What did the Romans ever do for Ireland?

Engraving of an ancient British warrior waiting on the beach to meet the Roman invasion forces. Illustration: Getty

Despite never conquering the Emerald Isle, their influence is profound

In AD 60, less than two decades after the Roman conquest of Celtic Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, governor of the new province, marched on the sacred Welsh island of Mona, now known as Anglesey, with an army of perhaps 20,000 legionaries.

On behalf of his emperor, Nero, he sought to exterminate this “refuge for fugitives”, which also happened to be the greatest stronghold of Druidism in Britain.

As the flat-bottomed boats carrying Paulinus’s army arrived along Anglesey’s shore, they were met by a mass of druids, arms outstretched, roaring such “dreadful imprecations” into the heavens above that the Romans were “paralysed” with fear.

It was only a momentary freeze. On Paulinus’s command, the legionnaires surged forward and annihilated the druids. As he watched his men destroy the holy groves in coming days, Paulinus must have mused upon his prospects of extending the Roman empire west across the tempestuous Irish Sea.

Less than 70 miles from Anglesey was an island that the Roman historian Tacitus called Hibernia, the Land of Winter. The inhabitants of this land did not impress Pomponius Mela, a contemporary of Paulinus, who hailed from the Roman province of Baetica (now Andalusia) in southern Spain. He described them as “a people wanting in every virtue, and totally destitute of piety”. And yet this country was so “luxuriant in grasses”that if cattle were “allowed to feed too long, they would burst”.

The governor Agricola brazenly remarked that Ireland could have been conquered and occupied by a single legion with a few auxiliaries

As it happened, all such temptations to advance on Ireland’s green shores were hurled aside when Paulinus learned that Boudica, queen of the Iceni, had seized the opportunity of his Welsh expedition to launch a major rebellion in southeast England. The governor glumly about-turned his army and headed onwards to resolve the situation.

The Romans never conquered Ireland. They did not even try. The closest they came was 20 years after the invasion of Anglesey, when Agricola, another governor, eyeballed the north coast of Ulster from the “trackless wastes”of Galloway. According to Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law, the governor brazenly remarked that Ireland could have been conquered and occupied by a single legion with a few auxiliaries.

An exiled Irish prince was among Agricola’s entourage, giving rise to the possibility that this was Túathal Techtmar, the son of a deposed high king, who is said to have invaded Ireland from afar in order to regain his kingdom at about this time.

Some archaeologists have suggested that Agricola established a bridgehead at Drumanagh, an Iron Age promontory fort that juts into the Irish Sea near Rush, some 20km north of Dublin. The notion that Drumanagh was, at the very least, some form of Roman trading depot was boosted by the discovery of Roman coins, metalwork and tableware at the fort, including fragments of amphorae (pottery) from Pomponius Mela’s homeland in Baetica.

Whether Agricola went on the offensive or not, he certainly fortified parts of Britain’s western shore against attacks from Ireland. Among the many reveals of the 2018 heatwave were the remains of a watchtower on the Llyn Peninsula, just south of Anglesey, complete with barracks for a coastal garrison.

In AD 150, some 60 years after Agricola’s death, the Greco-Egyptian writer Claudius Ptolemy devised what is ostensibly the first known map of Ireland, published in Geographia, an atlas of the Roman empire and beyond. Ptolemy pinpointed a number of coastal settlements in Ireland, as well as royal settlements such as Emain Macha (Navan fort) in Co Armagh. He also named 16 Irish tribes, including the Voluntii, or Ulaid, of Ulster and the Gangani of Munster, who may have been connected to what Ptolemy calls the “promontory of the Gangani”on Anglesey.

Close kin

Ptolemy also located a tribe of Brigantes around Wexford, Waterford and Kilkenny, who were assumed to be close kin of the people of Brigantia in Britain, a territory centred on present-day Yorkshire that extended all the way to the west coast of Britain.

Eight bodies buried on Lambay Island, a few short miles out to sea from the Drumanagh fort, are thought to have been British Brigantes on the run in about AD 74. It is quite plausible, in such seafaring times, that the same tribe dominated both sides of the Irish Sea and, by extension, the central waterway itself.

Rome’s failure to control of the Irish Sea was to be the bane of many a governor of Roman Britain, as it provided a safe haven for incessant marauding pirates and other enemies of state. Tacitus was all in favour of the conquest of Ireland, arguing that it would increase the prosperity and security of their empire. “We know most of [Ireland’s] harbours and approaches,” he wrote, “and that through the intercourse of commerce.”

There is a certain amount of chin-stroking over a Roman-style cremation that took place at Stoneyford, Co Kilkenny, in the first century AD

Roman Britain certainly traded with Ireland, exchanging metals, cattle, grain, animal hides, hunting dogs and human slaves for wine, olive oil and decorated craftware such as crockery, glasses, jewellery and ivory. Roman coins and jewellery have been found in prominent ancient strongholds such as Tara and Cashel, as well as at the passage grave at Newgrange. Coins adorned with the heads of Emperors Magnentius (AD 350-353) and Constantine the Great (AD 306-337) were also recovered from Ireland’s Eye, Dunsink and Malahide.

The presence of Roman traders in Cork Harbour is suggested by a hoard of third- and fourth-century Roman coins found at Cuskinny Marsh. Hoards of Roman silver and ingots have likewise been found at Balline, Co Limerick, and Ballinrees, Co Derry.

There is also a certain amount of chin-stroking over a Roman-style cremation that took place at Stoneyford, Co Kilkenny, in the first century AD, while Roman coins found in a grave at Bray Head are assumed to have been a downpayment for the ferryman to transport the deceased safely to the afterlife.

Slave trade

One of Ireland’s greatest commodities at this time was human slaves. The country was a prominent slave-trading centre, and many of the slaves who worked on the farms of the wealthy villa-owning elite in Roman Britain are thought to have started life in Hibernia. With the sharp decline of the Roman empire during the fifth century, the tables were turned, with captives from Britain now heading west across the Irish Sea to work as slaves on Irish farms. Ireland’s position as a major maritime slave-trading hub would later be reignited during the Viking Age.

By far the most famous Roman slave to come to Ireland was St Patrick, the son of a Roman decurion, or tax collector. He was apparently swiped by pirates from an as yet unidentified part of Britain’s shoreline in about AD 415. In time St Patrick would be credited with persuading the monarchs of Ireland to cast aside their druids in favour of a carpenter’s son from Galilee who had been put to death by the Romans.

Arguably St Patrick’s greatest challenge was to bring an end to the age of druids, who had been in the ascendant since the late Iron Age

There were, in fact, Christians in Ireland before Patrick’s time, particularly in Co Wexford. In AD 431, a year before Patrick’s Irish mission began, Palladius, the son of a Gaulish noble from Poitiers, was apparently sent by the pope to administer to Ireland’s small Christian community. Although he is acknowledged as the “first bishop to the Irish believing in Christ”, Palladius quit within a year, miffed that the indigenous people were so immune to his charms.

Arguably St Patrick’s greatest challenge was to bring an end to the age of druids, who had been in the ascendant since the late Iron Age; their deepest roots stretched back to the erudite architects of the Neolithic passage graves. As well versed in natural philosophy as they were in politics, the law and education, these remarkable people were also doyens of astronomy, herb lore and oral tradition.

Druids are also credited with creating the ogham alphabet, having apparently been inspired by the Latin alphabet introduced to Britain by the Romans. For their part the Romans would claim that the druids were demonic brutes who strangled, drowned and otherwise murdered innocent people to appease their gods; the bodies of sacrificial victims found in the Irish bogs suggest that this Roman view was not entirely far-fetched.

Christianity – and the Roman Catholic church that it spawned – was to be by far the most enduring legacy of the Roman age in Ireland

St Bridget

The druidic culture remained in Irish consciousness long after they themselves had been eradicated as a major force. Indeed, Ireland’s bardic tradition can very much be construed as an element of the oral culture of Druidism, while the yew trees that adorn church cemeteries were likewise venerated by the druids. The crossover between the two cultures is exemplified by the tale of St Bridget of Kildare, another of Ireland’s patron saints, who was raised in a druidic household in the seventh century.

Christianity – and the Roman Catholic church that it spawned – was to be by far the most enduring legacy of the Roman age in Ireland. The Catholic Church itself is heavily based on the hierarchical, centralised Roman system, despite the fact that the western Roman empire itself had collapsed by the time it came into being.

After its downfall in the mid-fifth century, the centre of cultural gravity moved eastwards to Byzantium (Constantinople, now Istanbul). Celtic interlace manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells may have drawn inspiration from the artistic tradition of the eastern Roman empire in Byzantium and Syria, where illuminated texts were produced during the fifth and sixth centuries.

At the same time, much of the knowledge and learning gathered during the Roman age would, in turn, be preserved in monasteries across Ireland during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries.

This is an extract from Ireland’s Forgotten Past, by Turtle Bunbury, published by Thames & Hudson on March 26th