The Romans in Ireland

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Lambay, an island off the coast of Co. Dublin, is home to a number of graves containing a mix of Iron Age and Roman-style brooches, torcs, arm rings, scabbard mounts, and finger rings. Do these finds hint at greater interaction between Ireland and the Roman world than previously thought? (Image: Rob Sands, UCD School of Archaeology)

Ireland has no known Roman forts, villas or planned towns, but a recent project designed to investigate Ireland during the first five centuries AD found plenty of evidence for interaction between Ireland and the Roman world, as Chris Catling now reports.

History in Ireland traditionally begins with the arrival of St Patrick in AD 432 and the establishment of Christianity, monasticism, and written (as distinct from the previously oral) records. Born in Britain, captured by pirates, and sold into slavery in Ireland, Patrick escaped back to Britain and then studied in Continental monasteries – principally at Auxerre, where he was ordained – before returning to Ireland as a missionary. Did St Patrick encounter anything on his return that might be familiar to a man from Romanised Britain and Gaul? Was there, in other words, any interaction between Ireland and the Roman world? These were questions that the members of the Late Iron Age and Roman Ireland (LIARI) team set out to answer when the project began in September 2011.

The first task facing the team was to assemble a GIS database of all the known sites, features, and artefacts for the first five centuries AD, a period in Irish archaeology that has often been characterised as ‘invisible’ and ‘enigmatic’ because it is so difficult to discern in the archaeological record. Partly, though, this invisibility was the product of blindness: there seems to have been a willingness in the past to dismiss any Romano-British, Gaulish, or Continental material found in Ireland as ‘stray’, ‘intrusive’ or ‘random’. Museum curators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries firmly believed that the Roman-style material in Irish collections was probably brought to Ireland by antiquarian collectors in the modern era rather than arriving by way of trade in the late Iron Age.

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An enigmatic Irish-style gold band from Lambay with patterns reminiscent of the famous 2nd- to 1st-century BC Battersea Shield. (Image: National Museum of Ireland)


Cultural connections

The treatment of Roman material was also a reflection of a tendency, especially strong during the period following separation from Britain and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, to view Ireland as a proudly independent Celtic nation outside the Roman Empire, with its own gods, heroes, myths, genealogies, monuments, and culture. Christianity, when it arrived, was also distinctively Irish in its saints, rituals, art, and organisational practices, differing in many important ways from the ‘Roman’ church of continental Europe.

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The Keshcarrigan bowl is of late Iron Age form, but the technique of burnishing used comes from Roman craftsmanship. (Image: National Museum of Ireland)

So strong was this idea that even finds of Samian ware in Ireland were once explained away as residual material reflecting the practice of Irish monks. It was argued that they collected soil from consecrated ground at shrines and ecclesiastical centres around Europe, and brought this back to Ireland to add sanctity to their own holy places, despite the fact that there was no connection between these finds and evidence of early Christian sites. Another common explanation for Roman-style material was that it represented booty, the results of the same sort of piratical raiding that first brought St Patrick to Ireland.

Of course, there may be some truth in these explanations, and research is continuing into antiquarian collections that have no doubt led to the importation of finds said to be ‘from Ireland’ that are suspiciously early in date (for example, Etruscan material), but not all of the bronze figurines of Venus, Mars, Mercury, Eros, or household gods (lares) that have been found in Irish contexts can be explained in this way. Nor can the finding of the skull of a Barbary macaque ape in a securely dated 3rd-century BC context at Navan Fort, Co. Armagh: this is prima facie evidence of direct trade with north Africa and the Mediterranean region, even at this early period.

A number of references to Ireland in Classical literature attest to the island having been known to the Roman world. Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War describes the sea crossing between Britain and Ireland via the island of Mona (Anglesey or Ynys Môn), from which ferries still cross between Holyhead and Dublin. Ptolemy’s Geographia, compiled in the mid-2nd century AD from information gleaned from the work of Marinus of Tyre, who in turn got it from sailors and traders, provides detailed coordinates for Ireland that when plotted on to a grid do bear a recognisable resemblance to the shape of the island.

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Detail of an ornate terminal from the Attymon horse-bit. Irish-type horse-bits are highly distinctive and are kinder to the horse’s tongue and teeth. Other examples found in different parts of the Roman world might indicate the presence of people of Irish origin serving in the Roman army. (Image: National Museum of Ireland)

Some of those traders may well have been familiar with a particular promontory fort at Drumanagh, in north Co. Dublin, which is flanked to the north and south by beaches that would have made suitable landing places. Drumanagh has produced an impressive amount of Roman material recently, though much of this has been recovered by metal-detectorists, and progress in studying the material has been hampered by legal proceedings between the landowners and the National Museum of Ireland. The team did, however, get to see some of the material and the assemblage includes Roman-style rings, brooches, pendants, horse-bits, sword mounts, scabbard fittings, bronze cinerary urns, the elaborate handles of several large bronze vessels, and bronze coins of the emperors Vespasian, Titus, Trajan, and Hadrian (spanning AD 69 to 138).

Significantly, some of the decorated horse-bits are unfinished, and the finds include a probable lead-mould for a trumpet-type Roman fibula, and some 40 whole or partial bun-shaped copper, bronze, and brass ingots, one of which is stamped ‘I X VI’ in Roman numerals. It would appear, then, that Drumanagh functioned as a manufacturing centre, producing both raw materials and finished objects, and as a trading place for imported Roman material. It had done so for some time before the later 1st and early 2nd century AD, for among the pre-Roman finds are several bronze vessels and coins of late Iron Age type, as well as a British-style bronze mirror and another mirror handle.

This extract is from Worlds apart? – read the full story in CA 317. Click here to subscribe.

One Comment

  1. A
    July 16, 2016 @ 7:02 am

    ‘History in Ireland traditionally begins with the arrival of St Patrick in AD 432 ..’ Please refer to ‘Irish Wisdom preserved in Bible and Pyramids’ by Conor MacDari 1923 , written before the rediscovery of the solar alignments at Newgrange and reconsider this sweeping broad and inaccurate statement with regard to Ireland, ‘Patrick’, Rome and the church..

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