Myself and Steve Ryan spent a night on the hill of Tara for midsummer last year and wrote about it this year. My strongest memories from the night were cold, wet feet and doubling the speed limit on minor roads at 4am to make sunrise on time.
It’s five ‘o clock in the morning on top of a hill in the middle of Ireland and some guy with a beard, a ponytail and a Native American print poncho comes up to us and asks, “Why are you here?” We turn and give him a quick reply, “curiosity”. He glances at the girl beside him. Her name is Cello and she’s from Madrid. She’s holding a long, knobbly piece of wood with glass and stones embedded into its sides. She smokes black tobacco and her teeth are stained yellow. Cello smiles a lot. She glances back at him and then they both roll their eyes. “Your spirit lead you here,” he says, “You came here as part of your spiritual journey.” Cello nods knowingly and then reaches into the pocket of her hemp blouse to fish out tobacco for another smoke.
‘Gong man’, her boyfriend, starts to disassemble his giant golden gong and calls her over to help shift the huge disc back to his car. He came from Newport Beach in California to be here and his baby blue headdress and face paint are the brightest colours on the hill this morning. ‘Shanno’ walks by, or prances even, dressed head-to-toe in green leaves and body paint. He speaks in poems that sound vaguely like Led Zeppelin lyrics and flits about the hilltop like a PR intern who’s just discovered networking. Everyone likes ‘Shanno’ on the hill. There are old ladies too, not too dissimilar from Grandma Death, barefoot with long white-hair, cradling giant quartz stones in their arms and mumbling to themselves.
The scene is like something from a never-before-seen Guinness advert. Any moment now you expect to see a band of fairies invading the horizon swinging hurley sticks over their heads with a stirring musical accompaniment from Enya.
People have been coming to the Summer Solstice at Tara since the time of the Tuatha De Danann and the ancient High Kings of Ireland. This is our first one. And with so much at stake for the Boyne Valley, with the proposed motorway due for completion in July 2010, there is a sense around the hill that most people are here not for themselves and the spiritual benefits they may reap but for Tara itself.
The Spanish firm Ferrovial Europa have been contracted to build the M3 motorway in Ireland. The fifty kilometre stretch of road will cut approximately nine to twenty nine minutes off the average Navan to Dublin commute, which is a huge amount of time and an enormous improvement in the quality of life of a tired commuter who may well find themselves with the guts of an extra hour to play with every day. The road falls into the government’s National Development Plan and Irish ministers are under no obligation to order a full excavation of the area. So all that’s left for people interested in the preservation of the hill to do is try and drum up some international support or maintain a solid vigil.
Laura Grealism is known locally as ‘Mrs. Tara Watch’. She’s been camping on and off beside the Lismullen Henge since 2005. The Lismullen Henge is one of the sites in the Tara complex currently being demolished to clear a space for the stretch of motorway. Twelve years ago Laura was sneaking out of her bedroom window and sleeping in trees in the Glen of the Downs valley to protest the expansion of another stretch of road. She looks like Lara Croft in her leather hunting hat and raincoat, albeit a Lara Croft who smokes tobacco and drinks cans of bargain basement beer. “I’ve been through it before and I’m not afraid,” she says, “I have hope. We have some good legal angles and public support is getting higher.”
The road is being built by a mixed group of Polish, Russian and Irish labourers. Strong men, built for digging earth. Since joining the protest Laura’s made a bizarre friendship with them. “If we’re not there on time they give out to us and say, ‘Where were you, you’re half an hour late’. I think they like having us here as it means that sometimes they don’t have to work.”
Internationally, Colm Tóibín has written for The New York Times arguing against the building of the motorway and in February of this year the American Smithsonian Institute listed Tara amongst fifteen must-see endangered heritage sites in the world. That the list includes an ancient village in Peru and the battered Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is an embarrassment to a wealthy, peaceful country like Ireland, and the view from abroad is of a country, too eager to develop and lacking in respect for its own heritage.
The procedure to truly appreciate the splendour of the Summer Solstice on Tara is to arrive before sunrise and stay up till after sunset. That can be as long as sixteen hours so the faithful bring tents, blankets flasks of coffee and buckets of sandwiches and granola bars.
Those who’ve travelled from abroad have been camping around the hilltop for days. It’s an exposed place except for clusters of thin trees and boulders, and last night a lot of the tents were blown over in the wind. Everyone looks chapped and frozen as a result, but as the sun rises on the dawn of Midsummer’s Day, breathing heat into the chill morning, the mood improves and the drums start banging. The crowd of around a hundred and fifty drop their shawls and blankets on the wet grass and throw their arms into the air shouting “glory” and “yes” and the Irish word for beautiful, “álainn”. They hug and embrace and say prayers, and then they head off for veggie breakfast and herbal teas in the local café, which only seems to do any sort of sustainable trade on the longest and shortest days of the year.
During the afternoon, there are ceremonies and recitals but like any group of like-minded individuals thrown together in the outdoors, there’s a lot of match making going on too. The small channels that form paths between the long grasses are like catwalks for hippies. Barefoot is this summer’s footwear of choice; gentlemen must have beards, long curly hair and Aladdin trousers while ladies should be wearing multi-layered, flowing dresses, each one a different primary colour with have silver pendants and medals in their naturally clean hair.
Iwona, a Polish au pair, came here last year with a group of friends and was snagged by a Galwegian drum maker. She’s now engaged to him and they plan to come back and have their wedding ceremony on the hill. “Tara brought out a spiritual side to me that I never realised existed,” she says, “Even though I’m not from here, I feel roots on this hill.”
That afternoon there’s a grand druidic ceremony. ConConnor the arch druid of Leinster, who comes from the rough Dublin suburb, Clondalkin, and does a steady line selling replica druidic clothing and accessories, and whose grandfather was a lieutenant in the IRA, leads the show. They pile a small mountain of quartz into the centre of a circle and beat drums around it while a mixture of barefoot children, women in Marino wool, men in flowing cloaks, a group of teenagers with Downs Syndrome and a blind man dance in the centre. Quartz is of major significance for the Irish pagan community. They draw a power from it. Not only does the stone feature prominently in the Newgrange passage grave but its Irish name, ‘griancloch’ translates as stone of the sun. It’s used extensively in healing and spiritual ceremonies and is believed to cure what traditional medicine can’t.
ConConnor rallies the faithful with “Wake up” and “Get up”. He has a staff, a white beard and a long white cloak – a type of Gandalf figure for the unwashed. Later back at his tent, where he sits upon a wooden stool in the awning and greets visitors, fans and the occasional drunk redneck asking him if he’d mind turning his mates into frogs, we ask him how someone becomes a druid.
“First thing you have to do,” he says, “is throw away your TV.” He doesn’t talk like a druid, more like a taxi-driver, any second now you’re expecting some comment about foreigners, football or how much money ‘the wife’ spent in the sales. Then he says to throw away your mobile phone and all other technological barriers. “There’s a spiritual path for you he says,” honing in, “Even you can find your own spiritual destiny if you’re true to yourself.”
The Tara faithful operate with the same amount of zeal and confidence as Jehovah’s Witnesses. And the hill of Tara is a most fertile ground for claiming souls today.
Maura from New Jersey again inquires about the direction of our spiritual path – at bus stops you carry on a commentary about the weather, on Tara the small talk is sacred. This is Maura’s twelfth time flying back from the States for the Summer Solstice. “I’m a white witch,” she says and it’s very hard to believe her. Dressed head-to-toe in sensible raingear in a very conservative navy, wearing a little make-up and a cookie cutter hair do, Maura looks more like a home economics teacher than a white witch. “Well it’s impractical to go around in a cape all the time,” she explains. Maura didn’t think she’d make it out to Ireland this year on account of what she calls the ‘credit punch’. But with all that was at stake for Tara she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself if she’d not showed face.
“I don’t mind the camping or the rain, but trying to stay awake all day on the longest day of the year gets harder and harder for me,” she says, “I’ll probably grab a few naps between now and tonight.” And with that the white witch from New Jersey walks, not flies, to the other side of the hill.
As night approaches on the longest day of the year, the Hill of Tara is invaded. The Druids and witches; the spirit guides and the hippies disappear to different corners on the hillside and hoards of locals descend. The area becomes like a festival car park, where those who couldn’t get or afford tickets drive up anyway just to get drunk in close proximity. They bring guitars and alcopops. There are young guys going up to the girls saying, “I’m a hippie. Do you want some free love?” and then pushing each other into the muck. The girls just ignore them and concentrate on their out of tune guitars and their Cat Steven’s covers.
People from all over Dublin, in jeeps and family saloons, drive up to watch sun go down on the longest day of the year. If the motorway goes ahead, they’ll be able to make the trip in less than half the time it took but they’ll probably have to say goodbye to quiet, starry nights like this. When the floodlighting is erected and the traffic starts rolling by, the scene will be transformed terribly.
The Hill of Tara is in the process of being awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status. Minister for the Environment John Gormley has said that he doesn’t see the construction of a motorway affecting this decision and that UNESCO will grant the award regardless. If the application succeeds, and it looks likely to – the site can be dated back to 4000BC after all, which is even older than Newgrange – Ireland will have the unique pleasure of having a motorway inside the border of one of its World Heritage Sites.
The next morning traffic is heavy on the N3 from Dunshaughlin into Dublin City. Back on the Hill of Tara, some people are packing up and some are staying a day or two longer. All in all less than a few hundred people showed up for the longest day of the year, compared to the 17,000 Meath residents sat in traffic the next morning, that figure’s miniscule.
Pragmatism is king when the chips are down, but Ireland’s heritage county, where Tara is located, will soon be invaded by three motorways feeding our nation’s hunger for progress. It’s hard to argue that the progress isn’t necessary but we don’t have to look further than Stonehenge in England to see an example of the damage wrought by unchecked progress. Pollution damaged and noisy, perched between two major roads, the prehistoric monument is less like the birthplace of pre-Christian Britain and more like a purpose built and easily replaceable, civic artwork.