An Interview with Ronan Swan of the National Roads Authority

9 mins read
The road more travelled:  Rónán Swan discusses life on the road schemes with CA Editor Lisa Westcott.

Why did you become an archaeologist?

My father, Leo Swan, was an archaeologist, so I grew up with it. All my holidays were spent on sites, or fieldwalking places like the Dublin mountains, Tara, and the Boyne Valley. My father directed research excavations — commercial archaeology didn’t exist back then — so when my friends were heading over to America to work in bars, I went off to excavate. I never thought about being anything else.

When did commercial archaeology begin in Ireland?

It really began in earnest in the 1980s, when companies such as Margaret Gowen Ltd and Valerie J. Keeley opened up shop. That was when we first began to realise archaeology was not purely academic or institutional and that there was an alternative career path available. In 1989, when I began my first degree, there were limited opportunities in commercial archaeology but by the time I graduated in 1992, it was well established. It’s interesting — when I did my final essay paper, the topic was entitled Contract archaeology: is it time to throw in the trowel? We were asking the same questions back then that are being debated today: can commercial archaeology work? What’s the value in it? Can it be done at the same level as research archaeology?

Who was funding archaeology at this point?

It was paid for by local authorities who were making improvements to roads or other services, and state bodies like the Bord Gáis (the national gas company). There was a growing awareness of archaeological requirements, but private sector developers often treated it as a ‘tick box’ exercise that was required for planning approval. Limited value or appreciation was put on the purpose or value of the archaeological work itself, so site works would be funded, but subsequent works such as post-excavation, reporting and publication would not.

When did the National Roads Authority get involved in archaeology?

The NRA was established in 1994, but it had no direct involvement in managing archaeology at first. It became clear in the late 1990s that there would soon be a steep increase in their work, as the government had announced its intention to bring the roads up to par with the rest of Europe. UK readers might not understand just how bad our roads were back then in Ireland: none of the major cities were connected by roadways, so we needed to do the kind of road construction that had happened  in England in the 1950s and 1960s.

The NRA understood it had to get a handle on how to deal with the archaeology that would inevitably be a part of such huge projects. They wanted in-house expertise, for archaeologists to work alongside NRA engineers and other staff. After a Code of Practice was established in 2000, setting out the guidelines for management of archaeology on the road schemes, they set out to put archaeologists in place as part of the roads-design teams. The first batch of us started in 2001 and we were busy from the very first day. The money was already in place to fund things — several of the first big road schemes were public-private partnerships with international road-building companies.  The springboard for these major works initially came from Europe, but in later years funding came from the Irish exchequer.

How has archaeology been affected by Ireland’s economic situation?

The economic curve for archaeology mirrored that of most business sectors: we peaked in 2007, when lots of road schemes were pushed through. We had over 650 active excavations that year. Then there was the steep decline in 2008 and 2009, but this year we have seen an increase in work and I expect by the end of 2010, excavation on over 100 sites will have started. The scale of projects is dramatically smaller, but there’s still work being done.

What comes after the Celtic Tiger for archaeology?

There are existing contracts that were signed years ago, and that work is still ongoing. Less than 70 per cent of the national roads network has been upgraded to the standards put in place, but it’s a political decision as to whether the rest is brought up to that level. I think that it will be done, but completion will be spread out over a longer time scale — we won’t have another intense period like the Celtic Tiger. There are other areas of the economy that have opportunities for archaeology, such as public transport, water schemes, local housing and other infrastructures that still need to be upgraded if we are to catch up with the rest of Europe.

Ireland has no Portable Antiquities Scheme, so what happens when artefacts are found?

The State owns everything archaeological, so there is an obligation to immediately report any finds to the National Museum of Ireland. It’s very different to the UK, because metal detecting is illegal except under licence or strictly controlled circumstances. We don’t have that detecting culture and community here. It’s inconceivable to me that you can have metal detecting on archaeological sites by non-archaeologists.

The Tara/M3 controversy made international headlines. What are your thoughts about it?

Certain opponents to the road and some media created the impression that the hill was going to be leveled and the entire landscape obliterated. It was easy to whip up public anger because it was, and still is, an emotive issue. Tara is so important to the Irish — I have been going there since I was a young child, and I’ve brought my own children there as well. The new road is there, in the landscape, but so are many other things like telephone poles and houses. Though the road is visible from parts of the hill, in my opinion it does not overpower or diminish Tara, or change the experience of visiting in the slightest. In fact, a team from the Department of Archaeology in NUI Galway is there with the Discovery Programme right now doing new geophysics, and I’d really like to see that work linked up with what we learned on the road scheme excavations to create a much fuller understanding of the entire landscape.

If you weren’t an archaeologist, what would you be?

An archaeologist.

Rónán Swan is the Acting Head of Archaeology for the National Roads Authority in Ireland. He worked in the consultancy sector from 1994 to 2001, after which he joined Westmeath County Council as Project Archaeologist, managing major road projects. In 2007, Rónán was appointed a Senior Archaeologist with NRA, and was made acting Head of Archaeology in April 2007.

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