updated 5/11/2005 11:42:16 AM ET 2005-05-11T15:42:16

Overruling the protests of environmentalists and historians, the government on Wednesday approved construction of a highway that will pass near the Hill of Tara, an ancient site where St. Patrick reportedly confronted and converted pagans.

Opponents had demanded a different route farther from the hill, which was a popular meeting point for Irish kings and chieftains from pre-Christian times until the 11th century.

As a critical step toward building the M3 highway, Environment Minister Dick Roche approved 38 archaeological digs along the proposed route, which will pass about 1 mile east of the hill. The digs must come before the highway is built, and had Roche refused permission, the government’s National Roads Authority would have been obliged to explore a different route.

The road project actually will make possible significant archaeological exploration, Roche said, adding that he would revisit the issue if archeologists made important discoveries that couldn’t be moved.

He refused to predict when the road might actually open. “There will probably be legal challenges here,” he said.

Indeed, campaigners immediately vowed to seek an injunction and predicted that the road could be tied up in the courts for another decade.

Opinion polls indicate strong local support for the highway, which would connect Dublin — home to a third of Ireland’s 4 million residents — with the rapidly expanding northwest suburb of Navan. Currently, Navan commuters can spend more than 2 hours along a single-lane road trying to reach Dublin, 30 miles away.

The academic elite of Britain and Ireland led opposition, arguing that the road would cut through a largely unexplored site that extends far beyond the hill itself.

The hill had its heyday two millennia ago, when it was the traditional seat for the so-called “high kings” of Ireland. In the 6th century, St. Patrick allegedly confronted and faced down the local pagan rulers then based on the hill.

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