Hibernia Romana: What did the Romans ever do for us?
Exploring Ireland's forbidden archaeology
By Damien DeBarra
On a pleasant Sunday morning early in 1996, I was traveling to
work, when my jaw hit the rather grubby floor of the bus on which
I was sitting. The reason for my cartoon like gob-flapping was the
banner headline from The Sunday Times.
I was, at the time, studying in what is now known as NUI Maynooth,
(formerly known as just good old 'Maynooth') for a degree in Classics
and English, so the newspaper headline was of some interest to me.
It claimed that conclusive evidence had been discovered - or at
least had been made public - that could lend proof to that most
heretical of archaeological whisperings. I refer, of course, to
the greatest of Irish historical conspiracies: the theory that at
some long forgotten time in our past, deep in the murkiness of the
Irish Iron age, the absolutely unthinkable had taken place. The
Romans army had invaded and colonized the island of Ireland.
To say that I was excited by this dramatic revelation would be
the understatement of the decade. I am, by nature, what many would
call historically inclined, or perhaps what some would describe
as enamored with the past. To put this more baldly, perhaps we should
turn to the choice words of one of my friends who summarised the
thoughts of all present when I tried (vainly) to regale them with
the story of the new evidence about Romans in Ireland: he called
me "a world class geek". Matters such as these tend to
get me into a book wormy flap and this story was the granddaddy
of them all: alleged historical proof that the Irish of the Iron
Age, the mighty Celts themselves, had fallen to the Roman Empire,
much like the rest of the known world.
As I scurried into the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street
(where I was working at the time) I was practically dribbling with
hysteria. Every book on the museum shop shelf would have to be re-written.
All the exhibitions would have to be re-thought. Our whole concept
of what it was to be Irish, our sense of who we were was about to
be dramatically re-defined...Right?
Sadly, my enthusiastic search for evidence was to be short-lived,
and was to be replaced in the coming weeks with another sentiment:
a combination of bewilderment and indignant rage...
The Sunday Times article (hereafter the ST article) of January
21st 1996 came as something of a shock to most. The banner headline
read as follows:
"Fort discovery proves Romans invaded Ireland."
The back page continuation of the article read much the same:
"Discovery of coastal fort proves that Romans invaded Ireland."
There could be no mistake; this article was effectively sounding
the clarion call for a wholesale re-writing of Irish history. The
content of the article, by Ciaran Byrne and John Mass, was startling.
Complete with a fetching illustration of a rather swish looking
Roman soldier in full uniform standing in front of a strange hybrid
Romano-Irish fort, some illuminating facts about recent Roman finds
and a welter of quotes from some heavyweight academics, it delivered
its brutal message in bald terms. Ireland had not lived in a 'heroic
Celtic twilight on the fringes of the Empire' as was normally supposed,
but had been victim to the same fate as much of the rest of Europe,
having bent its' knee to the yoke of all conquering Rome.
The article's central point of contention concerned a site known
as Drumanagh (also called Loughshinny), in Malahide, fifteen miles
north of Dublin City. The site in question is a beautiful promontory
covering 44 acres of land. This 'nondescript patch of land' indicated
that 'the country (Ireland) was, after all, invaded by the Romans'.
The article stated that this was one of the most 'exciting Roman
discoveries of the century' and that furthermore, it ended 'the
established belief that Ireland remained free of Roman influence'.
The ST article then stated that the both the location and significance
of the fort had been known to a small group of archaeologists and
the National Museum of Ireland for more than a decade, but that
they have kept it secret. (My emphasis). Continuing, the article
explicitly describes the evidence for Roman presence, namely the
artifacts unearthed at the Drumanagh site. These are "large
Copper ingots, ornate jewelry and valuable ornaments", all
of which are being held at the National Museum of Ireland, but remain
in storage and not on display. Also, apparently, are also some Roman
coins stamped with the names of the Emperors Titus, Trajan and Hadrian
'suggesting Roman involvement in Ireland extended at least from
AD 79 to AD 138'.
Having listed the material, the article starts ratifying itself
by the use of academic backing. This comes from Barry Cunliffe,
of European Archaeology at Oxford University, Barry Raftery, Professor
of Archaeology at University College Dublin and Richard Warner,
Keeper of Antiquities at the Ulster Museum.
In this particular article Richard Warner's' thoughts and theories
are quoted extensively. According to the ST article Warner believes
that Ireland may have been invaded by a force composed of exiled
Irish and British adventurers with the support of Roman weapons,
training and organisation. This possible invasion and attempted
colonization may have been led by a prominent historical figure
called Tuathal Techmar. The size of the supposed fort 'suggests
the Romans attempted to control Irish internal politics during the
period with a series of military campaigns designed to carve out
kingdoms in the country for exiled Irish nobility". Furthermore
Warner, it seems, believes that a further Roman military campaign
'...led to the establishment of Cashel, now a key town in Tipperary'.
In the ST article, evidence of Roman involvement is allegedly further
confirmed by several references from antiquity regarding Ireland,
notably the section of Tacitus' writings which deals with Agricola
and a remark from Juvenal about Roman arms being advanced beyond
the shores of Ireland. We are told that archaeologists are now eagerly
awaiting a complete excavation of the site in question. The article
finishes with a quote from Warner: 'Drumanagh was the door of the
Roman intrusion which then became a town over the next three centuries.
It might compare with London or any other Roman sites which started
off as part of a military campaign'.
As might be expected, the ST article caused an uproar. Six months
later, other articles were still appearing in journals such as Archaeology
Ireland, attempting to redress the flap that had succeeded the
ST article. On January the 24th, three days after the ST article,
Professor Michael Herity published a response in the Irish Times.
The banner headline was as forceful as the one in the ST; 'Roman
invaders were more likely native Irish traders'. The sub heading,
which I will quote in its entirety, is a perfect abstract of the
"Professor Michael Herity believes the recent archaeological
evidence from the site in north Dublin suggests a rich Irish emporium
trading with the Roman world and not an invasion by its legions."
Professor Herity summarised the content of the ST article and all
of its implications and added his own interpretation of the scant
evidence that was cited the previous Sunday.
In doing so, he made some shrewd observations about the ST article
and some of its shortcomings. In particular he referred to the statement
by Mass & Byrne that knowledge of the site had been kept under
wraps by the National Museum of Ireland. This is, as Herity pointed
out, completely incorrect. Drumanagh and word of its purported artifacts
are well known in both public and academic circles, and have been
discussed in tortuous detail since the 1970's.
Herity summarizes this best when he says "Loughshinny has
been well-known for many years and Samian ware found about the site
in the 1950's long ago raised the question of its Roman affiliations.
The site was in the headlines in the mid 1980's when the Commissioners
of Public Works put a preservation order on it". This is indeed
true - the Irish Sunday Press of July 7th 1985 carried a very prominent
article about the National Museum of Ireland's actions in recovering
some of the artifacts that were found at Drumanagh in the late 1970s
and were then, illegally, put up for auction in London. Staff from
the National Museum of Ireland's Antiquities division had, to quote
Eamonn Kelly (the Museum's Keeper of Irish Antiquities), 'played
a blinder' in stopping the sale of the material.
Back to 1996: The debate raged on, both in the academic and popular
press about the profound implications of the ST article. Professor
Barry Raftery's article in the Spring 1996 issue of Archaeology
Ireland, which sought to respond to the ST article, is a well-written
and persuasive piece of text. It seems as though Dr. Raftery had
wielded common sense like a scalpel cutting through the hyperbole
and the hot air. His arguments are detailed and primarily focus
on three crucial things. These are:
·The physical evidence for a Roman presence in Ireland coupled
with literary references from Antiquity
·The Tuathal Techmar enigma
·The Drumanagh site
His examination of these three areas, as well as other evidence,
culminates in a direct statement, which is pretty unambiguous; '...there
is nothing to support the notion of a Roman military incursion'.
This would appear to be a definitive statement on the subject from
one of Ireland's leading experts on the Iron Age period.
From an initial reading of this article, you could be led to suspect
and conclude that Professor Raftery does not hold any credence with
the invasion hypothesis, in fact you could not be blamed for assuming
that he is quite opposed to it.
However, Professor Raftery's book Pagan Celtic Ireland (published
two years before the ST article, in 1994) contains a fascinating
chapter entitled Beyond the Empire, which is an overview
of the present debate. In this publication he seems to be less emphatic
in denouncing the invasion hypothesis. In fact, you might interpret
the text as almost being in support of the thesis regarding Roman
military incursions, or at least open to the possibility of exploring
It states, in its final paragraph, that 'a small-scale landing
of Roman legions may well have taken place - one which, if unsuccessful,
would not necessarily have been recorded. It has also been noted
that for just this period there is a dearth of surviving historical
documentation. An attempted military intervention in Ireland is
not proven but such a possibility cannot be completely dismissed'.
Here, Raftery's statements seem to stand in stark contrast to his
conclusions in the Spring 1996 Archaeology Ireland. While
one article dismisses the possibility of an incursion, the other
seems to suggest that it was a distinct possibility. In an article
by Richard Warner entitled De Bello Hibernico: a less than edifying
debate (which shall be dealt with below) this discrepancy in
opinion is highlighted, while admitting Professor Raftery's right
to change his mind. However, the controversy was about to take a
slightly unpleasant turn.
The unpleasant turn came in the form of a letter by John Mass,
published in the Summer 1996 edition of Archaeology Ireland
magazine, as a response to Professor Raftery's article in the spring
edition. It also dealt with the media coverage of the concerning
the 'Roman invasion' issue. Mass began the article by asking "Et
Tu Brute?" to Professor Raftery with regards to his comments
on the ST article.
He said that he felt a 'deep sense of shock at the bitter blades
of his attack on my (Mass's) articles in The Sunday Times
on the Roman invasion of Ireland.' He then accused Professor Raftery
of being patronising and called his comments 'unworthy of such a
respected academic'. Mass says that Raftery's 'statements serve
to create the seriously misleading impression that the Sunday
Times story was poorly researched and rushed'. While I cannot
attest as to whether the ST article was rushed or not, it certainly
seemed both misleading and poorly researched.
Mass goes on, stating that he had several meetings with both Professor
Raftery and Richard Warner in the weeks prior to the publication
of the ST article. Of particular note is this statement:
"Professor Raftery gave me the strong impression that he was
highly supportive of my intended article. In my final interview
with him (Raftery) he said: 'If you are going to push the Loughshinny
thing you are on strong ground. I can't do that because I have academic
The implication was pretty clear but Mass had no hesitation in
explicitly accusing Raftery of dodging the issue in the next paragraph.
"Perhaps these academic constraints or pressures, or the heat
of the political potato that Drumanagh turned out to be, have resulted
in his attack on my Sunday Times article."
Richard Warner had also chosen, to use his own words, 'to enter
the fray' in his article De Bello Hibernico: a less than edifying
debate. The energy of his article somehow manages to bring a
smile to the readers' face, despite the strong and uncomfortable
points that it makes.
He accurately described the current debate as 'less than objective
and less than academic'. Much of the debate, in particular some
of the commentary which had appeared in both the British and Irish
broadsheets and tabloids had been sensationalist, poorly researched,
unhelpful and often verging on downright comic.
Warner also stated that although Professor Raftery appeared to have
changed his mind regarding the proposed military incursion, he (Warner)
certainly had not.
However, quoted below are some statements, implications and accusations
from Warner himself, which this writer would classify as 'less than
edifying'. Warner states his belief in De Bello Hibernico
that the State of the Republic of Ireland placed the Drumanagh material
sub judice because it feared that public debate or knowledge
of the material would increase the price of the land on which they
were supposedly found. He says that there is 'no possible precedent
by which the archaeological value of any site can be assessed in
monetary terms and the inflationary fear is quite unfounded'. In
an earlier paragraph he states that 'only Mass and the staff of
the National Museum of Ireland have seen these?'. The implication
was obvious enough - certain people in positions of influence were
deliberately sitting on material crucial to historical debate, and
that only certain special people were being given access to the
Warner was not alone in this accusation. Dr. Eoin Grogan, a Director
with the Discovery (place link to discovery Programme website here)
Programme (the Irish state funded archaeological research institute),
was quoted in Magill magazine in 1998 as saying that he knew
'of at least two people who have seen the material. It seems that
some are been given preferential treatment'.
For four enjoyable years, I was an employee of the National Museum
of Ireland, and repeatedly chanced my arm, asking members of staff
from the Irish Antiquities division if there was any possibility
of access to the material in question. Just a peek I said. The response
had been the same every time: a pleasant smile and a polite, but
forceful, no. No amount of feeble begging or sheepish groveling
on my part did anything to change this? I only wish that it had
been that easy.
National Identity for sale?
The spring 1996 issue of Archaeology Ireland, (which has
already been mentioned) had, along with Raftery's fascinating article,
a short but highly informative editorial on the contents page. It
was glibly entitled Ireland, the Romans and all that...
Written by Gabriel Cooney, it sought, as Raftery had, to address
the ST article. Obviously, the ST article had bothered the folks
at Archaeology Ireland so much that it warranted a headline editorial
and an article. Cooney made some succinct points not just about
the academic matters contained in the ST article, but also relating
to the intriguing undercurrent of Anglo-Irish tensions that were
apparent in the article. It will be helpful to quote several lines
of what Cooney said relating to this.
"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."
The Sunday Times editorial, which Cooney refers to, had made such
statement. Looking back now, it seems positively outrageous that
thing could be printed.
In addition to the insensitive (if not blatantly offensive) suggestion
that all those claiming Irish heritage were really British and that
they should stop whining about it, of equal concern was the use
of the phrase 'the Other British'. This smacks of paranoia, if not
blatant xenophobia. That a well-established and well-respected newspaper
such as this one could have released such a statement seems incomprehensible.
However, we should perhaps remember that this newspaper has on more
than on occasion displayed gross insensitivity to Ireland and the
Irish people on matters of national importance, such as referring
to former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds as a 'gombeen', allowing Eoghan
Harris to state that the Irish people should thank the British for
the fact that we now all speak English, and allowing a self-styled
fashion guru to claim that all Irish women were only two 'generations
out of the bog'.
Bristling with classic 19th century, moustache-twirling imperial
pomposity, the article on Drumanagh is one more in a long line of
distinguished Sunday Times gaffs relating to Ireland. I would have
thought that a newspaper which was (and still is) making such aggressive
inroads into the Irish market really ought to have had more sense?
A vast right-wing conspiracy?
One could be forgiven for thinking that Cooney's words (and mine
to be fair) also have more than a touch of paranoia about them,
hinting, as they seem to do, at some form of vast right-wing conspiracy,
to borrow a Hilary Clinton expression. However, it is easy, in our
current political climate, basking in the (relatively) warm glow
of the Good Friday agreement, to forget about the fraught state
of affairs that were Anglo-Irish relations at the time of the original
ST article (January 21st 1996).
Without delving into the hideous quagmire that is Anglo-Irish politics,
(and before you stop reading this) we should bear in mind that the
media of the time was awash with speculation on the future of the
relationship between Ireland and Britain, and many, if not the majority,
were understandably cautious, often defensive. This concern was
not limited to the political arena. It filtered its way down into
everyday and seemingly unrelated areas of life, from the colour
of football strips (remember the ill-fated orange away strip?) right
down to, in our case, archaeological and historical debate.
The next, and final, line of Cooney's ditorial shows direct evidence
of this concern:
"Now who said that the past does not have an influence on the
present... or that the term 'The British Isles' can be seen as a
purely geographical one without the political connotations...?"
Indeed, Richard Warner, who as Colin Adams points out, seems to
have been relied upon quite heavily by Mass & Byrne in The
Sunday Times article, always refers to the islands of Britain
and Ireland as the 'British Isles'.
It sounds finicky perhaps, but such simple and seemingly innocent
things can be the cause of lengthy debates and arguments, and can
serve to get people's backs up. When such vague and generalising
statements are made about a race of people or a nation (and in such
a blustering and pompous tone), such as those implied by of the
initial ST article and more explicitly in the following week's editorial,
reactions will not be rational and objective. There will be no sober
academic debate, but a subjective reaction, leading to defensive
entrenchment and the rigid preservation of dogmatic viewpoints.
Writing in the summer edition of History Ireland, Colin
Adams was at some pain to point out some of the obvious flaws in
the ST article, and to try to shed some light on the political nature
of the article, as well as some of the politics that had informed
its writing. The article was entitled Hibernia Romana, a
catchphrase which I have borrowed (or pilfered) for the title of
piece. His first task was to remind us of the nature of newspaper
journalism; that the writers of any given article, in any given
newspaper, are essentially at the mercy of their headline writers.
A valid point indeed, but one can not help feeling that perhaps
Adams was being lenient to the writers in order to make the coming
criticism more palatable. And good criticism it was too. Adams went
through the text of the ST article with an academic fine comb, exposing
the lack of strong archaeological or textual evidence, and shining
a torch of sobriety on some of the more absurd leaps of logic and
sensational generalisations that were the staple of the piece.
The Sunday Times had claimed that the discovery of a Roman
fort at Drumanagh promontory, fifteen miles north of Dublin, was
sterling proof of the Roman invasion theory. One simple, but astoundingly
important fact had not been mentioned in the editorial at all and
seems to have been overlooked by Mass, Byrne and anyone else who
had written on the issue: Drumanagh has not yet been properly excavated
and many of the artifacts found there are currently, as already
stated, the source of dispute, notably, a hoard of purportedly 'Roman'
artifacts that were 'found' in the late 1970s.
I think that's worth repeating: the site has not yet been properly excavated?
The objects mentioned a moment ago, have not yet been available
for any kind of a detailed scientific study (at least not by anyone
outside of the National Museum of Ireland). The fact that these
objects remain in the National Museum of Ireland, unseen and unpublished
(as of early 2002 anyway) and that the Drumanagh site remains unexcavated
leaves us in an utter vacuum.
Put bluntly, no definitive 'proof' of a Roman invasion has been
made available for study. In this tedious and frustrating limbo
period of waiting for the evidence, the site of Drumanagh ceases
to be a simple (if very important) archaeological site and becomes
an ideological battleground for the right to create national identity
and definitions of 'Irishness'. It is reduced (or is that blown-up?)
to become a weapon in the discourse between those who would seek
to re-define who the people of Ireland are: a tool with which to
bash the cultural identity of a nation and those who seek to protect
it with all of their will.
So what have we established? Not a lot so far, I'm afraid...
What is needed here is a sober, rational and levelheaded review
of the evidence for a Roman invasion of Ireland, the evidence for
Roman presence in Ireland and perhaps most importantly of all; the
nature of that presence. To this end specifically I would point
people to the work of Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland,
which (although a little difficult to get your hands on) is possibly
the most sober and rational critique of the subject matter. We also
need to review the finds that we can study, both archaeological
and literary, and also try to make some sense of prehistoric Ireland
through Roman, and to a lesser extent Greek, eyes.
Wood for the trees...
This is not a simple or straightforward task; the subject carrying
with it as it does so many political sensitivities and so many entrenched
viewpoints. Also, the period of prehistory in question is one that
our perceptions of and our knowledge of are evolving all the time.
New finds, such as the contested pieces at Drumanagh throw the whole
period in a new light. No doubt a proper excavation of the alleged
'fort' would yield many more. Also, recent studies of Roman attitudes
to foreign countries, including Ireland, have led to a new way of
seeing the Roman mind at work in what we can call, for want of a
better term, foreign policy. Their attitudes to other countries
and how they thought they affected them are not analogous to modern
day models of Imperialism, Colonialism or again, foreign policy.
In conclusion, perhaps we must be more careful about supplanting
late twentieth century concepts and on to ancient periods of time.
However, we must attempt to 'tune in', as best as we can to the
ancient mind-set that shaped that time. In addition, we must be
cautious not to allow desires for political capital to taint our
conclusions, allowing the evidence to speak for itself in a objective
and professional manner, no matter how compromising that evidence
may or may not be to previous beliefs or established canonical 'facts'.
Abusive and hysterical comments to:
- feedback and comments
discuss with other blather readers
Raftery Barry. Pagan Celtic Ireland. Dublin, 1994
Raftery Barry. Article in Archaeology Ireland. Spring 1996
Cooney, Gabriel. 'Ireland, the Romans and all that?' from Archaeology
Ireland, Spring 1996.
Sunday Times, 21st January 1996
Irish Times, 27th January 1996
Irish Press, 7th July 1985
Adams, Colin. 'Hibernia Romana' from History Ireland. Summer 1996
Archaeology Ireland. Summer 1996 edition.
Kelly, Eamonn. Early Celtic Art in Ireland. National Museum of
UCD Archaeology Department
Royal Irish Academy
National Museum of Ireland
Abusive and hysterical comments to:
- feedback and comments
discuss with other blather readers