The decision delivered by the Supreme Court on 21st December 1972 was not only relevant to deciding the specific issue of the State’s purchase of land in close proximity to the Hill of Tara, but is of lasting significance with regard to what exactly is to be regarded as a national monument.
Ruling on the intention of the State, represented by the Commissioners for Public Works (forerunner to the Office of Public Works), to acquire by Compulsory
Purchase Order a 400-acre site at the foot of the Hill of Tara, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh stated in his judgement that “the Hill of Tara is properly to be regarded as a single
unified site and not a series of separate archaeological monuments”.
This statement implies that any effort on the part of the State, or of bodies empowered by the State, to claim that sites designated as national monuments are only that insofar as they can be shown to possess evidence of artefacts or structures
of heritage value, are by law null and void.
In other words, any region designated as being a national monument is such as an entire unified site or region and not merely only as regards the actual presence therein of artefacts or structures of heritage value, thus precluding any possibility that the site could be interfered with in any part.
The Commissioners for Public Works anticipated this aspect of the judgement with their statement, under oath, that "Tara was a complex but unified site and not merely a site of royal settlement but probably an extension of the grave system more extensively investigated on the Boyne. The burden of the evidence showed the importance of the whole site, with the Hill of Tara which could not be chopped up."
The State seems to have forgotten that it ever held this view, and is now busy sitting back while private archaeological contractors are engaged in soil-stripping and
test-trenching using heavy machinery, followed by a mere visual inspection to determine whether “artifacts” are present. Where test-trenching does not occur, these contractors are satisfied with skimming over the ground with a metal detector.
None of these activities would be recognized by any bona fide archaeologist as excavation, because quite apart from the destructive methods which are employed, none of it is aimed at research, at determining what structures are present and what
relationship the various individual sites bear to the larger context in which they are found, but merely salvaging whatever loot looks to be worth saving before the sites
themselves are bulldozed to make way for what really matters.
In any case, even considering the possibility that the contractors were to discover
nothing of value in the course of their activities, this would not make any difference to the legal position.
The 1972 judgement goes on to define what is to be understood as a “national monument”: “The expression 'national monument' means a monument or the remains of a monument the preservation of which is a matter of national
importance by reason of the historical, architectural, traditional, artistic, or archaeological interest… The word 'monument' is not defined in the strict sense: it is stated that it 'includes' certain things. It does not have to be of archaeological interest; historical or traditional interest will suffice”.
What is being stated here is that a site does not have to have heritage value (or as the State would doubtless put it now, “artefact” value) to qualify as a national monument: if it is associated with a historical event or person, or tradition, it likewise qualifies for national monument status, and the legal protection that
such a monument would be given.
That, ultimately, is why the National Monuments Act 2004 is unconstitutional, and why the State is likely to find itself in deep trouble, as it is now allowing private parties to undertake the destruction of a heritage region that qualifies for protection as a national monument.
This article was first published online in 2004. The last paragraph has been edited for clarity.