The road to nowhere

  • 28 February 2007
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In his extraordinary examination of landscape, history, texture and storytelling, Connemara: Listening to the Wind, Tim Robinson says that “right living in a place entails a neighbourly acquaintance with those who lived there in previous times”.


What Robinson suggests is that whoever we are now is whoever we were long ago. We arrive from those who went before us – their stories, their architecture, their failings, their journeys. Roads, indeed, go great distances. It is quite possible to believe that there's a stretch of Broadway in the intimate heart of every Irish family, whether they've been to New York or not. And more than likely, there's a stretch of motorway near Heathrow that's meaningful in terms of loss or gain for whoever amongst us has arrived there, or departed from it.


Things connect, and in whatever connection there is lies a certain mystery. Robert Frost, the American poet, knew full well that way leads onto way, and most of us doubt that we will ever come back.

There is no great reason for the proposed M3 to come to New York, as indeed there's probably no great reason for it to touch the Hill of Tara, but it did recently, in the smallest, most personal way. I have an eight-year-old son, John Michael, to whom I recently read a children's book about the Irish High Kings. It was hardly thrilling stuff, but he loved the idea of the Stone of Destiny, the ancient coronation stone. He was fascinated by the notion that the stone would roar when touched by the true king. “Did it shout?” he asked. I said I had no idea, but I imagined so. “Good,” he said, and then asked, “Have you ever been there?” Many times, I told him, even once when I was his age. His eyes lit up, as young eyes do at the impossible wonder that their fathers had ever been the same age as them. “Did you ever hear it roaring?” he asked. I said I didn't, but I bet it would for him. He smiled, and a few moments later he turned into his pillow.

Who knows what happens in a child's imagination? In the end, we have nothing for them but our stories. These stories, like our children themselves, prop us up like old bits of scaffold. I kissed my son goodnight and that was it.

Just a few hours later a series of photographs was sent to me via email by Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin, a professor of Celtic Studies at NUI Maynooth. Ní Bhrolcháin has been heavily involved in the campaign to save the Tara/Skryne valley. I was hardly stunned to see, in the photographs, that work on the M3 had already begun, and to hear that trees were being ripped up in and around the Gabhra Valley, which happens also to be the site of the proposed interchange at Blundelstone. In other words, near the heart of the matter. It seemed that the National Roads Authority and Meath County Council were trying to get a jump on construction so that the proposed re-routing of the motorway could not take place.

So be it. Roads find their places. This is the age of facts and figures. The three kilometres at the Tara/Skryne valley are the ones that are most contentious. Few people dispute the wider issue of the need for a better road. Defenders point out that the motorway is a full 1.2km from the Hill of Tara. It will take 30 minutes off the journey between Dublin and Cavan. Some even claim, amazingly, that it will restore tranquility to the area. There is even an argument that the road and its floodlights will become part of the archeology of the future. Hallelujah, the future says. A four-lane highway. Another stone of destiny.

But we bury the past only when we're ashamed of it. The stories that most deeply need to be told are the ones, necessarily, that we don't want to tell.

We have a responsbilility to heritage, environment and, indeed, imagination. Yet very few meaningful Irish debates these days seem to take place in anything but the realm of time and money. Half-hours are crucial to the economics of the future. Those who oppose these notions are labelled contrary, dreamy, romantic, populist. Even when viable new routes are proposed, like the reopening of rail links from Navan to Dublin, the proponents are labelled simplistic. But nothing is simple, not even simplification. There are many hands upon the daubing brush, and they tend to be well-moneyed ones.

It's a long way from New York to the Hill of Tara, of course. I've been told that I should keep my “bourgeois”, “emigrant”, “sentimental” nose out of the debate. It is not my story. It is not my road. But someone like Tim Robinson knows full well that the road has gone back an awful long way: if we are not to be ashamed in the future, we must take whatever care we can of our past. In a strange, naïve way, I think my son, here in New York, might understand this too. Put the road elsewhere. It deserves to go somewhere, after all.

These are our roaring stones – and sometimes they take root in the most unlikely places.