Monday, March 03, 2008

Seamus Heaney on Tara

Veteran readers of ITM know that I was last in Ireland in April 2006, when I wandered the island with my brother. On a day that could be kindly described as blustery and moist, he and I arrived at Tara. With its melding of the prehistoric and the contemporary, this regal mound surveilling burials pagan and Christian was just the place for me ... even if the post I offered was a bit snarky. Tara is, like Stonehenge or Avebury, a numinous expanse, but -- as with Stonehenge and Avebury -- it is difficult to say if that impingement is the result of knowing some fragments of the place's long history, or if the architecture of the space itself causes that feeling of being touched.

The Hill of Tara has recently become a controversial space, where the demands of a burgeoning and future-focused economy battle the desire to preserve a landscape which has come to embody the past itself. The Irish government would like to ease Dublin's congestion by building a motorway nearby. At stake: Ireland's national identity in its relation to modernity and to history. Letting go of Tara's enchantment and building the road has come to mean letting go of a heritage-focused Irishness (and by that I mean an Irishness which reveres a misty past that may never have in fact existed, but certainly seems better that what had been until recently a fairly dismal modernity). The lure of the ancient has long anchored what it means to be Irish. The booming economy on the island has deeply challenged this nostalgia, and the Hill of Tara has become the point at which past-loving and future-obsessed currents meet. The past that Tara is made to embody, I hasten to add, is as that of a temporally frozen heritage site rather than the landscape as it has actually been lived and is now experienced, with its church and its instructional signs and its temporal thickness and anachronisms and its busloads of pilgrims passing through. Tara is spoken about in the controversy mostly as space that answers the demands of the dead, or as a space that serves the needs of the living, not as a coinhabited geography.

Here's Seamus Heaney on the controversy. Needless to say, he sides with the preservation of history, but does so in an interesting way: by stating that Ireland's heritage was better preserved under its colonial administrators than under its present government:

On the attitude of the Irish government, Heaney said: 'Tara had been protection under British rule. I was reading around recently and I discovered that WB Yeats and George Moore and Arthur Griffith wrote a letter to the Irish Times, some time at the beginning of the last century, because a society called the British Israelites had thought the Arc of the Covenant was buried in Tara, and they had started to dig on Tara Hill. And they [Yeats et al] had written this letter and they talked about the desecration of a consecrated landscape. So I thought to myself if a few holes in the ground made by amateur archaeologists was a desecration, what's happening to that whole countryside being ripped up is certainly a much more ruthless piece of work.'

The Nobel literature prize winner said Tara was 'a source and a guarantee of something old in the country and something that gives the country its distinctive spirit'.

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