7 June, 2007).
Figure 5. Protest Sign Outside Tara. (Source: Kathryn Rotondo, Photograph Taken 7 June, 2007).

In 2007, the struggle took on an increased sense of urgency when construction crews uncovered a new monument at Lismullin, close to the Hill of Tara, while excavating the area in preparation for the road. The monument was immediately included in Archaeology Magazine's "Ten Most Important Discoveries in the World in 2007" (TaraWatch 2010). Despite public outcry, as well as assertions that EU law required that a new Environmental Impact Assessment be conducted, former Environment Minister, Dick Roche, approved the demolition of the monument4. The outrage over the destruction of the Lismullin monument brought a new wave of public pressure on the Irish Parliament. After the 2007 general election, Green Party leader, John Gormley, who had campaigned against the M3 motorway leading up the elections, replaced Dick Roche as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. To the chagrin of TaraWatch and their allies, however, the newly appointed Minister Gormley refused to halt construction of the road, citing legal constraints.

Shocked by the Green Party leader's perceived betrayal, opponents of the motorway turned to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) for help, viewing the international body as their last real hope for intervention. The WHC, however, declined to intervene in the controversy unless and until the Hill of Tara was nominated as a World Heritage Site. For his part, Minister Gormley expressed support for the nomination, but the official nomination was not made until 2010 when the M3 roadway was almost completed (TaraWatch 2010). While the Tara Complex has now been included on the Serial 2010 Tentative List of potential World Heritage properties, its inclusion on this list in no way guarantees its ultimate inscription as a World Heritage Site. TaraWatch, which had been afforded standing to represent the interests of oppositional stakeholders at WHC meetings, has petitioned the WHC, arguing that it would be a breach of international law for the WHC to approve Tara as a World Heritage Site with a motorway running through the middle of it.

Ireland became a state party to UNESCO's 1972 Convention Concerning the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1991. Under the Convention, Ireland has a duty "to ensure that effective and active measures are taken for the protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory" (Stone 2008: 526). But while the WHC has the authority to place world heritage sites on the In Danger List and, in extreme case, to remove sites from the World Heritage List when it believes they have lost the characteristics that warranted inclusion in the first place, historical precedent suggests that the presence of the M3 roadway within the Tara Complex may not bar Tara from inclusion on the list. That being said, lessons from a similar controversy involving two roadways running near Stonehenge demonstrate the potential for WHC intervention to result in meaningful remediation where development threatens the integrity of a world heritage site. In that case, the inscription of the site occurred despite the presence of two roadways, the A303 and A344, running very close to the stones and separating the complex into three artificial tracts (Stone 2008). At the time of Stonehenge's inscription in 1986, the WHC noted "with satisfaction" that UK authorities were giving serious consideration to the closure of the A344, which ran only a few meters from the Heel Stone (Stone 2008). Despite the UK's assurances, momentum to close to A344 and reroute the A303 stagnated amidst budget concerns and debates among conservationists and officials over the chief proposal to bury the A303 in a two-kilometer tunnel. In 2005, after years working to find an equitable solution to the problem, the WHC officially expressed regret over the lack of progress and initiated a full investigation into the situation. Although it took several more years, in 2013 a project to close and grass over the offending section of the A344 was completed. In December 2014, a new proposal to tunnel the A303 near Stonehenge was put forward and met with debate from various stakeholders on all sides of the issue. At present there appears to be no easy solution that will meet the diverse and often conflicting interests of cultural conservationists, environmentalists, local commuters and policymakers.

On one hand, the lessons of Stonehenge do not instill much confidence that WHC intervention will result in a re-routing of the M3 Motorway. That lengthy and unresolved controversy reveals that despite the 1972 Convention's mandates prioritizing heritage preservation, the WHC's practice is to take a more measured approach to the complex challenges facing world heritage sites, allowing state parties to balance heritage priorities along with other compelling responsibilities pertaining to economic development and infrastructure improvement. On the other hand, the Stonehenge case suggests that WHC intervention does promote some action from the state, albeit on a slower pace and with less sweeping remedies than desired by historical preservationists. Indeed, opponents of the M3 have experienced some small victories since TaraWatch launched their petition to UNESCO in 2008. For example, in 2009, Minister Gormley announced new regulations to protect the Hill of Tara from unchecked development along the new thoroughfare. The proposal would designate the Tara-Skryne Valley as a Special Conservation Area, which would prevent the construction of large retail parks and superstores in the area (Kelly 2009). The Minister also initiated the process of amending the National Monuments Act to comply with EU heritage protection laws and provide additional safeguards for national monuments against road-building initiatives going forward. For opponents of the M3 motorway at Tara, however, these concessions meant too little, and they came too late to save the site from the unacceptable damage already done. While the issue was pending in international forums, the construction of the roadway continued, and in June 2010 the M3 opened for public use, dashing opponents' hopes for a last minute intervention.

Land, Heritage and Irish National Identity

The construction of a nation-state is at once a structural and a cultural affair and a process that is conducted over time. States assert legitimate authority through central governments with jurisdiction over legal, political, economic and military institutions. States also manifest ideological power over the citizenry through the assertion of cultural myths that serve to unite citizens under a shared idea of nationhood (Loveman 2005). These cultural dynamics of nation-state formation are reflective of Anderson's conceptualization of nations as socially constructed "imagined communities" (Anderson 1983) that are forged through the creation of powerful and unifying narratives of national identity.

National identity formation is not a one-sided process whereby the state imposes and the citizenry accepts dominant cultural myths that uphold state hegemony and serve to maintain the status quo (see, e.g., Hutchinson 2004; Hutchinson 2006; Kane 2011; Zuelow 2009). Rather, national identity construction is inherently discursive, interactional and agency-laden, and is forged over time as competing national myths and symbols vie for pre-eminence—some of which reinforce state structures, while others arise in opposition to the state (Hutchinson 2004). What's more, national identities are not static, but are constantly shifting to meet ever-changing political and economic realities. According to Zuelow (2009) "Nations are perpetually reimagined communities that are maintained through a horizontal dialogue about community membership" (p. xxx). Because national identities, like all collective identities, are both asserted and ascribed, this horizontal dialogue includes not only state actors and citizens, but also foreign states, international governing bodies and multi-national corporations. This is increasingly true today, where processes of globalization have eroded nation-states' prominence as primary structures of social organization (Delanty and Kumar 2006).

Anne Kane (2011) contends that national identity "is a subjectively shared sense of belonging and connection to a particular community based on symbolic conceptualizations of similarity between oneself and one's group, especially in relation to others" (p. 19). The symbolic codes that comprise the content of national identity derive from group culture, which is itself a fluid body of contested and shared meanings that form the substance of a people - their language, religion, ceremonies, beliefs, values, folkways, mores, worldviews, art, music, tools, food, housing, dress, and adornment (Nagel 1996). Myths depicting shared histories, heroic events, experiences of conquest or narratives that define the character of a people in terms of their morality, behaviors, beliefs or physical attributes also become part of the cultural repertoire that can be activated as nationalistic discourses as the need arises (Kane 2011; Zuelow 2009). When used to forge national identities, these symbolic cultural narratives present an image of how certain groups see themselves, and how they wish to be seen by the world. In understanding the power of historical myths and narratives to transform national identities it is not particularly relevant whether the underlying events are historically accurate. What matters more is the ability of these stories to capture the collective imagination and engender a sense of shared experience, values and unity.

While national identity construction is an intrinsic part of the cultural dimension of the state, it is not exclusive to the state apparatus. Indeed, the degree to which nationhood corresponds to statehood varies in different historical, geographical and political contexts. Delanty and Kumar (2006) maintain that manifestations of nationalism today are generally less fused to the state, as the state's political and economic ties become more globally embedded. According to Delanty and Kumar, "The idea of the nation encapsulates social issues, such as solidarity and we-feeling, which are often eroded by the general tendency towards the transnationalization of the state whereby the state disengages itself with the nation" (p. 2). Transformations of statehood, which are integral to processes of globalization, present challenges to dominant cultural narratives of nationhood and provide openings for alternative visions of national identity.

In many ways, Ireland is a compelling site to investigate processes of national identity construction. As a colonized country, Ireland has been involved in struggles for national independence for hundreds of years. Conflict, threat and change have been something of a constant state of being for Irish people from the Viking invasion in the 8th century and the Norman conquest of the 12th century, through the long and desperate period of British colonial domination from the 1500s through Irish independence in 1922. All of these periods were marked by armed struggle between people from diverse cultural backgrounds and with disproportionate political and military authority to define the fate of Ireland. While the characters and objectives varied over time, these struggles essentially boiled down to whether Ireland would be a colonized nation, controlled and dominated by a foreign government for the benefit of foreign citizens, or a sovereign state, governed by the Irish people for the Irish people. Many of these fights were waged on the battlefield, but they were also fought in the newspapers, in the pubs, and in the churches, where much of the symbolic and discursive work of national identity formation occurred (Kane 2011).

Given Ireland's turbulent and contested road to political independence and nationhood, it is perhaps not surprising that numerous scholars have examined the dynamics of cultural nationalism in Ireland (see e.g. Hutchinson 1987; Kane 2011; White 2008; Zuelow 2009). Kane's (2011) exemplary discourse analysis of the Irish Land War from 1879-1882 reveals how ideological and political factionalism that had long hindered Irish revolutionary resistance was overcome through the creation of a unifying national identity. In this case, solidarity was forged through discourses emphasizing three over-arching themes that captured the shared experiences and grievances of Irish political resisters. First, the 'strong farmer' was constructed as the core symbolic group in Ireland, whose values came to be associated with an agrarian way of life and an almost sacred reverence for the land.5 The strong farmer's worldview was framed in opposition to that of absentee landlords and capitalist-minded larger farmers whose power symbolized the inequalities inherent to British colonial rule (Kane 2011). Second, Catholic doctrine was activated during the Land War and mobilized in a more explicitly oppositional and nationalistic manner than had been the case before this time when the Church had routinely promoted greater respect for British rule of law. Movement leaders' use of Catholic symbolism served to galvanize potential participants by framing grievances in terms that resonated with lay Irishmen and women's underlying social identities and belief systems. Third, an oppositional Irish identity was framed during the Land War in terms of constitutional nationalism, whereby the rights of the Irish peasantry were constructed as consistent with the rule of law - just not the law as written and interpreted by the British. This final component of Irish nationalism reflected a deep and enduring oppositional identity forged through continuous resistance to British occupation and domination.

The Irish landscape has served as a particularly durable symbol for the Irish people, and it has been activated and transformed over time through the process of national identity construction. Indeed, as Kane (2011) observed, the near sacred character of the land, and the hearty and humble people whose lives and livelihoods were bound to it, became core symbols of Irish national identity during the Land War in the 1880s that were activated to unite the Irish people against the tyrannical landlord system and British colonial domination more generally. The ancient ruins and historical monuments that dot the countryside also provide constant reminders to the Irish people of the ancestors who came before them and the centuries of struggle and change that made Ireland what it is today. According to Hutchinson (2001), these heritage sites have intentionally been re-made over time by various stakeholders with divergent nationalistic agendas into powerful discursive symbols of national identity. In the 1800s, for example, Protestant Irish utilized monuments to re-imagine a shared Celtic heritage for the purpose of uniting Catholic and Protestant nationalists in support of an independent Irish Parliament. Catholic revolutionaries, on the other hand, rejected these discourses as conciliatory to Britain and instead used the same symbols to highlight the atrocities of British colonization and advance the narrative of an ancient Catholic nation deserving full sovereignty. Because the meaning attached to heritage sites is not fixed, oppositional stakeholders are free to transform their significance to suit their own nationalistic agendas. For Catholic revolutionaries, as well as Land War resisters, the history of the land, and the land itself, became powerful symbols of sovereignty.

Even though the Republic of Ireland has entered an era of post-coloniality and the struggle for independence has passed, many of the symbols that were historically connected to Irish cultural nationalism in the time before the Republic remain significant to Irish people's collective identity. Narratives pertaining to the land and what it represents to the Irish way of life endure as central themes within nationalistic discourses—a point made clear in recent studies of tourism and the growing environmental movement in Ireland (see e.g. Costa 2009; Leonard 2008; Zeulow 2009). In his account of the development of the tourist industry in Ireland, Zuelow (2009) traces the process through which tourism became a national priority and effectively shaped the contemporary Irish national identity. Through the agency-laden process of identity negotiation, Irish stakeholders appealed to potential visitors by presenting Ireland as a land of scenic beauty, generosity and Celtic tradition rather than one of poverty, war and perpetual insurgency. The landscape was seen as the cornerstone of Irish economic prosperity, especially as it was increasingly aligned with the tourist market. Similarly, heritage sites were afforded even greater significance as they were viewed as especially appealing to American tourists seeking an authentic Celtic experience and were compatible with the more harmonious stereotypes of Irish history that the Irish themselves hoped to accentuate. Through the process of developing their tourism industry the Irish have been able to transform their national identity from an essentially revolutionary one to one oriented toward state-building and economic development. By cultivating an identity that harmoniously blends the past, present and future, while emphasizing Ireland's majestic landscape and ancient Celtic traditions, the Irish have presented a "vision of Ireland that is at once timeless and pious, a land of saints and scholars, heroic chieftains, and ancient mysteries" (Zuelow 2009:147).

While the version of Irish nationalism highlighted through tourism favors harmony and unity, the process of contemporary national identity construction in Ireland is not harmonious, but rather a product of contested discourses reflecting divergent values and interests. A key area of conflict within the tourism debate centers on the problem of protecting 'traditional culture' from the intrusion of modernity. For some, the influx of non-Irish tourists into the more traditional areas of the country and the infrastructural improvements required presented an unacceptable threat to an already endangered language and way of life. More recently, unprecedented economic development in Ireland, which peaked during the Celtic Tiger boom of the 1990s, has reignited similar debates regarding the protection of Ireland's landscape, heritage sites, and cultural resources from the relentless press of modernity. Indeed, the Celtic Tiger has presented a very real challenge to Irish identity—one that pits the values of economic independence and prosperity against more traditional, land-based and locally oriented ways of life. From this schism a new cadre of environmental activists has emerged who aim to defend Ireland's natural and cultural resources from destruction due to unchecked economic development by multinational corporations seeking to take advantage of Ireland's lax environmental and taxation standards (Leonard 2008).

In a recent study, Leonard (2008) analyzes the framing strategies utilized during several environmental campaigns in Ireland to reveal the ways that historically-relevant values are re-activated as mobilizing identities through contemporary social movement activism. In particular, Leonard contends that modern-day environmental activists in Ireland construct a "rural sentiment" as a mobilizing framework, which draws from rural communities' agricultural way of life and quasi-sacred connection to the land. In this way, social movement actors are able to discursively link contemporary environmental activism to earlier forms of colonial resistance, such as those utilized during the Land War, which persuasively challenged foreign threats to Irish land rights.

The debate over the M3 roadway provides a dramatic example of struggle between proponents of broad-scale economic and infrastructure development and advocates for the conservation of the environment and national heritage sites. These types of conflicts, which are increasingly common products of 21st century global economic and political pressures, take on a unique flavor in the Irish context. This is perhaps owing to a number of factors, including Ireland's relatively recent independence, its somewhat small geographic size and population, its comparatively well-preserved, rich and visible archaeological legacy, and the overwhelming importance of the land itself to the social, political and economic interests and identities of the Irish people. These factors, combined with Ireland's fervent drive for economic independence following centuries of colonial domination, as well as its attractive location for multinational corporate expansion, make contemporary Ireland a compelling site in which to examine the discursive process of national identity construction in the context of rapid modernization and globalization. The focus on national heritage is especially appealing because it concentrates attention on debates over the visible legacy of a nation's history and how the past continues to inform how contemporary citizens see themselves.


Tara as Sacred Ground

Hutchinson's (2001) research on the cultural and symbolic significance of heritage sites reveals how Ireland's Celtic history was co-opted and re-activated by competing factions prior to independence to advance divergent political ambitions: one promoting an independent Catholic state, and the other favoring a unified and self-governing Ireland within Great Britain. While the long-standing ideological and political conflict that characterized pre-Republic Ireland has passed, the relevance of Ireland's Celtic heritage remains a key cultural framework for constructing Irish nationalism in the 21st century—a fact revealed through activist discourses utilized by those who opposed the construction of the M3 motorway at Tara. In their petition to the United Nations to intervene in the construction, TaraWatch described Tara as "Ireland's capital for millennia" (TaraWatch 2010), thereby framing the site as the birthplace of Ireland's contemporary political authority. Opponents of the M3 also construct an unbroken link between the ancient Celtic world at Tara and the contemporary Irish nation, noting that "[f]or 800 years, it [Tara] tied our ancestors to a legendary past which was ultimately used to stir up revolution and create our Republic" (Kenny 2009). Not only does this framing of the past infuse Tara with contemporary political relevance, it also evokes the site to manufacture a sense of shared ethnic heritage - an ancestry linked to the ancient world through Tara itself. And while this construction belies the reality of contemporary Ireland's more diverse and factional heritage, it echoes earlier nationalistic uses of Ireland's Celtic material culture to formulate a more unified vision of Ireland's past "by invoking 'memories' of the nation as an ancient and unique civilization" (Hutchinson 1987:482).

As with the Land War and earlier environmental campaigns in Ireland, the rhetoric mobilized in opposition to the M3 motorway is situated in "rural sentiment" and the landscape of Tara is framed in sacred terms. For example, in describing the consequences of the roadway construction, the late Poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney notes, "I think it literally desecrates an area—I mean the word means to de-sacralise and for centuries the Tara landscape and the Tara sites have been regarded as part of the sacred ground" (Irish Times 2008a). In describing the significance of the site, Heaney continues,

The traces of Tara are in the grass, in the earth. They aren't spectacular like temple ruins in Greece but they are about origin, they're about beginning, they're about the mythological, spiritual source—something that gives the country its distinctive spirit.

In this case, the framing of Tara as sacred ground serves as a mobilizing framework that links this issue to earlier nationalist struggles over land and effectively raises the stakes of the conflict to one that imperils the very soul of the fledgling nation.

Anti-Colonial Discourses and the Culture of Resistance

Ireland's history of colonization and occupation, and the centuries of Irish resistance against these forces, remain relevant to understanding the discursive strategies used by contemporary environmental activists in the country. While British occupation is no longer a danger, confiscation narratives remain potent discursive constructs for resisting contemporary threats to Ireland's natural resources and heritage sites. In the contemporary Irish context, the vanquished British interlopers have been replaced by a new cadre of aggressors who are seen by environmentalists and anti-globalization activists as placing Ireland's most treasured cultural resources in peril in order to advance their neoliberal agendas. For opponents of the motorway, discursive strategies of resistance require constructing new villains. Here it is the Irish government, private foreign enterprises, and the Celtic Tiger itself that have replaced the British as the primary threats to an Irish national identity that was forged in a heroic, Celtic past and remains written on the Irish landscape.

Ireland's National Roads Authority and the Minister of the Environment are perhaps the worst offenders in the eyes of TaraWatch and other M3 challengers. Indeed, activists frame the actions of these politicians and their associates to usher through the roadway construction as virtually treasonous. For example, Vincent Salafia of TaraWatch implied treachery in response to whistle-blower claims from an archaeologist who consulted for the National Roads Authority that she was coerced into falsifying reports for the agency. According to Mr. Salafia, "It appears that the NRA lied about everything, misled the Courts, and are intentionally wrecking Tara" (TaraWatch 2010, emphasis added). Perhaps more egregious than the actions of the NRA was Environment Minister Gormley's perceived reversal of course after taking office. Opponents of the motorway were outraged that Gormley refused to halt the construction after being elected on a campaign based largely on his opposition to the M3. Various challengers saw Gormley's actions as no less than an act of betrayal, calling for his immediate resignation (Irish Times 2009; Kenny 2009). One protestor speaking about Gormley's disappointing behavior in office noted that Gormley and the Green Party "were full of big righteous talk when they were the opposition but once they got a bit of power, hah, they turned into mice… I meant rats." Added another "They've sold out. It's disgusting" (Irish Times 2008c).

In many ways, the M3 controversy underscores the Irish people's deep ambivalence about the recent push to privatize the public sector, including transportation. This concern is echoed not only by environmental activists, but also by Irish elected officials including, for example, Sinn Fein deputy, Aengus O Snodaigh, who told TaraWatch supporters at a protest event outside the Irish Parliament that the party "remain[s] absolutely opposed [to] the destruction of Tara by the Government and the private companies" (TaraWatch 2010). Many recognize that the push toward privatization cannot be disentangled from the intensification of neoliberalism in Ireland, which underscored both the heyday of the Celtic Tiger era and the dark days of its collapse. The Celtic Tiger, too, has become a villain6 in the battle over Irish national identity, being framed by preservationists as something of a relentless beast "gnawing through all obstacles—up to and including 'the very soul of historic Ireland'—in pursuit of the almighty euro" (Potter 2008).

Concerns over privatization evoke deeper anxieties about the contours of governance in contemporary Ireland. Ireland's rapid economic acceleration in the 1990s was due, in large part, to foreign investment and assistance from the EU. In the post-Celtic Tiger economy, integration with and reliance upon foreign support has only increased. This marks a striking departure from the decades of relative political isolationism where economic development focused primarily on domestic agricultural and industrial development, albeit with inconsistent results. After slowly shedding the mantle of British domination, Irish political sovereignty evolved with an inward focus through most of the 20th century. At the same time, Irish cultural nationalism surged and the commitment to a unified vision of a shared Celtic heritage crystalized as an expression of Irish identity, being formalized through official emphases on Irish education, language and tourism. Through the process of self-governance a dominant cultural narrative emerged that reflected the trends of the Celtic Revival that had been gaining momentum since the 19th century and had provided much of the discursive ammunition for independence in the first place. In this prevailing narrative of the Irish nation, Celtic culture and the heritage sites that marked its history onto the land were to be treasured and protected.

The Hill of Tara is, to many, the most significant ancient Celtic heritage site in Ireland. Its destruction by the Irish government for the benefit of a foreign private enterprise is seen as not only a betrayal of Ireland's cultural legacy, but also a violation of the very foundations of democracy that were won at such high costs less than a century ago. In the eyes of opponents, it is not the Irish people who have chosen to prioritize infrastructure development over Ireland's sacred sites, but rather corrupt politicians who have been captured by non-Irish private interests. References to the failings of democracy over the issue and allegations of corruption are prevalent among oppositional discourses. In its mission statement TaraWatch presents its main objective as "restoring the democratic deficit on the Tara issue" (TaraWatch 2010, emphasis added). Taking it further, an editorialist in the Irish Times responded to allegations that the archaeological studies of the site had been falsified, arguing that "altering independent advice to fit hidden agendas is a dangerous corruption of [the] working of Government in itself, more typical of systematically dishonest regimes than a democratic country like ours" (Byrne 2008).

Figure 6. Protest Sign Outside Tara.  (Source: Kathryn Rotondo, Photograph Taken 7 June, 2007).
Figure 6. Protest Sign Outside Tara. (Source: Kathryn Rotondo, Photograph Taken 7 June, 2007).

As opposed to the corrupt version of government that some perceive to be the status quo, the conflict presents an opportunity to construct a model of shared governance that could be - one that emphasizes the democratic process, upholds the historical and cultural foundations of the nation, and benefits the Irish people first and foremost. In a February 2004 letter to the Irish Times, thirty academics challenged the Irish Parliament to let the people decide whether to pursue alternatives to constructing the motorway through Tara: "We ask our public servants to place these viable options before the Irish nation, openly and democratically, and let Irish taxpayers decide for themselves if their money should be spent destroying this singular element of Irish identity" (Irish Times 2004, emphasis added). Similarly, Vincent Salafia from TaraWatch underscored the relevance of the Tara conflict for creating a model of shared governance in Ireland:

We feel that it is the responsibility of the elected representatives both at [the] European and national level to work in a co-operative manner on this. It would be a platform for all the groups involved to present their opinions and have their say in what the final outcome is. Tara belongs to everybody in Ireland. The majority of Irish people want to have Tara protected (TaraWatch 2010).

In both cases, the opponents are contesting what they perceive to be a failure in the political process that is moving the nation too far afield from their idealized model of popular representation in post-colonial Ireland.

The Global Relevance of Ireland's National Heritage

Through their discursive opposition to the M3 motorway, the challengers reinforce a vision of the Irish nation that is essentially rooted in the past. A closer look at the rhetoric of cultural nationalism that emerges through this debate, however, reveals that there is much more to it than simply reimagining contemporary Ireland as a reflection of its ancestral history. Fundamentally, the controversy provides a space for Irish citizens to work through their ambivalence about Ireland's future and its relationship to the rest of the world. Through challenges to privatization, foreign investment and unchecked neo-liberalism, preservationists are making an argument about what kind of nation Ireland should aspire to be in an increasingly interconnected, post-colonial world. At first blush, M3 opponents' rhetoric can be viewed as a rejection of economic globalization, which is seen as unacceptably threatening to Ireland's cultural heritage. A deeper look, however, reveals that many of the opponents' discursive tactics embrace a global perspective by viewing Irish cultural heritage and Irish ethnic identity as universally relevant.

On one hand, the conflict over the M3 motorway is predominantly a domestic issue. It involves the proposed construction of an intrastate motorway from the outskirts of Dublin to the city center. The potential harm is fairly localized, impacting an archaeological site that is popularly associated with Irish, rather than European, pre-history. But, while TaraWatch and its supporters are chiefly concerned about the consequences of the construction for Ireland's cultural legacy, their public claims reconstruct Tara as a site of historical importance to the broader global community. One way that they do this is by making analogies between Tara and archaeological sites that are more widely recognized for their global significance. For example, Dr. Jonathan Foyle of the World Monuments Fund explained that Tara "is the equivalent of Stonehenge [and] Westminster Abbey for its royal association and Canterbury for its Christian associations all rolled into one" (Irish Times 2008a). Seamus Heaney elaborated on this theme in order to substantiate why the Irish should feel so strongly about protecting Tara:

I suppose Tara means something similar to what Delphi means to the Greeks or maybe Stonehenge to an English person or Nara in Japan ... it conjures up what they call in Irish, duchas, a sense of belonging, a sense of patrimony, a sense of an ideal (Irish Times 2008a).

Beyond making analogies to garner understanding from potential supporters abroad, opponents of the motorway also use Tara to symbolically link Ireland to the broader European cultural community. Julitta Clancy of the Meath Historical Society argues that Tara should be protected because "[t[he sites are part of our European collective memory" (Bowcott 2006, emphasis added). Thirty academics that joined TaraWatch to protest the roadway assert that because the site has remained intact, Tara "holds a special key to understanding the continuous progression of European civilization" (Hesse 2006, emphasis added). What's more, Irish preservationists recognize that Irish identity is powerful yet multifaceted, extending far beyond those who were born and raised in Ireland to a large, proud diaspora of Irish emigrants and their descendants (TaraWatch 2010). Tara's significance similarly transcends the Emerald Isle, symbolically linking the Irish diaspora back to the homeland. David Kenny's reference to Gone with the Wind in an op-ed piece for the Sunday Tribune reflects the varied meanings that Tara evokes from a global perspective:

The world sees Tara as our spiritual center. It even features in one of the most popular novels/films of all time. Scarlett O'Hara's plantation is named after it in Gone with the Wind. Her fictional Tara represents the Irish emigrant's longing for home (Kenny 2009).

Not only has Tara been crystalized in the minds of non-Irish as the preeminent site of Irish cultural heritage but also, more fundamentally, it continues to provide symbolic value to the legions of Irish descendants living around the world.

Globally oriented rhetoric from M3 opponents further reveals discursive elements of cultural and ethnic identity construction that emphasize past experiences of colonial oppression as fundamental aspects of the Irish experience. Within a contemporary global context, this type of framing enables Irish historical preservationists to forge ties with other ethnic groups around the world who are seen as sharing a common history of conquest. They do so by conceptualizing Celtic heritage as Indigenous. This framing provides a tactically potent strategy of action for M3 activists. By arguing that the attack on Tara is really an act of neo-colonial aggression, TaraWatch is able to assert that the government's failure to protect the site violates the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (TaraWatch 2010). The activists are also able to foster solidarity with Indigenous advocates abroad, which increases the global visibility and legitimacy of their cause. TaraWatch deliberately cultivated Ireland's Indigenous ties globally by meeting with Native American groups in the United States and reaching out to Indigenous peoples in Australia, Africa and Canada to propose a gathering of Indigenous peoples in Ireland in August 2009 (Murphy 2009). While a formal gathering was never realized, TaraWatch was able to bring in an Aboriginal Australian speaker to a benefit concert in 2010. The traction of this framing was also witnessed in protest activities abroad, such as the 2008 St. Patrick's Day parade in Sydney, where members of Australia's "Tara Appreciation Society, wearing all black and led by an Aboriginal Australian man of Irish descent, marched behind a banner that read, 'Tara – 7,000 years of Irish history'" (Irish Times 2008b).

In the case of Tara, discourses of cultural nationalism are simultaneously inwardly and outwardly focused. This dynamic confirms Anthony King's (2006) observation that "[i]n a globalized world, the nation is becoming more local and more transnational. It is ironically both contracting and concentrating while also expanding and diversifying" (p. 253). Such framings are clearly strategic in nature, providing opportunities for global solidarity and potential claims of rights under international law. But they are also reflective of the cultural dynamics of national identity formation within a context of rapid globalization and increasing interconnectedness. The construction of Tara's significance beyond the geographical limits of Ireland—to the Irish diaspora, to Europeans, and to Indigenous people around the world- signifies a post-colonial conception of Irish nationalism that transcends not only space, but also preconceived notions about shared ethnic ancestry. This broader conceptualization of Irish heritage provides hope that nationalism, as it confronts globalization, need not be exclusionary. Rather, symbols of heritage are malleable enough to meet the ever-changing needs of cultural nationalists—even where such needs require embracing a more global, multi-cultural orientation.


Increasingly, the sense of connection between contemporary Irish citizens and national heritage sites is engendering renewed feelings of stewardship in the people, obligating them to protect those sites from destruction. Ireland's former Minister of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht recognized this trend, noting,

For many people it is the artifact or monument itself that symbolizes the identity of the people. The images such as those printed on the front cover of every school child's homework copy are a daily reminder of the physical manifestation of our heritage that is part of what we are.... To have visited an historic site such as Clonmacnoise or Newgrange leaves one with the knowledge—and responsibility—of knowing that we are but the latest inheritors of a long, proud and inspiring past (Hutchinson 2001:512 citing Cooney 1996:148-9).

For those citizens who view the past, and the visible legacy of it, as an essential part of Ireland's national identity, the protection of heritage sites is a national priority requiring state action in order to ensure that the sites are not damaged or destroyed. To opponents of the motorway, the historical, political and spiritual significance of Tara means that the site belongs not to the government, but "to all people of Ireland" (TaraWatch 2010) and the state has an affirmative duty to protect that communal resource.

The controversy over the M3 motorway has been a catalyst for debate over the contours of contemporary Irish nationalism. In the context of contention over the roadway construction, historically potent symbols reflecting Ireland's shared Celtic ancestry, its heroic past and its longstanding culture of anti-colonial resistance, as well as the sacredness of the Irish landscape, were reactivated by M3 opponents to further several important strategic objectives that are typical of social movement framing. By tapping into historically significant symbols of Irish nationalism, opponents are making their case to potential supporters that the relevance of the roadway transcends economic and political concerns and cuts to the very heart of what it means to be Irish. Beyond their strategic relevance, the symbols of cultural nationalism evoked by M3 opponents also reveal the durability of particular nationalistic discourses over time and show how they can be reactivated in diverse political contexts. In particular the pre-eminence and sacred character of the land and the significance of national heritage sites are especially durable and malleable frames that continue to find resonance among those seeking freedom from colonial domination as well as those looking to define the contours of their national identities in post-colonial settings. In the case of Ireland, the centrality of these frames demonstrates how citizens make sense of themselves in terms of their past and in terms of their rapid integration into an increasingly globalized and interconnected world.

The significance of Tara, as framed by the M3 opponents, exposes a complicated relationship between globalization and cultural nationalism. On the one hand, economic globalization is seen as a threat to Ireland's Celtic heritage, with the architects of unchecked development—the National Roads Authority, foreign corporations and the Celtic Tiger itself—being framed as the chief villains in the narrative. On the other hand, aspects of Ireland's cultural integration into the wider world are embraced by social movement actors, who strategically expand the scope of Tara's significance to the people of Europe, the Irish diaspora and Indigenous people globally. For millennia, groups have evoked the Hill of Tara for their own civic ends, usually in the face of external threats to their sovereignty. In many ways, the M3 opponents are no different. That being said, the pace of Ireland's political, economic and cultural integration into the global society presents a somewhat novel challenge to cultural nationalists wishing to preserve the mythic, Celtic foundations of Ireland's national identity, while also forging a new path for Ireland in the increasingly interconnected world. Some caution that globalization often provokes exclusionary models of cultural nationalism, which breed antagonism against immigrants and other foreign influences (Huntington 2004; O'Kelly 2004). While this is certainly a concern, one lesson from the most recent battle over Tara is that nationalism, as it confronts globalization, need not be exclusionary. Instead, symbols of national heritage are capable of being transformed and expanded in ways that broaden the scope of citizenship beyond fixed geographic borders and beliefs about shared ethnic ancestry.


1 Please direct correspondences to: Julia Miller Cantzler, JD, PhD. Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of San Diego. 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, CA 92110, or

2 The author would like to thank Gerard Mannion and the Center for Catholic Thought and Culture at the University of San Diego for facilitating the travel experience that launched this study. Further research and drafting were funded, in part, by a University of San Diego Faculty Research Grant.

3 My study utilized qualitative discourse analysis to examine the ways in which opponents of the construction of the M3 Motorway framed the main threats posed by its construction. Particular attention was focused on the cultural and symbolic narratives that opponents used to attach meaning to the site as well as the ways in which opponents attribute blame in the conflict. Data for this study were derived from an inclusive sample of press releases from the TaraWatch website and blog, as well as newspaper articles and letters to the editor of various newspapers in Ireland and around the world that appeared between 2004 and 2010 in which the construction of the M3 motorway through Tara was discussed. Before examining the data, which comprised 52 pages of text, I created a series of general codes. These codes were inductively extracted from broad themes revealed in the literature on cultural nationalism, generally, and the Irish context, more specifically. After the first round of coding, I created a second set of codes to flesh out these general themes and to provide greater depth of analysis. These codes emerged inductively from the first round of coding and were also drawn from themes revealed in literature examining the intersections of globalization and the construction of national identities. The new set of codes was then systematically applied to the data in a second round of coding.

4 In response to the destruction of the Lismullin monument, the European Commission initiated a lawsuit against Ireland in the European Court of Justice in 2009, alleging that the Minister's action violated law (Casey 2009). In March 2011, the Court ruled against Ireland, finding that the National Monuments Act, which purportedly protects heritage sites from development projects like the M3 motorway, violated international law. The Irish government responded by amending the Act to require an environmental impact statement prior to future proposed demolitions of national monuments with potentially significant impacts on cultural heritage.

5 Indeed, an embedded Irish agrarian identity is referenced in both the book and film versions of Gone with the Wind, by Scarlett O'Hara's father, Gerald, when he says to her: "It will come to you, this love of the land. There's no getting away from it, if you're Irish."

6 For a discussion about the acceleration of Irish cultural nationalism in the wake of the Celtic Tiger era, see White (2008).

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