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Ireland And The Roman Empire. Modern Politics Shaping The Ancient Past?

Way back in 1996, the Sunday Times newspaper in Britain ran an enthusiastic if awkwardly-phrased banner headline proclaiming that a “Fort discovery proves Romans invaded Ireland”. The “fort” in question was an archaeological site in north County Dublin known as Drumanagh, situated on a wave-eroded headland near the coastal village of Loughshinny. Nearly 900 metres long and 190 metres wide, the monument consists of a trio of parallel ditches protecting an oblong thumb of land jutting out into the ocean, the seaward sides of the irregular protrusion relying on the waters of the Irish Sea for defence. The location is fairly typical of a large number of Iron Age promontory settlements found in isolated spots throughout the country. However what made the area at Drumanagh of particular interest was the significant number of Roman artefacts found within its fields.

Unfortunately a comprehensive archaeological survey of the site has yet to be published due to questions over property rights and compensatory payments for finds, meaning most discoveries from the location have come through agricultural work or destructive raids by metal detectorists and criminals seeking “buried treasure”. These stumbling blocks have led to all sorts of remarkable conspiracy theories in recent years, some alleging that “nationalist” historians, and the State itself, have curtailed full access to the monument in order to maintain the “myth” of a Celtic Ireland that was never conquered by the Roman Empire. Unlike its neighbour, Britain.

The promontory fort at Drumanagh near Loughshinny, north County Dublin. Note the parallel defensive ditches on the left protecting the headline, much of which has been eroded by the sea over the last two thousand years

The sensationalist Sunday Times’ article of 1996 was published very much in opposition to the popular notion of a determinedly independent and Celtic Irish nation, both in the past and the present. Among its fanciful claims was the suggestion that the Drumanagh fort may have been used by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a Roman governor of Britain, as a staging point for an invasion of Ireland around 82 CE. Of course no evidence exists anywhere in the archaeological or historical record for such an incursion beyond some boastful references to the country by Agricola’s son-in-law, the writer Publius Cornelius Tacitus in his book, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae. However in recent years these references have been subject to wilful misinterpretations by the advocates of a “Hibernia Romana”.

Since the 1980s, and notably through the eccentric theories of Richard Warner, formerly of the Ulster Museum, the headland at Drumanagh has been transformed into a prehistoric bridgehead for a Roman conquest of the island. The supposed figurehead leading this occupation was the legendary Irish prince, Tuathal Teachtmhar, who returned from political exile in Britain in the first or second century CE with an army of legionaries in tow. And if that scenario sounds familiar you would be right. It is simply a repetition of the career of the controversial Uí Cheinnsealaigh king, Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, and the Norman-British expeditions he led into Ireland from his political exile in Britain during the late 12th century. Which of course eventually led to the island’s annexation and colonisation by the Anglo-British during the Medieval and Elizabethan eras.

One of the first people to condemn the Sunday Times article was the late historian Michael Herity, of University College Dublin (UCD) and the Royal Irish Academy, writing in the Irish Times that same year:

“The Drumanagh promontory fort juts out into a seaway frequented by Mediterranean travellers and traders, as the map of Ptolemy of Alexandria attests. St Patrick made a stop on his way north to Strangford Lough on a neighbouring island, Holmpatrick, opposite Skerries. A possibility that the “managh” of the placename Drumanagh derives from the Roman Menapii has been raised. The quantity and nature of the material reported from this site, taken together with the structural evidence, suggests a rich Irish emporium trading extensively with the Roman world. It does not suggest an invasion, not even a Roman bridgehead.”

In fact, as Gabriel Cooney of UCD was to point out in the respected magazine, History Ireland, debates over the status of Drumanagh in 1996 (and in subsequent years) owed as much to concerns about contemporary Irish history as to matters of the distant past:

““This is a time of great sensitivity in the present relationship between the islands of Ireland and Britain, when east-west links, as well as the more familiar north-south links, are the subject of considerable discussion. In this context it is perhaps unhelpful that newspaper coverage, particularly in Britain, has concentrated on the notion that finds at Drumanagh demonstrate that Ireland was, after all, part of the Roman Empire. An editorial in The Times of London suggested that the Irish should not be ashamed that they were part of a Roman Imperial world and that, in this, they were brothers as well as rivals of the ‘other British’. There is a clear suggestion here that it is about time that the Irish cottoned on to the fact that they really are British. Within this new mythology it does not take too much of a leap of imagination to see how such a formulation could be used in political agendas today.”

Like the academic field of early Irish literature, mythology and folklore, where “nativist” and “revisionist” schools formerly struggled for control, the late pre-Christian history of Ireland has become bound up in a contest between those perceived as “nationalist” and “revisionist”, however loosely or erroneously described. That debate is ongoing, as we have seen with the recent claims of a supposed “Roman shrine” at the sacro-religious complex of Brú na Bóinne or Newgrange in County Meath. The percieved need by some individuals to make Ireland a region of the Roman Empire between the first and fifth centuries CE makes the subject of Irish-Roman relations a sensitive one.

This interview with Jacqueline Cahill Wilson of the Late Iron Age and Roman Ireland Project, featured on the British website, Ancient History Encyclopedia, perhaps illustrates some of this:

“As far as overcoming challenges are concerned, it is over a year since the project finished and a quote from Elvis immediately comes to mind “Wise men say, only fools rush in” and with the benefit of hindsight, I think I was woefully naïve about the reception of the project in some quarters. I really did think that everyone would jump at the opportunity to come on board to shine a light on what must be the most exciting new period of research in Ireland, and we certainly had the potential and the resources to investigate the most important Roman site in Ireland, which is located at Drumanagh in County Dublin. But I was not at all prepared for the political complexities of actually delivering any research on that site, and I was actually quite shocked by some of the hostility that was leveled at me personally for trying so hard to achieve this.

I am not sure about the description of Roman or Romano-British influence in Ireland used here:

The legacy of the project is that Ireland is now accepted as having a history that includes being part of the Roman world, in the same way that other communities around the entire Empire were engaged with the Roman military, economy, and administration in zones of interconnectivity. Within these zones, people, things, and ideas moved between the formal Empire and its neighboring communities. Now that the ground has been broken, I am hopeful that up and coming scholars will join me in taking the research forward.”

But what is meant by the claim that Ireland was “part of the Roman world”? The country was not a formal territory or province of the Roman Empire, and the peoples of the island had no political ties by treaty or agreement with Rome. The Irish kingdoms were as independent of the empire as their equivalents in Germany or Scandinavia yet no one really talks about “Roman Germany” or “Roman Denmark” in quite the same terms, and with quite the same undertones. Certainly prehistoric Ireland was part of the Irish Sea region which connected it to its neighbouring island, and beyond that to the Continent. Maritime networks going back to the Late Bronze Age and well beyond tied these territories together, creating commonalities in languages and cultures, technologies and livelihoods.

The Roman conquests of northern Spain, north-western France and southern Britain – while causing disruptions – also absorbed and exploited these preexisting structures. Indeed, the presence of “Rome” in Wales, Cornwall and north-eastern England eventually provided an economic boom for the Irish, one that sustained the rise of the Uí Néill and related Connachta dynasties in the midlands and north, while providing a similar source of income and prestige for the Eoghanachta kingdoms in the south.

Trade and pillage made the upstart king Niall Naoighiallach and his progeny the talk of the town not Roman legions. While merchants and adventures from Provincia Britannia undoubtedly made a healthy profit bartering lucrative goods with the Irish, they did so as visitors or owners of frontier trade posts. Some may have settled in Ireland, perhaps marrying into Irish families, but that does not imply anything more formal than that (and the DNA evidence found in archaeological exhumations over the last decade or two – while remarkable – could well have come from slaves, arranged marriages and so on, not settlers or colonists).

When all is said and done, the foreign artefacts at Drumanagh are no more indicative of a Roman Ireland than foreign artefacts at Arikamedu are indicative of a Roman India. There is a wealth of Irish and Roman history waiting to be discovered, stories yet to be told, that are wonderful in their own right, without the need for embellishment or to assuage contemporary politics. We are not Israel or Palestine, and our history should not become a battleground for partisan beliefs.

19 comments on “Ireland And The Roman Empire. Modern Politics Shaping The Ancient Past?

  1. Around the same time that the Sunday Times article you mentioned was published, I read an article in another paper. Titled, “No Matter Where You’re From, You’re Still British”, this exciting piece of propaganda attempted to use new found archaeological evidence, including DNA, to prove that the Romans had not only invaded Ireland, but their genetic influence had been so great as to nullify any influence of the Celts or any other previous inhabitants of the island. Irish peope were more Roman than anything else and so by proxy, British. I shook my head and laughed reading it, and when I showed it to a friend, he read only the headline and said, ” What the fuck is this guy selling?”
    It’s historical revisionism being used as political and culture propanda.


    • Yeah, I’ve seen similar articles or claims about a genetic “base stock” in Ireland and Britain equating with a sort of primordial “British population”, making us all, as you say, “British”. Which of course ignores the fact that it was a West European base population. Genetic studies of prehistoric populations can be misused in all sorts of ways, unfortunately. As the alt-right loves to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I spoke about this article at the time to an Italian Army officer – he was very excited to have proof of such a far-reaching Roman conquest.
    Took me a good hour or two to convince him of what he’d always known as the truth – the Romans never invaded Hibernia!!


    • I know, I’ve been there myself in terms of these discussions.

      The legend of Tuathal Teachtmhar may have some historical kernels in there but the original story makes no mention of Roman legions or Rome. The whole theory is just fantastical, in the literal sense of the word. The fact that the supporters of the Roman invasion theory also point to the fictional south-western Battle of Ventry by Fionn mac Cumhaill and the fianna against the “king of the world” – written in the late Middle Ages – as proof of a “forgotten” Roman invasion several hundred years earlier illustrates how silly their arguments are.


  3. the Phoenix

    In the past the common racist refrain was the Romans thought Ireland wasn’t worth conquering. I guess the new revision is Ireland was conquered but somehow the meticulous Romans never bothered mentioning or recording that it happened. Either way the racist British theory is Ireland is insignificant and unimportant.


    • Exactly. If the Romans had conquered Ireland, or even launched some significant military expeditions, we would have literary and archaeological evidence of it. The Romans undoubtedly visited, traded, did deals, settled locally, had amorous relations, and so on but an actual conquest? Nope, just not tenable.


      • the Phoenix

        Interesting to note Roman coins and other artifacts have been found as far away as Vietnam. Pretty sure the Romans didn’t conquer Vietnam.


  4. Wasn’t there a story at the end of 2015 about Migrations of Irish coming from the pontic steppe and Syria which conveniently happen to be front lines in conflict between the West and Russia?

    Something very fishy is going on here.


  5. Great article, thanks. We have a similar situation here where the Brits are constantly making ridiculous claims that the Romans did in fact conquer the whole of Scotland, the evidence just hasn’t been found yet! If they’re not claiming that, and accept that the north of Scotland was never conquered, then it’s because the Romans didn’t want to. I even have my doubts about the so called Roman victory at Mons Graup is. Stuart McHardys book Scotland’s Future History is well worth a read as it demonsrates how much of what we were taught as Scottish history is no more than Britnat propaganda.


    • That should, of course, read Mons Graupius!


    • Yep, there is an inability to distinguish between influence and trade versus political or military conquest. The Romans stopped at Hadrian’s Wall clearly because they could not sustain or defend a military presence any further northward. That is why the Antonine Wall was abandoned. The north of England was the outermost limit of the empire and even that region was in frequent peril with the Celtic peoples of what was to become Scotland, later identifiable as Pict, British and Gael, attacking through or around the northern defenses.

      Meanwhile the Irish were raiding from the west, from at least the 2nd century. Hence the well-known fortifications of the eastern coast of southern Britain. If Ireland had been conquered, why build forts to protect regions of England and Wales well beyond the reach of belligerent kingdoms in Scotland?


  6. That is pretty much it, and if the Romans could do it why not the English? It is a sort of weird justification by some politically-minded historians for the Norman-British invasions of the Medieval period. If it was ok for Rome, why not England?


  7. Seán MacBhloscaidh

    Evidence that the Irish were invaded by the Romans seems to be about as substantial as the Mormons’ claim that the Native Americans were the Lost Tribes of Israel.


  8. Home rule means Rome rule!!


  9. Totally with you on the spurious nature of a ‘Roman invasion’ of Ireland.

    Sorry to say, you need to look up a bit more Roman history with regard to Scotland, however. “The Romans stopped at Hadrian’s Wall clearly because they could not sustain or defend a military presence any further northward. That is why the Antonine Wall was abandoned.”

    At Mons Graupius circa 83 AD, many thousands of local tribesmen were wiped out by Agricola’s auxiliaries – this is documented in the ancient texts, and to suggest that it didn’t happen is making an alternative history of one’s own. ‘Ah, I don’t like that bit, so it didn’t happen.’ After trashing much of Scotland, Agricola returned south. Evidence of his campaign can be seen from the marching camps up into the Highlands, still visible from the air.

    The main reason that the Romans didn’t bother continuing to strengthen their hold on northern and central Scotland is that the place had hostile natives, and didn’t have mineral resources or good land to make it worth holding onto. Another significant, and likely even more important reason, is that units of troops in Britain were often pulled out and sent to areas where they were needed (i.e. where there was a rebellion), such as Rhine or Danube. However, Rome continued to man and occupy forts *north* of Hadrian’s Wall long into the second and third centuries AD. I refer to the likes of Inchtuthil, Trimontium and Bremenium.

    This is not just my opinion, it’s the opinion of pretty much every ancient historian and archaeologists.


  10. Rory of the Hills

    Unfortunately, Mr Warner’s theories seem to be those most prominently shown on wikipedia’s “Hiberno-Roman relations” page. There is a block quote from him featured on the supposed fort and Roman backed invaders.
    This should be deleted or otherwise “balanced” out as it’s not reflective of the academic consenus. I don’t know if I will get around to making edits that will pass wiki standards but if anyone else wants to, have at it!


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