Lia Fail

Fearghal Duffy: “An Opening Onto Other Possible Worlds”

There seems to be a very strong and persistent atavistic impulse which impels people to rediscover in the past lost values which will somehow ameliorate the perceived ills of the present. In this blog post I want to consider the potentiality of nostalgia for eco-critical purposes and to query what value, if any, there is in looking to an imagined ‘Golden Age’ to solve contemporary environmental and ecological ills.

The recent controversy surrounding the construction of the M3 motorway which cut through the Tara-Skryne valley provoked outrage amongst a significant number of people from various walks of life. Academics, poets, novelists, actors and musicians, stood shoulder to shoulder with environmentalists, conservationists, neo-pagans, and ‘crusties’, as well as the concerned general public who had an interest in their cultural heritage. For all

of them, the construction of a motorway through this rich archaeological and mythical landscape signified a profound disregard for both the past and the sacred on the part of politicians and developers. Tara has long-held a special place in

the Irish imagination. Although it may seem quite unspectacular or insignificant to a visitor with little or no knowledge of the place, familiarity with its associated legends transforms it into a dynamic storyscape. Many of Ireland’s oldest narratives feature Tara as the sacred, cultural and political centre of Ireland. It forms a numinous centripetal focal point in sagas concerning legendary kings, heroic warriors, and radical saints. The monuments and structures in the Tara landscape still bear the names of their eponymous legendary figures: Teach Cormaic ‘Cormac’s House’; Ráith na Rígh ‘The Fort of the Kings’; Ráth Lóegaire ‘Lóegaire’s fort’; Ráth Gráinne ‘Gráinne’s fort’; Tech Midchuarta ‘the Banqueting Hall’; and Duma na nGiall ‘The Mound of the Hostages’. Indeed, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Tara itself features as a character in the sagas.

The Hill of Tara

The Hill of Tara and its Monuments

The M3 Motorway which cuts through the Tara-Skryne Valley

St Patrick looking across at the Hill of Skryne, which he is now cut off from by the M3 Motorway .

The ‘Mound of the Hostages;, which in actual fact is a Neolithic Burial Mound

The archaeological evidence shows that Tara has been in continual use and re-use since the middle-Neolithic period roughly five-and-a-half thousand years ago. Each new age and generation re-invested Tara with its own mythological significance. It had been a very important ritual and ceremonial site prior to the arrival of the Gaels, who, in recognising Tara’s symbolic significance, grafted their own mythology onto its monuments. Tara began as a burial place in the Neolithic period (c. 4000–2400BC) before becoming a huge ritual enclosure during the Bronze Age (c. 2400–600BC). In the Iron Age (c. 600BC–400AD) it became the seat of sacral kingship where the King of Tara functioned as a virtual lynchpin of the cosmic order, assuring the beneficial harmony between the natural and supernatural worlds and his people.  As such, Tara was perceived to be the equivalent of axis mundi, ‘centre of the world’, the preeminent site which connected this world and the Otherworld.

St Patrick v the pagan king Lóegaire and his druids on Tara.

Although a small church was built there in the medieval period it was more-or-less physically abandoned as a functioning site. However, Tara’s symbolic significance did not diminish. It continued to feature heavily in medieval literature relating to sovereignty and kingship. It also figured as a site of contention in the hagiographical literature between the old pagan kings and the new religion of St Patrick.

In the more recent historical period Tara became a nationalist symbol of unity for the people of Ireland, a symbol of endurance through the centuries, representing the grandeur of a past Golden Age and the future possibility of an Ireland with its sovereignty regained. The symbolic significance of Tara was not lost on Daniel O’Connell who, in his campaign for Ireland to become an independent kingdom, held one of his ‘Monster Meetings’ at the royal site in 1843 A.D. He recognized Tara as the place from which the power to win the hearts and minds of the Irish people has flowed since ancient times.

With such a grandiose history, it is hardly surprising that the construction of a motorway through the Tara-Skryne valley caused widespread anger and disbelief. Those who opposed the construction of the M3 motorway stood for much more than the preservation of an archaeological site. In fact, the site excavations prior to the construction of the motorway yielded quite significant archaeological finds, such as the Lismullen henge, which would have remained undiscovered otherwise, before being covered over again in tarmac! The reaction from those who opposed the motorway was fundamentally against the motives and actions of an Irish Government who could be so irreverent and ruthless in the desecration of such a preeminent national site. If the Tara-complex was not sacred enough to be preserved from the apparatus of commercial development, then nothing in Ireland was sacred enough. Like a lesion on the landscape, the motorway came to symbolize a parting of the ways between ancient and modern Ireland. Its construction also signalled a major shift in the priorities of Irish politics. The ‘progressive’ capitalist culture that prevailed was not going to be beholden to Romantic Ireland. The M3 motorway was built as part of infrastructural improvement plans that went hand in hand with the economic boom known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Its alleged primary purpose was to reduce travel time for the unfortunate commuters who lived in Meath and Cavan but who worked in Dublin. For many the motorway represented progress. For others, it represented a profound sense of loss, that the spiritual Ireland of the past was being sacrificed in the Faustian élan of Celtic Tiger modernization. A landscape of memory and ancestry, of myth and romance, was being buried, in the name of progress, under tarmacadam and concrete. The poet Seamus Heaney, in expressing what Tara means to the Irish said “it’s a word that conjures an aura—it conjures up what they call in Irish dúchas, a sense of belonging, a sense of patrimony, a sense of an ideal, an ideal of the spirit if you like, that belongs in the place and if anywhere in Ireland conjures that up—it’s Tara—it’s a mythical site of course” and that the monuments and structures on the hill represent “origin, they’re about beginning, they’re about the mythological, spiritual source—a source and a guarantee of something old in the country and something that gives the country its distinctive spirit.”[i]

The Myth of the Better Past

There is undoubtedly nostalgia for an idealized Golden Age in the ancient Irish past. This past is tangible in the Tara landscape. Its archaeological monuments concretize its sacred and mythical character. The grassy round-barrow monuments present to the human eye a harmonious and sensitive blending of the natural and the man-made which, to the modern mind, induces a sense of a more harmonious relationship with the environment. Although the Hill of Tara is not a prominent feature in the landscape, it commands breath-taking panoramic views of the Irish countryside, which unfold as far north as the prominent Slieve Gullion in County Armagh and to the Mourne Mountains in County Down, whilst to the south the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains are visible. Standing on Tara one gets a sense of what Wordsworth attempted to convey when he wrote the following section in ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’:

                                                 Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

That on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

Worthsworth’s “deep seclusion” has been interpreted as the “dissolution of the self from perceiving eye into ecologically connected organism” (Bate 2000: 145) and this is the feeling one might experience whilst overlooking the sweeping landscape from the Hill of Tara; an overwhelming sense of one’s ego or self-hood receding and a sense of being engulfed by the non-self, while yet remaining very much aware of being a part of a vast interconnected biosphere. In religious terms such oceanic feelings would be deemed as being akin to a transpersonal, or mystical experience which reveals the essential unity or oneness of all life. In literary terms they would correspond to what became known as the Sublime in the eighteenth-century, a concept which became an important aspect of Romanticism. Indeed, the Romantic poets saw themselves as fulfilling some of the functions of religion in their efforts to induce, through their literary efforts, a sense of the numinous in nature. As well as its visual impact, Tara derives much of its charm from its ancient history and mythology, which lies in layers upon the palimpsest landscape. Such sites enrich the Irish landscape, standing as monuments to the endurance of a collective tradition and identity. Without such monuments that symbolize something better than the uncongenial present, then collective aspirations have no earthbound roots. By conserving such sites, a powerful sense of tradition, rootedness, identity, and meaning is conserved with them. But more importantly they conserve an ideal of human culture in harmony with the rest of the natural order.

But for the modernizers and profiteers, such ‘ruins’ are recalcitrant and resistant to their project, and are often targeted for destruction because they are pre-modern and are seen as outmoded ‘traditional’ vestiges of a way of life, which is counter-cultural to their progressive enterprise. David Lloyd has critiqued “the historicist narrative that understands modernity as the progress from the backward to the advanced, from the pre-modern to the modern” (Lloyd 2008: 3). Lloyd was writing his book, Irish Times: Temporalities of Modernity, just prior to the collapse of the Irish economy when the Celtic Tiger’s modernization process was in full swing, with the country experiencing material prosperity, unprecedented economic growth and was considered to have “emerged from the shadow of our continuing postcolonial dependence on Britain” and that we were no longer “the blacks of Europe”, to quote Jimmy Rabbitte from ‘The Commitments’, but we were on a par with other European countries. Lloyd’s intention was to demonstrate how the so-called modernization project in Ireland utterly failed to live up to its promises to advance social justice and to counter the accumulation of capital into the hands of an elite few. Although Lloyd is primarily interested in the cause of social justice his arguments are relevant for ecological purposes in that the exploitative greed of those at the helm of capitalist Ireland is as hostile towards the environment as it is towards the distribution of wealth. “The state” he argues “becomes the conduit that channels the interests of corporate capital, whose goal is the subsumption of every means and mode of life to the processes of production and profit” (Lloyd 2008: 8). Lloyd has asserted the need to imagine alternatives to the modern state’s forms and institutions. He employs the image of the ‘ruin’ contending that they are not “[s]ymptoms of an obstinate backwardness”, nor are they elements which are “stuck in a past that is opposed to the inevitable advent of progress and accordingly have no future” and nor are they “the regressive images of some impossible golden age”. Rather, they preserve the “outlines of Utopian desires that might challenge the dogmas of modernity” and are “formations that find ways to live on in transformation, counterpointing modernity critically by representing however weakly or even self-destructively, alternative ways of living” (Lloyd 2008: 3). Lloyd’s ambition is thus to do justice to the past where justice is understood “as the opening to the diverse and divergent human and natural ecologies whose very multiplicity is incommensurable with domination in any form” (Lloyd 2008: 9).

Fore Monastery

fig. Fore Abbey, Co Westmeath. Ancient ruins preserve the “outlines of Utopian desires that might challenge the dogmas of modernity.” (For tours of Fore Abbey and the Westmeath area contact Anthony Hughes and Eugene Dunne.)


However, the nostalgia evoked by ruins, archaeological monuments, or bygone eras, may be cynically dismissed as nothing but the fatuous yearnings of sentimentalists who have been deluded into a romanticized and idealized notion of the past, especially a past which has not been lived by those experiencing the nostalgia and a past which is deemed by modernizers to be unattainable. Such forms of nostalgia are often met with ridicule by those who consider themselves pure rationalists and empiricists. As a term, nostalgia is often something which is seen as nothing but a lie.

“Poetry and myth are not just nostalgia for some forgotten world. They constitute a disclosure of new and unprecedented worlds, an opening onto other possible worlds.” Paul Ricoeur

Those who nostalgically tend towards idealized visions of the past have come in for harsh criticism from Marxist academics who get extremely upset when people don’t write accurately about the socio-political issues of the period. In their opinion the nostalgic literary mode (e.g. pastoral poetry) which represents the past rural life as a Golden Age is an egregious lie, that there is basically no such thing as an organic community, and that fantasizing for such a past is not at all helpful in challenging the existing capitalist social order since it is a myth (using the term pejoratively) functioning as memory which not only glosses over the past’s iniquities and indignities but helps to perpetuate them by failing to engage with present realities.

But from an eco-critical point of view the myth of a better past has been argued to be “no less important for being myth rather than history” (Bate 2000: 25). Jonathan Bate has challenged the Marxist critics’ point of view and has stressed the importance of the myth of a better past. He argues that “[m]yths are necessary imaginings, exemplary stories which help our species to make sense of its place in the world. Myths endure so long as they perform helpful work. The myth of the natural life which exposes the ills of our own condition is as old as Eden and Arcadia, as new as Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’ and the latest Hollywood adaption of Austen or Hardy. Its endurance is a sign of its importance. Perhaps we need to remember what is ‘going, going’ as a survival mechanism, as a check upon our instinct for self-advancement” (Bate 2000: 25–26).

Bate was influenced in his thinking by the  literary critics F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson who in their teaching primer Culture and Environment (1933) endeavoured “to develop critical awareness, to resist the blandishments of the mass media shouting their breathless praise of ‘progress’ and of everything shiny and new”. Leavis, unlike the Marxist critics, believed that an organic community did actually exist at one time but had been lost along with the living culture it embodied. He considered this “living culture” as “an art of life, a way of living, ordered and patterned, involving social arts, codes of intercourse and a responsive adjustment, growing out of immemorial experience, to the natural environment and the rhythm of the year” (Leavis & Thompson 1933: 1–2). Leavis valued tradition as something which contained within it certain standards of thought and behaviour which could be used to shape the future. He was not advocating a return to a pre-industrial mode of existence but rather insisted upon the restoration of “the continuity of consciousness” which figured in the pre-industrial societies. He argued that “[i]t is important to insist on what has been lost lest it be should be forgotten; for the memory of the old order must be the chief incitement towards a new, if ever we are to have one” but warned that “[i]f we forget the old order we shall not know what kind of thing to strive towards, and in the end there will be no striving, but a surrender to the ‘progress’ of the machine” (Leavis & Thompson 1933: 96). Leavis firmly believed that this “consciousness” which was a necessary bulwark against the inorganicity of modernity, could be recovered and continued through the study of literature from the past, stating that in “a world that changes so rapidly — it is on the literary tradition that the office of maintaining continuity must rest” (Leavis & Thompson 1933: 1). Bate recognised the eco-criticical potential of these values which Leavis expounded, and how organicism, tradition, continuity, can act as a counterforce to the capitalist manifesto of ‘progress’. Bate suggests that “[i]f modernity is defined by ‘improvement’, by the project of social engineering and the march of culture away from nature, then the apologist for the supposed naturalness of the old ways must speak the language of heritage and of conservation” (Bate 2000: 21).

A cultural heritage site such as Tara thus symbolizes an “old order” and which, in Heaney’s words, has an aura “that gives the country its distinctive spirit”. The early Irish literature associated with Tara, so obviously pre-modern and pre-industrial, also represents an “old order” with it values bound up in wondrous narratives which concern marvellous adventures into Otherworldly realms where sacred institutions like sacral kingship and the king’s truth are validated by mysterious inhabitants of the síd-mounds, where the land is a living-being which radiates a mystical sacredness. Unfortunately, in the modern age a sense of the sacred has largely been lost to a cynical and reductionist ‘nothing-buttery’ which sees the world in terms of an economic opportunity or as a fact to be explained as ‘nothing but’ this, that, or the other. Instead of seeing, for example, the radical transformation of a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly as the manifestation of genius mysteriously at work in the universe, there is the poverty of vision and Imagination which sees it as a ‘nothing-but’ process whereby cellular changes occur and so on.

So before the nostalgia for a romanticized ancient Irish past is dismissed as an intellectual malaise, perhaps it would be better to reconsider its potentiality for eco-critical purposes and for helping us in re-imagining our relationship towards the land. The persistent atavistic impulse which impels people to re-discover in the past lost values which will somehow ameliorate the perceived ills of the present is as much a form of recalcitrance and resistance to the relentless march of destructive kinds of economic and scientific progress as the image of the ‘ruin’ which Lloyd evokes. Furthermore, as Paul Ricoeur has asserted, “poetry and myth are not just nostalgia for some forgotten world. They constitute a disclosure of new and unprecedented worlds, an opening onto other possible worlds” (Ricoeur 1978: 118).

Fearghal Duffy – Metamorphosis Collaborator.



[i] Heaney expressed these views on a BBC radio documentary ‘Tar on Tara’. The excerpts here are taken from a BBC news article ‘Heaney hits out over ‘tar on Tara’’ published on 1st March 2008 and is available on the BBC news website



Jonathan Bate, Song of the Earth, (2000)

F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness (with Denys Thompson), Chatto & Windus: London; Oxford University Press: Toronto, 1933.

David Lloyd, Irish Times: Temporalities of Modernity, (2008)

Paul Ricoeur and Richard Kearney, ‘Myth as the Bearer of Possible Worlds’ in The Crane Bag, Vol. 2, No. 1/2, ‘The Other Ireland’ (1978), pp. 112–118


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