AN HISTORIC Irish dolmen has been wrapped in tin foil and silver plastic - so that it now looks more like a Flash Gordon spaceship than a prehistoric monument.
Labby Rock, near Castlebaldwin, Co Sligo, and overlooking Lough Arrow, looked more like a "baked potato" according to one expert who visited it recently.
The famous 70-ton dolmen was said to have been used as a bed by Diarmaid and Grainne when fleeing Fionn MacCumhaill.
But Mary Quinlan, who has been visiting ancient monuments for 20 years, had never seen anything like it.
"We came out of the wood and the first thing I saw was the Labby Rock covered in what looked like tin foil/silver paper. I was upset to see this 5,000-year-old monument looking a bit ridiculous.
"On closer inspection I was more concerned because I noticed a lot of the grass and heather from the top of the monument had been cut. The orthostats (the stones the roofstone sits on) looked for all the world like baked potatoes," said the antropologist.
But recent visitors to the monument were even more shocked to discover the landowner has the right to do this, whereas the public have no right under Irish law to view this piece of ancient Irish heritage - if the landowner forbids it.
Labby Rock is one of the largest dolmens in Ireland, with a roofstone weighing around 70 tonnes. It is mentioned in guidebooks, and there is a stile over the wall leading to it, with a path marked by an official yellow arrow and walker icon.
However, recent visitors to the dolmen got a rude awakening when a figure in a baseball cap came down the meadow, filming with a video camera. He angrily announced - in an American accent - that he was both the landowner and the creator of this 'installation art'; that the group had destroyed five days' work by pulling up one edge of his balloon; and that they were trespassing.
Inquiries have comfirmed that although monuments are protected under the 2004 Monuments Act, the law has no problem in principle with what was done to this monument. A spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government said: "The Labby Rock is . . . a recorded monument. Any landowner who intends to carry out work on or around a recorded monument is obliged to give us two months' notice, so we can go out and assess the situation.
"Apparently this didn't happen and we have received a complaint from a member of the public, so one of our archaeologists has gone out to have a look. It's unlikely, though, that there's any damage."
Another local landowner was shocked at the department's attitude. "People come to see the Labby Rock," he said, "not a f**king balloon. If they want to see a balloon they can go to McDonalds!"
But the public don't have any legal rights to see monuments that lie on private ground, according to Sligo Heritage Officer Siobhan Ryan: "People don't have the right to roam and it is with the goodwill and permission of the landowners that we access those sites."
However, a team of experts appointed by Rural Affairs Minister Eamon O Cuiv has just brought out a report suggesting legislation be brought in to open access rights to the countryside. The report has already caused a furore.
Meanwhile, Minister for the Environment John Gormley has saidcontroversies like the Tara motorway development raise the issue of whether current measures to protect our archaeological and natural landscape are adequate.
"I agree with bodies such as the Heritage Council, which has said that we need enhanced measures," said Gormley. "In the coming weeks, I will begin a consultative process in order to bring forward a new National Landscape Strategy. This was a key environmental protection commitment in the Programme for Government."
Efforts by the Sunday Independent to contact the Labby Rock landowner were unsuccessful. The dolmen on his land is steeped in mythology. The word 'Labby' comes from the belief that it was used as a bed - a leaba. John Moriarty, the late Kerry philosopher, said of the dolmen: "Yesterday I went to visit the most beautiful building in all of western Europe . . . made of six stones."
That was before it got a covering of silver tin foil.