Roman Ireland: What did the Romans ever do for us?

Is Roman Ireland nothing more than wishful thinking? Exploring Ireland’s forbidden archaeology is a tricky business…

Ptolemy IrelandA Jaw-dropper

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 flap
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), near Rush, 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’.

The backlash
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 main article:

“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.
    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.

    Changing minds
    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 constraints'”.

    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) most
    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 material.

    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 a statement. Looking back now, it seems positively outrageous that such a 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.

    Hibernia Romana?
    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’.

    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 Ireland
    Find out more:
    UCD Archaeology Department
    Royal Irish Academy
    Discovery Programme
    National Museum of Ireland

    Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.

    1. Just a few quick comments:
      Firstly there is no such entity as the “State of the Republic of Ireland”, the name of the state as per constitution is Ireland, despite 1949 Republic of Ireland Act, which as an act of the Dail, cannot, without referendum change the name of the state.
      Secondly, if the site has not been excavated, it would seem reasonable to expect any officially sanctioned invasion to have been recorded somewhere, the colonisation of a new nation, even as insignificant as Hibernia would have been recorded somewhere by Roman writers.
      As I understand it grafitti at Newgrange record visitation by latin speakers, but I suspect that this is testament to Roman traders looking for opportunities, rather than legionnaires on a day off, which I suspect excavations at the Malahide site, confirming it as a trading settlement, will confirm.

    2. Hi Paul,
      thanks for this fascinating article/research on possible Roman contact with Hibernia (Ireland). If the Romans were in and around the island of Britain for 400 years, I cannot believe there was NO contact between the native Irish and the Romans and/or the Romanised British. During 400 years of Roman Britain, some Romans must have been curious enough to check out this island that Ptolemy even knew about. In fact, are some Irish descendants of Romans or at least Romanised Britons?? The research MUST go on. I am Irish Australian and I want to research MORE on Roman contacts with Ireland.
      Owen (Sydney, Australia)

    3. as an irishmsn living in wales i am fascinated by the paranoid need i observe living here to ‘seperate’ the welsh from the english despite the fact that the british state and taxpayer pay for the welsh nation (79% of jobs in wales are dependent on the british state). It is very sad to see educated irish historians and journalists cought up in the same paranoia.

    4. It is always a strange feeling for a Belgian to see how archeological questions ( which for me personally are indeed fascinating ) are so alive in other parts of the world. Belgium has been the slave of so many nations that we really couldn’t care less who colonised us or didn’t . We , just as one example , proved what we still could do in World War One , even after so many “rapes” by other countries .It’s a sad thing to see that Irish do not so much want to see themselves as Irish rather than NOT-English. Whether the Romans and British were there or not : they’re gone . All our ‘neighbours’ have taken us and influenced us (except , o irony , the British). So what? The Germans were shocked in how much they could not change us ; the same for the Dutch , the French , the Austrians and yes, the Romans .My advice : give the excavation to people who aren’t so extremely emotional about it: no Irish , no British : give them to Germans , or Belgians , or Chinese. If it’s so sensitive , take in real outsiders . Even Belgians might do “the trick” and establish things objectively ; or the Dutch , our most beloved Neighbours ( who also occupied us ).
      Greetings from North-Belgium , Luc.

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