Image courtesy: Discover Boyne Valley

‘The objective is to protect, conserve and promote an appreciation of the Hill of Tara’

There are “issues” affecting the Hill of Tara at the moment – traffic management, signage and interpretation, the erosion of visitor numbers through the site and their effect on the “very sensitive” earthworks which are injured by stud marks from people using the area as a training ground, the Chief State Archaeologist told Meath county councillors during a presentation on the Hill of Tara Conservation Plan to them at their February council meeting.

The meeting took place ahead of last week's act of vandalism on the site in which the Lia Fail was spraypainted with the word 'Fake'

Michael McDonagh said he didn’t know what Meath’s ambitions were for the All-Ireland but he DID know that it was an issue that would have to be dealt with. Also, at different times of the year there was difficulty with people camping out on the site.

The Hill of Tara means a lot of different things to many people, he said. To some it’s a very sacred place, to other people it’s a training ground, and to others it’s a place where they can let their dogs go free to do whatever dogs do. These were some of the challenges that must be faced in caring for the long-term future of the site.

He pointed out that the conservation management plan aims to provide an up-to-date description and condition assessment of the many archaeological monuments within the State-owned lands and set the context of the Hill of Tara in relation to international guidance documents and in forming a management structure between the OPW and Meath County Council. This is all formed around a “vision statement” that was formed within the plan.

“It is a unique cultural landscape of international significance where the visitor experience, both the tangible and intangible links to those who occupied the site for over 5,500 years and, recognising this, the objective is to protect, conserve and promote an appreciation of the Hill of Tara by having in place a robust management framework and ensure its significance is maintained for present and future generations”.

There are 61 known monuments stretching across millennia of human activity. Research on the site is ongoing assisted by the Discovery Programme. Without the Hill of Tara “there would be no royal sites of Ireland”, Mr McDonagh said.

The plan is governed by three principles – that it’s a non-renewable shared resource and heritage of the hill; and that the management of the Hill should be informed by all the knowledge, skills and disciplines that can contribute to its care; and the greater understanding of Tara’s significance will be advanced by further investigations and research. That filters down to five separate policies, all of which are based around sound management of State monuments.

In a summary of the main issues, Mr McDonagh said that the development of Tara will be welcomed, but also concern will be expressed about its vulnerability, lack of facilities, traffic management problems, and use as a recreation facility which brought issues like firelighting, dog fouling etc. And there was also a need for improved interpretation.

Mr O Broin said that the OPW welcomed the clear commitments in the plan. Work is going on in the implementation of the plan and timelines had been set for different actions.

Mr McDonagh and Mr O Broin thanked Meath County Council Chief Executive Jackie Maguire, Councillor Suzanne Jamal, former Cllr Claire O’Driscoll, along with Wendy Bagnall, Loreto Guinan and Robert Miles, all of Meath County Council for their help in progressing the project.

Councillors welcomed the presentation on the conservation plan but criticisms too of the “neglect” of the site over many years.

Fianna Fail Cllr Tommy Reilly said that people went onto the Hill of Tara early in the mornings where they found “absolutely no facilities whatsoever”. There were no toilets, for instance. He said that the OPW along with every other State agency “should hang their heads in shame” for their neglect of the place over the last 20-30 years. “Please let us know when something is going to be done. It is a national disgrace the way it has been treated up to now”.

Independent Cllr David Gilroy said that he was thinking along the same lines as Cllr Reilly “but not as blunt”. The implementation of the plan and in the context of the Boyne Valley and the tourism aspect, what would an interpretation plan be put in place?

Fine Gael Cllr Suzanne Jamal said she knew the plan was a long time coming but she had to congratulate the CE Jackie Maguire, Wendy Bagnall, Loreto Guinan for the “sheer hard work that went into putting this plan together”.

And she also had to appreciate Michael McDonagh’s determination in having the plan published.

“All I can say is that I am looking forward to the implementation of the actions and I look forward to working with all here on that”.

Speaking about the delivery of the plan, Mr McDonagh replied that he noted the councillors’ comments in relation to the state agencies. The Hill of Tara was an extremely difficult site to interpret, purely because of its vastness. Everything was linked – the grassland management strategy which is focused on as part of the biodiversity is linked to the visitor navigation which in turn is linked to the interpretation.

He said they wanted to avoid having massive signage at each and every one of the elements on the site – that would destroy the very essence and spirituality of the place. There was a space for technology, perhaps and that would be explored with the OPW. “Everything cascades down from and is linked to the protection of the site, the guidance of visitors around the site in a more coherent and coordinated way, and how the interpretation was put in place. “All I can say is that you have a plan that you can beat us around the head with, you can hold our feet to the fire on it”. There would be challenges ahead and perhaps deadlines missed but that was in the nature of things.

Fine Gael Cllr Paddy Meade said that he had a long history with the OPW and it wasn’t all positive.

There were times when OPW went onto private lands and put up signage without permission, which later had to be removed. All such signage in his own parish had been removed. One of the outstanding issues was traffic management. Large numbers of tourists were coming onto local roads. Any other big development seeking planning would have a comprehensive plan in place for catering up to 150,000 visitors a year, such as road widening “pull-in” spots.

He would like to see things like that in the plan, along with Winter gritting plans. People in power needed farmers around Newgrange, for instance, where they could not get planning permission for small extensions. Social Democrat Cllr Roan Moore said that when he talked about people’s experiences about Newgrange and the Ceide Fields, they talked about the wonderful experience around interpretation. He hoped Mr McDonagh and Mr O Broin would be ambitious in terms of the provision of interpretation.

Independent Cllr Brian Fitzgerald said that in terms of interpretation of Tara, when he saw busloads of tourists getting back onto their buses from the site, he wondered what they really thought about the site. That was the challenge facing Mr McDonagh and Mr O Broin. “But at least there is a plan”, he said. He said that but for the presence of the Maguire premises at the site, there would be no facilities there.

CE Jackie Maguire said that the council was very conscious of traffic issues around the site and have done some work in trying to alleviate those. The council has agreed to purchase property in the vicinity. That property was not in the possession of the council just yet because a process of probate had to be completed on it. They would see that as helping to solve the car parking problem around Tara. They had to take account of people who lived in the area and those who farmed there, she said.