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The concrete isle

Ireland is used to violent change. Over the centuries, scores of armies of conquest, from the Danish hordes to Oliver Cromwell, have left their brutal mark on this soft and beautiful land. Today Ireland is threatened again. But this time no armies are massing on its border, nor are foreign fleets preparing to invade. This threat is an internal one. It comes from home.

Forget what you've seen in the tourist brochures. Do not be deceived by the glossy pages of mist-wreathed mountain vistas, wild open bogland and friendly, brightly painted little towns. Many of these are stock publicity photographs, already several years old. Today's reality is altogether different. If you want a tamed landscape dotted with off-the-shelf mock-Georgian houses, congested with nose-to-tail traffic and suffused by an ugly suburban sprawl, then céad mile fáilte - welcome to Ireland. This is the land of the bulldozer, where Tarmac, churned-up mud and shopping malls are as likely to greet the visitor as historic castles and windswept bays. This land has been mauled by the Celtic Tiger, chewed up by double-digit economic growth - and what's left is barely recognisable.

Let's start by opening up a recent map of the republic. Have a look at the miles and miles of dotted blue lines that radiate out from Dublin. They are proposed motorways - 900km of them in total, giving Ireland the biggest roadbuilding programme in Europe. €1.2bn is sunk into new roads every single year, far more than the government spends on public transport. These are not widening schemes or road improvements but new motorways that will plough their way through field and forest, hill and dale, bringing the roar of traffic to parts of the country more used to the chatter of birdsong.

And too bad if anything gets in the bulldozers' way. Just south of Dublin the blue dotted lines meet at Carrickmines Castle, a Norman fortification razed by the English during the rebellion of 1641. Although the remains were decreed a national monument by the now demoted Irish heritage agency Duchas, the M50 Dublin ring road will almost totally obliterate them. Once the road is built, the only remnant of Carrickmines Castle will be a single piece of gatehouse, marooned between two giant intersections.

I visited Carrickmines in the company of Stephen Devaney, the mustachioed, cigar-smoking former barrister who has been a leading player in the campaign against the motorway. As we tramp along the muddy digger tracks I can see that the M50 is already threatening the ruins from both sides, sweeping down towards them in a wide grey arc. Devaney gives me a brief tour of the Norman defensive ditch and moat, well and steps, west gatehouse and old foundations. "That's the medieval chapel." Devaney points to some low walls. "The roundabout's going to cover this whole area." He draws on his cigar, muttering about the "desecration" all around us.

Although there's nothing very remarkable about Carrickmines to the untrained eye, the site is an archaeologist's paradise. According to Dr Mark Clinton, who led a two-year official dig on the site, Carrickmines is a "time-capsule of the medieval period" and has produced the "largest collection of medieval objects from a rural site in the history of Irish archaeology". Some of the 100,000 artefacts uncovered include money, pottery, clothing, weaponry and even a perfectly preserved 17th-century dress with coins sewed into its hem. None of this impresses the roadbuilders: according to Devaney, defensive ditches, part of the moat and an eight-foot-high section of wall have been bulldozed. The whole site might already have been destroyed without the intervention of the "Carrickminders", an ad-hoc protest group who occupied the castle remains for half a year and kept the bulldozers at bay until a court injunction took over. This stay of execution was only temporary, however. The high court ruled against the campaigners in September, and demolition has resumed.

Clinton was so outraged by what he calls "official philistinism" that in January this year he launched a scathing attack on the Irish government's "ignorance, lack of imagination and ill-planning in the name of progress". Martin Cullen, who was until recently Irish minister for the environment, heritage and local government, responded by going on the attack, granting himself extra powers to destroy "national monuments" deemed to stand in the way of development - with Carrickmines first on the list.

A rising star in the Irish cabinet, Cullen seemed to delight in his defeat of the conservationists. And he spoke for the majority. Few people in Ireland oppose the giant €16bn motorway-building programme. Most are content to believe the National Roads Authority's promises about shorter journey times and a more pleasant commute. One politician who does speak out is Eamon Ryan, Green Party TD (member of parliament) and transport spokesperson. Ryan is sharply critical of Cullen's record, describing him as "minister against the environment". "The definition of sustainable development here is sustained development," Ryan jokes. When I try to put such criticisms to Cullen directly, officials fail to return my calls.

On transport Ryan is at his most passionate: "The roads programme is madness. There's no planning behind it - everything leads to Dublin. It will allow an extra 40,000 cars into Dublin coming from these five motorways all aimed at the city. Where are these extra cars going to go?" It's a fair point: much of the city is already gridlocked throughout rush hour. The government's solution is to add an extra lane to the M50 orbital motorway and upgrade its junctions to remove traffic lights. The famous Red Cow roundabout will become a mass of concrete flyovers. None of this impresses Ryan. "It's as if they want to repeat the same mistakes they made in the UK. Have they not realised that no matter how much you chase your tail in trying to feed or cater for this increase in traffic, it doesn't work?"

His solution is to reverse the current 4:1 spending ratio on roads to public transport and begin pumping money into rail and bus services. "It's a political choice in terms of where you put your money, and our government just seems to have an utter hatred of investing in public transport. Your capital budget says what the future's going to be, and in Ireland we're saying we want the future to be roads-based and car-based."

In many ways this nightmare future has already arrived. Ireland is one of the most car-dependent countries in the world. Irish motorists drive on average 24,000km a year, far above the UK's average of 16,000 and even topping the US's 19,000. Petrol costs 50% less than it does in British filling stations, and a third of Ireland's diesel sales go to Northern Irish drivers crossing the border to fill up cheaply. Even the Irish government admits the rate of private car ownership and the volume of traffic have already reached levels predicted for 2010. Road traffic nearly doubled over the last decade, and the numbers of people commuting by car to Dublin in the morning rush hour increased by 149% between 1991 and 2001.

The impact on society has been profound. Family and community life has suffered as commuting distances and travel times have spiralled. The number of people travelling more than 15 miles to work has tripled since 1981, and more than a third of male workers leave home before 7.30 in the morning to start their daily commute. The school run has become one of the biggest sources of congestion. Half of all primary school children were driven to the school gates in 2002, compared with one in five back in 1981. Cycling has fallen by four-fifths.

Even if the government sees nothing wrong in these trends, Ireland's National Trust, An Taisce, is concerned. Sitting in his poky office surrounded by piles of photocopied planning appeals, An Taisce's heritage officer, Ian Lumley, knows he is losing the battle over Ireland's future. "You have to look at this as an American country," he says. "We're individualistic, not strategic in planning, and there's no concern for the long-term consumption of resources. There's one word that describes it all: sprawl."

Dublin has already suffered greatly from this trend: massive warehouse and retail park development around the M50 means that many residents use the ring road as a route for local shopping trips. Due to steep house price inflation the percentage of people living in the city itself has fallen, while the outer suburbs and nearby commuter towns have seen explosive growth, giving Dublin the classic US-style "doughnut" shape. As economist Colm McCarthy wrote recently: "It is time to accept that Dublin, unfortunately, now resembles a US sunbelt city, irreversibly car-dependent, and that the sprawl which has already occurred severely limits the potential of rail-based public transport solutions." In other words, there's no way back.

The Irish government's reaction has been to shoot the messenger. An Taisce now finds itself in a perpetual low-intensity war with ministers, particularly Martin Cullen. State funding has been withdrawn, and a whispering campaign waged against the conservation organisation. One councillor from the ruling Fianna Fáil party accused An Taisce of being a "secret society". With fewer than 5,000 members, the group is struggling to survive in a hostile political climate, and its president complains that the organisation has become "a whipping boy".

In his time at the department of the environment, Martin Cullen curried favour with the electorate by relaxing planning controls so that, as he put it: "People who are born in an area, who live in an area and who contribute to an area will be entitled to build their home in that area." As a direct result of this laissez-faire approach, one-off housing and ribbon development have exploded. Along the famously scenic road from Galway to Connemara, Ian Lumley reports that villages have begun to merge into each other like some sort of rural conurbation.

The majority of these new houses are not Irish cottages in the traditional sense, but much grander buildings with mock-Georgian facades, large conservatories and immaculate driveways. Tony Lowes, co-founder of Friends of the Irish Environment, calls them "McMansions". Lowes has made himself wildly unpopular by spearheading a campaign to tighten planning laws. "We have a little club of people who've received a bullet in the post," he tells me over chocolate cookies in his remote seaside homestead near Allihies in west Cork. "You get threats, all kinds of stuff." He wasn't joking - that evening a passerby in Allihies village told me that the New York-born Lowes "would get shot if he shows his face around here". Perhaps this isn't surprising given that Lowes once declared his aim was to "save Ireland from the Irish".

Lowes, too, knows he is fighting a losing battle. "We've turned our back on everything," he laments. "The environment, the past ... There are no victories. Everything is being demolished around us." This demolition includes any sense of wilderness in the Irish countryside. "You drive in the hills and you come around the corner of what was an unspoilt mountain vista - and there's a huge McMansion there with big Georgian pillars, huge flying buttresses and greenhouses. It has a massive visual impact, but it also removes the commonality of the countryside - the fact that people can walk on it."

The Shanghai-style building boom has also hit Killarney, County Kerry's main tourist magnet. Where once only the cathedral spire stood above the famous lakes, Killarney's skyline is now dominated by cranes. On the main road north, five-bedroom McMansions line the road, their clipped lawns and neat white-painted angles an incongruous contrast to the brooding MacGillicuddy mountains. Closer to town ranks of executive homes lay siege to Killarney's picturesque centre, each monotonous estate equipped with its own car park and high fence.

The road to Tralee is being rebuilt as a dual carriageway to cater for the newly generated traffic, and massive bulldozers squelch through the mud. On the edge of Tralee itself the rush for development is beginning to bear fruit: a new McDonald's squats just behind the pretty green signpost showing the turnoff to the touristic Dingle Peninsula. A Tesco is opening next door, "bringing better quality shopping and more jobs to your area". On the far side of the road an Aldi superstore is nearly complete, and a Toyota showroom is doing its bit to inflate the car economy.

That's not to say that the economic boom of the last decade has been unpopular. Ireland enjoyed an average growth rate of 10% between 1995 and 2000, more in tune with the thrusting economies of Asia than with the sluggish 2.5% average for the rest of Europe. The result has been a rise in living standards and general prosperity. After centuries of being condescended to as a poor relation, Ireland is now richer than Britain, and an OECD study ranked Irish purchasing power as fourth in the world. And the Irish have not been slow to spend - the number of new cars bought between 1993 and 2000 increased by 370%.

This new economic muscle is a source of pride among the Irish, and the governing Fianna Fáil party has coasted to successive election victories by promising to sustain the boom. After centuries of famines and emigration, the national mood is one of celebration. No longer do young Irish graduates have to cross the sea to England for a career. If anything, the tide of emigration is now flowing in the other direction: Ireland's population has recovered to 1871 levels. It has all happened in less than a generation, and there is little desire to rock the boat.

This wider context largely explains why environmentalists like Tony Lowes arouse such deep suspicion. Folk memories of anticolonial struggles are subconsciously evoked as an excuse for avoiding modern environmental regulations over planning and septic tanks. As Ian Lumley puts it: "The Irish mentality is inherently antiregulation and anti-officialdom. One of the theories is that this goes back to British occupation, to dodging the constabulary, dodging the revenue, getting away from the landlord, hiding pigs under the bed, hiding chickens in the roof and so on." Environmentalists are seen as sticklers for the rules, annoying doomsayers and party-poopers.

But the result of this unrestricted development is that Ireland has leapfrogged to near top of the list of the world's worst polluters. According to the Greenhouse Ireland Action Network (Grian), Ireland's per capita greenhouse gas emissions are the highest in Europe, and fifth-highest in the industrialised world. Although carbon emissions have dipped slightly in the past two years as gas has partly replaced coal in electricity generation, Ireland's greenhouse contribution in 2003 was nearly 25% above 1990 levels - making a mockery of the country's Kyoto target of 13% above 1990 levels by 2012.

The Irish government's sole contribution to the fight against global warming was the publication in 2000 of a glossy brochure entitled the National Climate Change Strategy. This document outlined several good ideas - from a carbon tax to fuel efficiency in transport - that would help Ireland reach its Kyoto goal. None has been implemented. Instead, the government seems resigned to buying its way out of the Kyoto hole by purchasing around €650m-worth of carbon credits from countries that have made more of an effort to reduce emissions.

Along with transport, the government's lack of interest in climate change is perhaps best illustrated by its attitude to the burning of peat. By the beginning of 2005, three new peat-fired power stations will be pushing out vast quantities of carbon dioxide, in the process consuming an annual total of 3m tonnes of peat from the country's fast-diminishing bogs. Carbon emissions from peat are higher than from any other fossil fuel except brown coal.

Just as George Bush's plan to drill in the Alaskan arctic wildlife refuge is predicated on the basis of America's "energy independence", so Ireland's continued exploitation of peat bogs is justified on the grounds that peat is the country's only "indigenous" source of energy. As Sean Grogan, director of peat and allied businesses at Ireland's state-owned peat company Bord na Móna, puts it: "We don't have a conscience about this. We don't feel it's an issue we have to defend. It's part of Ireland's means of looking after its own energy supply."

Indeed, the company is so unashamed of its peat-stripping operations that I'm given a tour of one of the bogs that is being exploited. The whole drained bogland area of several hundred hectares has been divided into neat 1km strips, and huge tractors ply their way up and down, milling peat and piling it up in ridges. But the company is also eager to show me nearby areas already completely stripped of their peat, which have been neatly "restored" with new wildlife-attracting fishing lakes and wetlands. There are no apologies here, either. "We believe that we have the balance right, that we're conserving a representative number of peatlands for posterity," Sean Grogan says. "Once the peatlands are finished they will be converted into other biodiverse environments, which will be different but equally as acceptable as peatlands."

This would be news to Patrick Crushell, an ecologist who specialises in studying raised bog ecosystems. The 6% of historic bog now left represents the majority of raised peat bog remaining in the whole of western Europe, he says. Moreover, raised bogs are inhabited by "specialist species that wouldn't be able to survive in other kinds of habitats". To demonstrate he takes me out into his study area of Clara Bog - now the largest remaining relatively pristine area of lowland bog in the country. It is squelchy underfoot, and water oozes out from between tussocks of lime-green and red sphagnum moss. Crushell grabs a handful and squeezes it out like cotton wool. Historic uses for the moss have included anything from dressing wounds to nappies, he says. As we move on, he points out two species of carnivorous plant. "If you remove all the raised bogs these species can't necessarily find a refuge anywhere else. So you're just leaving them homeless."

Bord na Móna claim not to be moving on to any new areas of pristine bog, and Crushell admits that once the vegetation has been stripped and the peat drained, the company's bogs are essentially beyond salvation. However, the company has its eye on one large bog - near Abbeyleix in County Laois - that still has what the Irish Peatland Conservation Council calls "active bog vegetation" worthy of protection. An attempt by Bord na Móna to move on to the site four years ago was only repulsed when 50 local protesters blocked the entrance with a crane.

Irish government ministers claiming that peat is the country's only independent source of power seem to have overlooked another indigenous energy source in near-constant supply - wind. Ireland is by far the windiest country in Europe, yet wind power constitutes a measly 0.2% of the country's power supply.

The experience of prospective wind farmers has so far been disastrous. In County Kerry, Paul McSweeney took me up to his upland pasture site,where he was recently refused permission for a six-turbine wind farm - enough to power 10,000 houses - by Kerry county council. "I put five years of my life into planning for it," he told me. "The land is too high for grazing. My family has been here for three or four hundred years. Do I not deserve anything out of this locality?"

McSweeney's disappointment is widely shared. According to Tommy Cooke, chairman of the Irish Wind Farmers Co-operative, when would-be wind farmers applied for planning permission "they got destroyed - they were massacred." He describes it as "like first world war-type warfare. It was only through sheer numbers 'going over the top' that a few people got through planning." As we walk around his fields above Urlingford, Cooke reaches a damming conclusion: "It would have been better for the government to do nothing. They've encouraged development and then shot us in the back."

All of this might seem strange, given Ireland's shamrock-green image abroad. The imposition of a tax on plastic bags in 2002 made international headlines for its far-sightedness, and was a big success at home. Indeed, the tax reduced the use of plastic bags by more than 90% within months of its introduction. But An Taisce's Ian Lumley dismisses the measures as a "window-dressing exercise". All the really significant trends, he says - from traffic to waste - point to a drastic deterioration in Ireland's environment.

Irish Times environment editor Frank McDonald believes something historically unprecedented is under way. "What is going on across the board in this country is immensely destructive," he says. "The level of house-building spells catastrophe for scenic landscapes and the countryside in general if it continues." Moreover, "transport is the fastest-growing contributor to climate change and here we are building motorways. It's completely insane. It's quite clear to me that by 2020 this country will be completely destroyed. And by that stage people will say, 'Oh my God - look what we've done.' But by then it will be too late."

Ireland may be heading towards a showdown that could - if sufficient numbers of people mobilise in time - bring this destructive machine to a halt. Just 30km to the north-west of Dublin lies the Hill of Tara, seat of the ancient high kings of Ireland and one of Europe's most significant archaeological and historical landmarks. It was to Tara that St Patrick came in his quest to bring Christianity to the Celtic druids who presided there, just as in more modern times it was Tara where in 1843 Daniel O'Connell held his "monster meeting" of half a million people demanding independence from Britain. His words still resonate today: "We are standing up on Tara of the Kings, the spot where the monarchs of Ireland were elected, and where the chieftains of Ireland bound themselves by the solemn pledge of honour to protect their native land against every stranger." Historian Michael Slavin's Book of Tara says it in few words: "Tara's story is Ireland's story. Tara touches the very soul of Ireland." And yet, within just a kilometre of this revered place, the government is proposing to build yet another motorway.

According to its defenders, the road will take 30 minutes off the journey between Dublin and Cavan. Michael Egan, head of corporate affairs at the National Roads Authority, also points out that for much of its route the new M3 motorway will be farther from the hill than the existing N3. "The valley [east of Tara] is awash with people rat-running," he told me. "We hope to relieve that situation and return peace and tranquillity to the valley by sucking the traffic on to a motorway."

Tara's misfortune is that it now lies within Dublin's commuter belt. One local resident I met on the hill complained about the misery faced by commuters. "I see people going to Dublin in the morning. The lorries start at half past four, the cars start at five. People have beds in their offices to sleep until work starts. So the motorway is needed. We no longer live in thatched cottages, no longer drive donkeys and carts. That's the reality."

Other locals have a different view. The road will come within 150 metres of Claire Oakes' front door. She feels that a better option would be to reopen the Dublin-Navan rail link, which was axed in the 1950s. "I think it illustrates that there is very little care for either archaeology or other implications such as destroying an area of great leisure and peace for people," Oakes says sadly. Campaigner Julitta Clancy of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society agrees, pointing out that geophysical surveys show the road will have an impact on at least 28 archaeological sites, and that one floodlit intersection to the north will curve in far closer to Tara than the existing road. "In our view it's something we should treasure rather than destroy. It's something we have a duty to hand down to future generations," she insists. Having recently visited Stonehenge, Clancy says she was "appalled" by how close the road runs to it. "But now the English authorities are realising the mistakes they made there," she points out. "We're in a position where we can learn from the rest of Europe. In 10 or 20 years' time people are going to be asking questions about why this was allowed."

Historical experts are aghast at the proposals. One group of 21 British archaeologists wrote to the Irish Times, reminding the Irish authorities that "driving a four-lane motorway through the valley will destroy the integrity of this ancient landscape for ever." The president of the Archaeological Institute of America sent an unusually direct appeal: "We are shocked that planning permission has been granted. We appeal to the Irish authorities as a matter of urgency to move this section of the M3 away from the Tara/Skreen valley and to save this precious legacy from our shared past for posterity." Tara's leading archaeological expert, Conor Newman, warned the government's planning appeals board: "How [Tara] is managed by us will become the yardstick against which our reputation as guardians of cultural heritage will be judged." It's a test the Irish authorities seem determined to fail.

But the National Roads Authority's biggest mistake may turn out to have been in routing the new motorway through the grounds of Dalgan Park, headquarters of the St Columban Missionaries and just next door to the Hill of Tara. The Columbans are among Ireland's most tireless environmental and social campaigners, and one of the first things I have to do after meeting their spokesman, Father Pat Raleigh, is sign his petition for the cancellation of developing world debt. Father Pat takes me along some of Dalgan Park's 6km of woodland and nature walks, right down to the River Boyne at the far side of the grounds. A home-printed sign attached to the fence advises matter-of-factly: "Enjoy the view now - new motorway will destroy it."

Father Pat doesn't mince his words. "It's like putting a road through the pyramids of Egypt," he fumes. "I think it's selling our soul. It will just ruin the whole peace, tranquillity and beauty of these surroundings. While we are stewards of this lovely property, I will fight tooth and nail to ensure that a concrete roadway doesn't go through this rich environment." That's a pledge the Irish authorities would do well to heed. These priests may well be facing down the bulldozers when construction begins. Veterans of the UK's roads protest movement will remember that it was the M3 slicing through Twyford Down that sparked off the direct action revolt against the road-builders on the British side of the Irish Sea. Tara, and its M3, may be the spark that sets off a similar movement in Ireland.

Up on the hill itself, the sun is setting when I return, casting a scarlet light on the Lia Fáil, the standing stone at the centre of Tara's main hill fort, which was reputed to roar when touched by the true king of Ireland. I'm the only person on the hill, alone except for a couple of sheep, and a lamb that rubs itself against a fading memorial to the 1798 rebellion against the colonising British. I ponder at the passage of time, the Celtic royal dynasties that have risen and fallen here, and how this magical country, intoxicated by wealth and fixated on "progress", seems fated to wreak on itself a destruction worse than that left by any colonial invader.

A short distance away, next to the Dumha na nGiall, or Mound of the Hostages, there's an official sign about the hill, which begins: "This national monument is in the care of the minister for arts and heritage ..." It took me a while to remember who the minister for arts and heritage was: Martin Cullen, the same minister who forced new legislation through the national parliament to allow road-builders to carve through national monuments. "God help the Hill of Tara. And God help Ireland," I found myself thinking, as I wandered back down the hill in the last rays of the dying sun.

It doesn't end there. Cullen left his job at arts, heritage and environment not to spend more time with his family, but to spend more time with his beloved roads - as minister for transport.

· Additional research by Iva Pocock. Mark Lynas's book High Tide: News From A Warming World is published by Flamingo.

Editorial Notes: Rushing to Peak Oil...and taking out the Irish countryside at the same time. See also: Traffic, Cars and Peak Oil. -BA

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