Michael Portillo gets up to speed with modern archaeology in County Meath and uncovers a controversial Victorian dig at the sacred Hill of Tara.
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For Victorian Britons, George Bradshaw was a household name.
At a time when railways were new,
Bradshaw's guidebook inspired them to take to the tracks.
I'm using a Bradshaw's Guide to understand how trains transformed
Britain and Ireland -
their landscape, industry, society and leisure time.
As I follow its routes 130 years later,
it helps me to discover these islands today.
I'm approaching the halfway mark of my journey from southeastern
to northwestern Ireland.
On this leg, I hope to find earthy evidence of early civilisations,
investigate a fishy history,
discover induction at a Catholic seminary
and beat the drum for Ireland.
I began my journey on the coast at Wexford
and then travelled to Dublin,
where I beheld the soul of the nation.
Now I turn west,
hoping to discover more of Ireland's rich cultural identity
as I cross this country and end my peregrination on the Atlantic coast.
Today's route begins at Navan, I then travel to Leixlip,
make a stop in the university town of Maynooth and end in Mullingar.
Along the way I get up to speed with modern archaeology...
-That was excellent.
-That was perfect.
-Do you really go at that pace?
..discover a glorious hidden wonder...
This is the best chapel in Ireland by a long shot.
You can't come to Ireland and not see this, can you?
..and get my marching orders.
If you're going to join them, beat.
I'll be leaving this train at M3 Parkway,
which was evidently added to the rail network
after my Bradshaw's Guide
was published. The book directs my attention to the Hill of Tara
on which several mounds mark the site where kings
were crowned on a coronation stone.
Rock and royal.
I'm now in Navan, County Meath,
which is rich in both beautiful landscapes and mythology.
The Hill of Tara is considered one of the most important
archaeological sites in Ireland.
According to tradition, it was the seat of the High King of Ireland
in the pre-Norman era, when five clans held sway over the country.
Tara was a sacred site associated with kingship rituals.
Guiding me through the site is cultural historian
and archaeologist Mairead Carew.
Mairead, immediately this open and very tranquil space,
with its mounds, seems very special.
Very ancient, very spiritual.
Yeah, well, it has been a sacred site for over 5,000 years.
The earliest tomb was built about 3500 BC.
-What is this, Mairead?
-This is the Mound of the Hostages.
-Because King Cormac Mac Airt
was said to have exchanged hostages there.
There's a passage tomb in there,
which means there's chambers where the dead were buried.
The mound has been used for high status burials
since around 3000 BC.
The highlight awaits me.
Is this the Coronation Stone?
Well, this stone is known as the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny,
and it was believed to play a role in the inauguration of kings.
The tradition was that the god Lugh,
you would hear his voice coming through the stone
if you were the rightful king.
And those origins, whether mythological or not,
can they be described as Gaelic
and how important are they to Irish people?
During the cultural revival in the 19th century,
scholars and writers and artists took a huge interest in the history
and mythology of places like Tara.
Sounds like it was getting quite political at that time.
Yeah, certainly it was because you have the cultural nationalists
beginning to become really interested in their history
and their language and their culture
and using that in terms of their identity.
The Irish Nationalists were not alone in sensing
the spiritual importance of the site.
'In the late 19th century, an organisation from Britain staked
'its claim on the land.'
This has a different feel to it, the contours are not as clear.
Yeah, well, you see, it was destroyed by a group in 1899.
Between 1899 and 1902,
a group known as British Israelites came to the site,
they were convinced the Ark of the Covenant was buried here
and they dug two big trenches across the enclosure
and they had no archaeological supervision,
they were just intending on finding the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant is a chest said to contain the Ten Commandments
inscribed on stone tablets.
The British Israelites believed that it was buried at the Hill of Tara.
The end of the 19th century, a terribly delicate time
in Anglo-Irish relations,
the British come here and dig up the most sacred site in
Ireland. What was the reaction?
Well, there was a very strong reaction.
The poet WB Yeats,
the nationalist Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein,
and Maud Gonne all came here to protest
and there was a media campaign.
They wrote to The Times of London,
and they said that the site has been desecrated and it was probably
the most consecrated spot in Ireland.
'Those highly controversial excavations
'offended cultural sensitivities and
'would have affronted today's principles of archaeology,
'which emphasise getting information before digging begins.'
Rosanne Scott is part of a research project that's been surveying
the site since the 1990s.
-Hello, I'm Michael.
How are you? Nice to meet you.
What on earth are you doing?
So we're doing an archaeological survey of the Hill of Tara
and we are using geophysical prospection methods to find out more
about what lies beneath the surface of the ground.
What sort of things are you looking for?
Well, this type of instrument is very good at picking up the remains
of features like ditches, pits, gulleys,
things that have been cut into the surface of the ground
and we can find, for example, enclosures and burial monuments,
-You've obviously marked out the ground here with your strings.
So, what, you've established a kind of grid, have you?
Yeah, so we work on a 20 by 20 metre grid system,
it's very important, of course, when we're collecting this kind of data
to know exactly the position on the ground
-that we collect each measurement.
-What you're doing looks...
A, rather bizarre but, B, rather fun.
-Could I have a go?
-You can, of course.
Yeah, you're more than welcome.
The magnetic gradiometer collects geophysical data to create digital
images of what lies beneath the surface.
The instrument must be walked at a fair speed.
That was excellent.
-That was perfect.
-Do you really go at that pace?
-Wow, you must be exhausted.
Yeah, it's good. It's the only exercise we get.
The findings of the project are displayed in the deconsecrated
19th-century church next to the Hill of Tara.
This is one of the number of different types of imagery
we have of the Hill of Tara.
The aerial photo's very useful for getting a better understanding
of the topography of the hill.
We also have some more detailed imagery,
like this, taken from a helicopter.
What that does is allows us to create a very detailed 3-D modelling
of the hill. So, for example,
some of the archaeological features that weren't known to exist before
-can now be seen.
-And what has it led you to discover
that you might not have known without this technology?
OK, well, I think the most significant discovery is that of
a very large enclosure, which came as a complete surprise,
and we can see the image of it here and what it is is an oval ditch
and on either side of that is a ring of posts,
which would originally have held large timber uprights.
It probably dates from around 2500 BC or so.
It's a henge-type monument and it can be compared
to similar monuments, the landscape of Stonehenge,
and also elsewhere in Ireland, such as a Newgrange.
Have you found the Ark of the Covenant?
No, we haven't yet and I expect we never will.
Because this station is on a branch line
I need to make a short double-back towards Dublin.
At Clonsilla, I change trains to get onto the mainline heading west.
My next stop will be Leixlip.
Bradshaw's tells me it's situated on the Liffey,
close to the famous salmon leap.
In the 20th century a barrage was built across the river
and a reservoir created. I wonder what happened to the dammed salmon.
The name Leixlip comes from the Old Norse lax hlaup,
which means salmon leap.
It's located just ten miles outside Dublin and when the railways opened
in 1848, Victorian day-trippers came here to take in the waterfalls
and the spectacle of the athletic fish.
Today it's home to the Leixlip Hydroelectric Power Station.
And it's where I'm meeting fisheries biologist Dennis Doherty.
Well, Dennis, I find the dam a kind of classic piece of industrial
architecture, but my first question is why do salmon leap?
Salmon leap to gain access over obstacles and in most cases that'd
be a natural obstacle like a waterfalls or a tree across a river.
Where are they headed and why?
They spawn in freshwater and spend their adult life at sea,
so they're going upstream to spawn in the month of December.
Then those eggs will hatch in around Saint Patrick's Day,
or slightly after, and about two years later
those young fish would go to sea.
They would spend one year at sea and they would then come back here to
Liffey and go upstream to spawn again.
The fish know to go back to where they were born?
Yes. A Liffey salmon will not only come back to the Liffey,
he or she would actually come back to the particular stretch of river
that they actually spawned in above the station here.
The Leixlip hydroelectric dam was completed in 1952,
designed to generate electricity and to provide flood protection
and drinking water for Dublin.
Now, the day that this was built was not good news for the salmon,
at least in principle. What thought was given to them?
Yeah, quite a lot of thought.
In fairness to the powers that be at that time,
they built a fish lift for adult salmon moving upstream.
Also one of the spillway gates is adapted for downstream lowering.
-And they come over the top?
-They come over the top, that middle gate there,
which is lowered, and we spill water over that and the fish go down
on the plume of water and out to sea.
That must be a ride to remember for the salmon.
Yes, certainly, yeah, must be exciting for them, I suppose.
Salmon can leap up waterfalls to a height of around 12 feet but the
Leixlip dam poses an insurmountable barrier, nearly 80-foot high.
In order to allow the Liffey salmon to return to their breeding grounds
further upstream, a fish lift has been built,
which works in a similar way to a canal lock.
So, here we are at the top of the dam.
Where would a salmon that was headed upstream be now?
So, a salmon is located in the downstream chamber here below us.
The bottom gate is closed.
The middle gate is open, filling the chamber.
The water levels come up until it meets the reservoir level,
at which point the salmon merely swim out
through that chamber and out.
It takes around 20 minutes for the lock to fill up and the salmon
to reach the top.
It's not peak season for fish migration but any activity through
the lift is monitored by Nigel Bond of the Marine Institute.
Hello, Nigel, I'm Michael. Now, you're counting salmon.
What's the importance of doing that?
The importance of counting salmon is so that we know what the state
of the river is at the current time and we have data that goes back
for many years so we can see if there's any fluctuations
in the numbers of fish that are appearing in the river.
Could you show me a fish that you've seen move through?
Sure, sure. There's a fish going through in June.
That's a salmon and he passes all three electrodes,
he generates a count and we record that on our equipment.
Water quality is essential for salmon to thrive,
so keeping accurate track of population numbers
can tell marine scientists a lot about the waterway.
With the data, and frankly speaking,
what is the state of the Liffey at the moment?
Well, at the moment the Liffey is operating below
its conservation limit,
so, like a lot of other rivers in the country,
care has to be taken not to take fish from a river that's operating
below its conservation limit.
So, at the moment,
no-one is allowed to put their rod into the Liffey for a salmon?
At the moment, that's correct, yeah.
Well, let's hope that one day it all changes.
Please, yeah. Hopefully, yeah.
This stop by the river Liffey marks the end of today's travels.
Time to take a rest and to begin again tomorrow.
This morning I'm taking the train from Leixlip station as I continue
to journey west.
My next stop will be Maynooth.
Bradshaw's recommends Saint Patrick's Roman Catholic College,
a quadrangular edifice containing "a noble library of 18,000 volumes.
"Founded in 1795, it has a parliamentary grant
"of £30,000 per year."
Interesting, given that England had an established Protestant church.
But now that Catholics had the vote, they had to be won over.
Maynooth is a university town 16 miles from central Dublin.
It grew around its 13th-century castle,
which in the late medieval period
was the centre of Irish political power and culture.
I'm making my way to Saint Patrick's College, mentioned in my Bradshaw's.
The seminary, where students train for the priesthood,
today shares the campus with Maynooth University,
where I'm meeting Dr Niall McKeith, curator of the college's museum.
Niall, when were Catholic educational establishments
They were first permitted in 1795 and this is because it was only
in 1791 that the penal laws were actually removed from the statute
books in the Palace of Westminster.
Westminster gave a small donation to the bishops in order to purchase
a building for the commencement of the seminary.
Given that England and Scotland were Protestant,
why did the government agreed to give a grant to a Catholic college?
Well, because up until that time there was no Catholic seminary within Ireland,
so if anybody who wanted to become educated to become a priest,
then they had to either go to France or Salamanca or to Rome.
At that time we're talking about revolution in France and those
priests who were being educated in Paris were then coming back
to Ireland with the revolutionary ideas,
so it was in the interests of the British government for there
to be a seminary built in Ireland for the education of priests.
There was a fear of radicalisation?
There was, of course.
Concerned about links between Catholics in Ireland and France,
and seeking to improve its own popularity,
in 1845 the British government tripled the money granted
to St Patrick's.
The college expanded rapidly, employing Augustus Pugin,
famed architect of the Palace of Westminster,
to design new buildings, including a large refectory...
..and a new library,
which now houses the college's collection of pre-1850 books.
At the heart of the seminary is its chapel.
Well, this is truly spectacular and huge.
Victorian Gothic at its very best and it reminds me
of the Palace of Westminster. Was it Pugin?
No, it was a pupil of Pugin's
or an apprentice of Pugin's who designed it
and that was one JJ McCarthy, and it is the largest choral-type chapel
in the world where all of the stalls are all facing each other
and you have the absolute magnificent rose window
there at the end.
And then down the sides of the church facing each other in carving
and relief, all of the coats of arms of the various bishops.
This is the best chapel in Ireland by a long shot.
Well, I mean, really, you can't come to Ireland
-and not see this, can you?
The chapel is one of the most impressive I've seen.
And there's another unexpected treasure here at St Patrick's.
The National Science Museum of Ireland is on the campus.
Niall, I'm astonished to find a physics museum in what I thought was
a seminary. Now, what is the explanation for that?
The explanation is that when the college was originally set up
that they brought over seven professors from the Sorbonne
to start it off. One of those professors was a professor
of natural philosophy, or physics,
so physics has been taught in the seminary here since the foundation
-of the estate.
-And in your early days, who would have been your most outstanding scientist?
The most outstanding would have been Reverend Nicholas Callan.
He was a seminary student here, he was ordained,
he then went to Rome to do his divinity and while he was there
the initial interest that he had in physics was reinforced when he met
Alessandro Volta and Galvani.
It was an important moment in our understanding of electricity.
The Italian scientists had invented the battery and discovered animal
electricity, transforming theories into practical applications.
Nicholas Callan returned to St Patrick's as Professor of natural
philosophy and made an important breakthrough of his own.
Now, I assume this is a very important object.
What was it that Callan did?
Callan invented the induction coil.
The induction coil is a device to take a low voltage and step it up
to an extremely high voltage
of the order of hundreds of thousands of volts.
So, they already knew how to generate some electricity
from a battery but this was about getting more voltage.
Exactly. In 1840,
he was able to generate voltages of the order of 600,000 volts.
He didn't have the nice digital voltmeters that we have today,
but what he did have was clerical students
and he used to make 15 clerical students hold hands
and then the last two would have to put their hands on
the output of the secondary coil
and he determined the voltage by how high the students jumped.
What a story!
The induction coil was the first type of transformer.
The X-ray, radio transmission and the ignition coil in cars are all
inventions which owe their origins to Father Callan's work.
Your own personal assessment of Callan, what would that be?
I have been known to say that
Faraday was the father of electricity
and the Reverend Nicholas Callan
would be the Reverend Godfather of electricity.
I'm leaving Maynooth to take the train onwards west.
It gives me a chance to question my fellow travellers about Britain
and Ireland's difficult history.
Hello, ladies, may I join you for a moment?
I'm using a 19th-century guidebook here
and it's all about conflict, really,
between the Irish and British,
the Hunger and rebellions and executions.
Just wondered, you know, does that still stick in the Irish mind?
Yeah, when we were in secondary school we learned an awful lot about
the Famine. You know, it's only three or four generations ago,
so it's not that long ago,
so it is definitely still, kind of, in our minds.
There was a lot of talk about "Oh, you know,
"the English aristocracy and the English landlords
"were living perfectly normal lives
"while people were starving all around them."
I mean, it was very raw when we were...well, when I was a child.
-Trying to think, you know, it's more holistic,
that they're shown both sides,
but I still think there wasn't really another side.
And would you say this harrowing 19th-century history
still affects Irish views of the British today?
Probably as recently as the last decade or so I think the views
of the British in Ireland has changed.
Time has been a great healer.
My next stop will be Mullingar.
The guidebook tells me that the population is employed in the wool
and butter trades.
But I'll find there the ruins of two castles and a large
infantry barracks for 1,000 men.
It seems I won't be the first Briton to march into Mullingar.
Today, the wool and butter trades are long gone,
but the barracks still stands.
The British built the huge military compound in the early 19th century.
Irish military forces took it over,
and used it until 2012 when it was closed.
BRASS BAND PLAYS
Not far from the barracks,
I can hear what sounds like a regimental band.
-Bravo. Kim, I'm Michael.
So, is there a connection between the Mullingar Town Band and
the military barracks that used to be in the town?
There is, yeah. While we were officially formed in 1879,
we actually can trace our roots as far back as the 1800s.
A lot of the British soldiers were involved in the British barracks
settled here in Mullingar and they had just civilian bands.
We're a marching band, we're a concert band
and we provide music education in our junior bands as well.
I suppose it's kind of like a mini music school.
Today, there are over 200 members, starting from the age of eight,
and this community band has won some top awards
in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Are you in fine form today?
-I see you got the trombone there,
when did you learn to play the trombone?
-About 11 years ago.
-I started in the band.
-You must've been tiny!
-Yeah, quite little!
And do you get much pleasure out of playing for the band?
I love playing for the band.
-You love it.
-I've been playing here most my life.
The band is open to experienced players and beginners.
I've been invited to arm myself with a bass drum.
If you're going to join them, beat.
HE LAUGHS Thank you.
You look like me, so it must be here.
Is it the left foot first?
And then the right hand first.
Left foot, right hand.
That was terrible!
The salmon knows where it comes from
and returns to the place of its birth.
At the end of the 19th century,
nationalists felt the need to explain the origins of the Irish
people and drew inspiration from the Gaelic legends of the Kings of Tara.
That left only the question of in which direction to march
and who would call the beat?
Next time, I have a go at traditional Irish cuisine...
How's that looking, Timmy?
You wouldn't be selling it now.
Very lumpy, you know what I mean?
..see the landscape that inspired one of the 20th-century's
greatest poets, WB Yeats...
It gave him a sense of where Celtic man had come out of the landscape
and that drove him to believe that Ireland should have an independence.
..and step in time, Sligo style.
One, two, three.
Michael Flatley better watch out!
Michael Portillo gets up to speed with modern archaeology in County Meath and uncovers a controversial Victorian dig at the sacred Hill of Tara. He investigates leaping salmon in Leixslip and discovers an electrifying breakthrough at an historic seminary. At Mullingar, Michael bangs the drum for the town's marching band.