`Roman invaders' were more likely native Irish traders

 

CLAIMS that the Romans invaded Ireland made under a banner headline on the front page of The Sunday Times will attract widespread attention, especially when prominent archaeologists quoted appear to agree, and in one ease to advocate the view, that recent discoveries at a promontory fort in the townland of Drumanagh near Loughshinny in Dublin prove that Ireland was indeed invaded by the Romans, thus reversing the established view.

The literary evidence is often quoted. Tacitus wrote that Agricola looked longingly west from the coast of Britain at Ireland and mused that it might have been conquered with a single legion. The consensus view interprets this as an unfulfilled wish. And the archaeological evidence reviewed by O'Riordain and more recently by Bateson seems to support this.

There is Roman material scattered throughout the country: votive offerings by Roman tourists at Newgrange, silver loot from Balline in Limerick, Roman coins with burials on the strand at Bray in Wicklow. A Roman glass vessel deposited with a cremated burial at Stoneyford in Kilkenny may suggest that a Roman family lived near there.

What is the new evidence now revealed which, it is claimed, changes our view so dramatically? The central finds appear to be a very large quantity of Roman and sub-Roman material apparently obtained illegally by the use of metal- detectors, now happily at the National Museum of Ireland. By some means the authors of the article have come by specific information; they tell us that large ingots of copper, ornate jewellery and valuable ornaments, apparently of Roman style, together with coins of the emperors Titus, Trajan and Hadrian, have been discovered at the site. These coins suggest that "Roman involvement in Ireland extended at least from 79 AD to 138 AD." The National Museum has kept this information secret, even from the archaeological community, while the acquisition of the site by the State proceeds.

An artist's impression of the site, apparently based on an aerial photograph, published with the article, shows more than 100 circular huts crowding the surface of the 40-acre site. Such numbers would not be unusual in an Irish promontory fort. One can cite Dun Balor at the east end of Tory Island, which shows a similar concentration. Round houses, however, are Celtic, while we should expect Roman houses to be rectilinear, so the surface structural evidence indicates that Drumanagh sits within the Celtic tradition. A Roman military camp was a very orderly affair, and quite different from the crowded but much less orderly groupings of circular stone huts at Drumanagh.

In stating that the Drumanagh/Loughshinny location "has been known to a small group of archaeologists and the National Museum of Ireland for more than a decade but they have kept it secret", The Sunday Times is a little wide of the mark. Loughshinny has been well-known for many years and Samian ware found about the site in the 1950s long ago raised the question of its Roman affiliations. The site was in the headlines in the mid 1980s when the Commissioners of Public Works put a Preservation Order on it. The landowner contested this as far as the Supreme Court but lost the case.

The information kept secret was the details of the exciting material, including Roman ornaments, and coins of Titus, Trajan and Hadrian.

WHAT can we make of this find, rich and numerous? 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.

We live in the age of the leak. The central hard evidence on which this article is based, of specific Roman coins and so on, may have slipped out in pub-talk. Freedom of information is in general a laudable ideal. But in this case, there is a potential cost to the taxpayer. While the academic question of whether the Romans invaded Ireland is debated into the future, as more and better evidence comes to hand, a more immediate question - the price to be paid by the Irish taxpayer for the Drumanagh promontory fort - has been raised by the appearance of this controversial article.