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The Roman Period 100-400ad
Summary. Describes the origin and spread of the Roman Empire patricularly
towards North West Europe. Also the origin and spread of Christianity, and the
nature of its public worship. The origin, nature and spread of monasticism. In
particular Christianity in Britain in the Roman period. Finally, tries to work
out what we can reliably know about Ireland before the introduction of writing.
Describes the origin and spread of the Roman Empire patricularly towards North West Europe. Also the origin and spread of Christianity, and the nature of its public worship. The origin, nature and spread of monasticism. In particular Christianity in Britain in the Roman period. Finally, tries to work out what we can reliably know about Ireland before the introduction of writing.
Despite what historians
of the nationalist school tried to prove, almost everything in Irish society in
the historic period was either derived straight from
There was almost
nothing original about Roman culture itself. The inhabitants of
There were almost always more advantages for impoverished northern
warriors to conquer the richer southern regions than the reverse. The expansion
The Romans advanced to
the most northern point in
Roman influence did not of course stop at the frontiers guarded by legionaries, but spread far over the borders. There was the influence of trade and of the prestige of Roman things. There was often the desire of ordinary people to move their families inside the Empire where life was easier and safer. Young men from the warrior classes frequently joined the Roman army as auxiliaries.
From the time of the
Emperor Trajan (117 AD) the Empire ceased to expand, and all resources were put
to defending existing frontiers. Increasingly the Roman emperors became
concerned with defending the Greek-speaking eastern half of their empire for it
was the richest part, and also the part most threatened by powerful invaders.
In 330 AD the emperor Constantine shifted the capital of the empire to
When the Jewish temple
was destroyed by the Roman army under Titus in 70 AD the Christians broke
entirely with the ritual of the Jewish temple. By that time it was regarded as
irrelevant. (The Jews had also to abandon temple worship but for a different
reason, namely that there was only one temple on earth where sacrifices could
be offered to God and it was in
. Each bishop ruled over a particular town or city, and as
Christianity spread, the villages that surrounded it. There is no need to
assume that in western Europe there was any definite
boundary to a bishopric. The bishopric would just extend into the forests and
wastelands until it met the domain of another bishop. A priest would have to be
ordained by a bishop, get the holy oils from him, and be authorised to preach
and celebrate the sacraments. At one time there was only one bishop for the
The Church gradually
organised itself into an hierarchical
structure with three grades, patriarchs in the great cities of Rome,
Alexandria, and Antioch, but not Carthage, archbishops in the chief cities of
the Roman provinces, and bishops in the local towns. Each town was presided
over by a bishop. In densely populated parts of the Empire like
There does not seem to have been any particular rules for establishing a new bishopric, though the rules for consecrating new bishops were strict. Each new bishop had to be consecrated by those who were already bishops. Since the eleventh century the Popes have reserved to themselves the rights of creating new dioceses, though from at least the fifth century, the consent of a provincial synod and metropolitan was required within an existing province.
A characteristic of
Christianity, though it may seem obvious to state it, was that it was based on
personal prayer, which can be described as communicating with the divine, or an
elevation of the mind to God. Prayer can take many forms, and involve the whole
body and mind. In the New Testament, gifts of the Spirit were recognised, but
it was also believed that these gifts could come from an evil spirit, so
Christians were warned to test the spirits to see if they are of God. As
Christianity was recognised as the true religion by the Roman Emperors, these
latter built enormous churches, which were called basilicas from the Greek word
for imperial. The basilica was originally a Roman version of the stoa
but was walled on all sides and roofed over, used for secular purposes. In
pagan times there was a raised part of the floor at one end on which stood an
altar, and this end terminated with a semi-circular area called an apse, in
which certain official sat. The form was easily adapted to Christian worship.
The Church was not
allowed to grow unmolested. Several emperors considered it a threat to the
unity of the Empire and tried to stamp it out. Traditionally there were seven
persecutions, a figure probably derived from the Apocalypse where the number seven
appears repeatedly, but most of them were purely local. The church in
The essential tenets of Christianity were
summarised at an early stage in the Apostles
The official and public
worship of the Church was spread out over a cycle of one year. This was
The date of Easter was fixed at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. It
was there appointed to be the first Sunday after the full moon following the
vernal equinox. But if that date should coincide with the
Jewish Passover, then on the following Sunday to clearly differentiate
Christianity from Judaism. The date was to be calculated in advance
following the methods of the astronomers of
There would have been a solemn chanting of the mass, largely in monotone, on each Sunday that all the faithful had to attend unless reasonably excused. Psalms were sung with the verses alternated with short responses called antiphons. There would also have been two daily services of readings and chants in the church attended mostly by the clergy. The year was articulated by the two great feasts, Easter to Pentecost, which began it, and the Epiphany which ended it. The periods of penance were ones of fasting, and this meant that no food could be eaten until night-fall, and feasting and rejoicing of every kind incompatible with a period of sorrow were prohibited. Lent was also originally the period of preparation for those who were to be baptised and confirmed, but these ceremonies may no longer have been restricted to Easter.
It is necessary to
recall the practices of the Christian Church in the
Yet almost as soon as
it was freed by
of the growth of heresies was the custom of holding synods
to decide what the doctrine and
discipline of the Church actually was. Many of the disputes arose when attempts
were being made to translate the traditional teachings of the scriptures into
the terms and references of Greek philosophy.
The philosophy was an attempt to
organise all human knowledge in a rational way. Some Christians have always
argued that no attempt should be made to harmonise the Christian revelation
with Greek rationality. But, for others, a concept like 'God' reveals the
problem. Should we use Greek concepts like 'matter', 'spirit', and 'infinity'
to clarify the meaning, or should believers be content with a mental picture of
God as an old man sitting on a throne (anthropomorphism)? Synods
or councils were gatherings of representatives of local churches, not
gatherings of bishops. So the emperor, local rulers, bishops, priests, abbots,
monks, and laymen attended them. Monks had a particular reputation for
extremism and turbulence. Major councils, with representatives summoned by the
Byzantine emperor from all over the Empire, were held at
Other, more local councils were
also convened, in particular provinces or groups of provinces, but their
authority was regarded as less, and useful chiefly as a witness to what the teaching
was in that region at that time. Such in
Within each diocese
there was always a gathering of the priests and lay persons to elect a new
bishop when the old one died. This was true originally even of the city of
A Christian movement
for personal sanctification spread widely among lay persons. It came to be
called monasticism, from the Greek
word for a person living alone. The monastic life proper began when men went to
live in desert places to lead the Christian life. The earliest known monk is St
Antony who lived in the Egyptian desert c.300 AD. The greatest concentrations
of monks were in central
One of the problems in
dealing with monasticism is that a strict definition of monasticism is not
possible. Monasticism or monachism, was mode of life
practised by persons who abandoned the world for religious reasons and devoted
their lives, either separately or in community, to spiritual perfection.
Monasticism is not mentioned explicitly in the Bible, but it is found in other
earlier religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. In the centuries immediately
preceding the birth of Christ the religious movement of the Essenes was
established in desert places. John the Baptist lived in the desert. Jesus went
into the desert to fast and pray, and during his ministry took his disciples
aside into a desert place eis eremon
topon (Mark 6.31). Whatever the origin of monasticism, Christians connected
it St John the Baptist in the desert. There is little doubt that some of the
Christians in the early Church gave their goods to the poor, lived unmarried or
widowed, and devoted themselves to good works. But it is also likely that the
practice of Christian monasticism was influenced by developments of Hindu
monasticism. Influences could have come directly to
Instruction by an older monk in the ways of the Spirit was an essential part of monasticism. The form of instruction given by these spiritual fathers was gnomic and of course supposed that the aspirant to the religious life was already a fully instructed Christian. Typically, the aspirant would ask an older monk called the abba (father) to guide him. He would be appointed place where he could build a hut and shown how he could support himself. This could be done by planting crops, weaving mats or baskets for sale, or hiring himself as a labourer at seed and harvest time. He would then be taught the method of singing the psalms, and this usually involved committing the entire Psalter to memory. Food was the minimum required for survival, and garments the minimum that shelter and decency required, the aim being to spend as much time as possible at prayer or meditating on the truths of the Bibles or the ‘words’ of instruction of the abba.
“Abba Aio questioned Abba Macarius and said: '‘Give me a word'’. Abba Macarius said to him: '‘Flee from men, stay in your cell, weep for your sins, do not take pleasure in the conversation of men and you will be saved'’’’(Ward, 138).
"“Abba Poemen said to Abba Joseph '‘Tell me how to become a monk'’. He said '‘If you want to find rest here below and hereafter, in all circumstances say, Who am I? and do not judge anyone'’"”
The sayings of the women in the deserts and monasteries were also included in the collections. "“Amma Syncletica said,' ‘In the beginning there are a great many battles, and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God, and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (as it is said "‘Our God is a consuming fire’ [Heb. 12.24]): so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work'’"”. (Ward 231). '‘Abba'’ (‘father’ in Aramaic or Syriac) became '‘abbas'’ in Greek and Latin, and abbot in English. '‘Amma'’ (mother) was not used in the West; '‘abbess'’ is derived from '‘abbatissa'’ a feminine form of '‘abbas'’.
essentially a lay movement. It was for laymen and women who chose to devote
themselves to a solitary life of prayer. Though they were Christians, and
received the Christian sacraments from time to time, their life did not revolve
around the liturgy of the priests, or preaching, or instructing in religion, or
assisting the poor. Even when spiritual leaders like St Pachomius in the
Thebaid (the region around
Many of the monks were
simple Coptic peasants, but many also were learned men from
interpretations of monasticism were introduced into the western Empire by
St Martin of Tours was
by far the most influential figure in introducing monastic ideals to
Despite the controversies, and despite the growth of monasticism,
Christianity grew and flourished, now protected by the emperors, grew and
flourished. Popes and bishops were not persecuted but venerated. Christian art
flourished. This is the era of the great basilicas, i.e. great churches built
at the expense of the emperor (basileus).
There was St Peter’s, and
Slavery was universal in the ancient
world. In itself, it was a simple economic relationship whereby the slave was
obliged to serve a master all his life, could only marry with his master’s
permission, and all his children continued in his servile state. His master
undertook to provide him with sufficient food, clothing, and shelter while he
lived. The position of a slave was therefore somewhat better than that of a
casual labourer. In Exodus, provision was made for a man to embrace servitude
voluntarily (Exodus 21). The New Testament made no alteration; the freedom
conferred being that of the Spirit.
eighteenth century, William Wilberforce began his attack, not on slavery as
such but on the slave trade. His argument basically, that the slave trade could
be broken down into slave-raiding, slave trading, and slave owning. With regard
to slave-raiding, this was carried out by sovereign states in
Conditions were no different in the
ancient world. There were slave-raiders, slave-traders, and slave owners. For
the slave raiders, slaves were a valuable currency. You could sell them to buy
wine and other luxury goods. There was always a market for them. There was
always an unending supply of them, if only you were stronger than your
neighbour. All along the borders of the Empire, the pattern of slave-raiding
beyond the frontier, the trading towards the slave markets to the south, and
the slave-owners in the south. The principal source of slaves was among the
Slavic-speaking peoples who gave their name to slavery. They were not the only
peoples raided for slaves. It was recounted that Pope Gregory determined to
convert the Angles, after seeing fair-haired slaves taken from that people in
The consequence of this was that
there would have been quite a few Christians scattered among the pagan peoples
in Northern and
There are no records
about the origins of Christianity in
With the departure of
the Romans the tribal structure of government revived. The upper classes still
retained their Romanised ways. This was especially true of
The period following the Roman withdrawal from
In the first half of the fifth century, after the official departure
of the Roman legions, and before the large-scale pagan Anglo-Saxon settlement,
we are given a picture of Christianity at the time of the visit of Germanus,
bishop of Auxerre. As often happens there is only one document referring to an
entire episode, in this case a Life of St. Germanus by Constantius of Lyon.
There is also a passing reference in the Chronicles of Prosper of Aquitaine.)
In the year 429 some of the British Christians appealed to the bishops of
He visited Verulam (St Alban’s) and found that though it had
suffered from raids by the pagans, it was still ruled by the Romano-British.
When he was there, there was an attack by Picts and Saxons, Germanus who had
previously been a leading magistrate, helped to organise the British and to
drive them off. He made a second visit to
Irish people of an older generation will wonder what happened to the Milesians, Nemedians, Formorians, and such peoples who formed their introduction to Irish history. In the nineteenth century, when historians were less critical of what was written in old Irish manuscripts than they are at present the accounts of the first peoples to come to Ireland were accepted as fact. Some writers expressed disbelief that the settlers arrived before the Flood (Genesis 6) but others accepted it. The Parthalonians were commonly held to be the first to land. They came from Greece 2520 years after the creation of the world and occupied Ireland for three centuries, and were all wiped out by a plague. (The chronology of the Bible had been carefully worked out by James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, died 1656, and he placed the date of creation in 4004 BC.) Others calculated their arrival in 2200 BC. The land was empty for thirty years, until the Nemedians, came from the shores of the Black Sea in 1900 BC. Their leaders, Nemedius, was eleventh in descent after Noah. The Nemedians were constantly harassed by the Formorians, who were pirates and sea-robbers. According to some the Nemedians and Formorians all perished in a great battle, but other hold that the survivors of the Nemedians went to Greece, and were compelled to dig clay in the fertile valleys and carry it in leather bags up the sides of the mountains. From this they got their name Fir Bolg, or Men of the Leather Bags. The Fir Bolg returned to Ireland around 1300 BC. At the same time another group of the Nemedians, who had gone to Denmark also returned. This was the Tuatha de Danann. In a battle between them the Fir Bolg were defeated and reduced to subjection. Some of the Fir Bolg went to the Aran Islands in Galway Bay and maintained their independence. According to some they were responsible for dividing Ireland into five provinces. The fifth colony was composed of the Milesians. They were supposed to originate in Scythia, to have lived in Egypt at the time of the pharaohs, to have gone to Spain, and finally to have arrived in Ireland in 1000 BC. It was supposed by some that they came through Gaul and Britain, and spoke the same Celtic tongue that was spoken in those parts. (This summary is taken from Joyce’s school textbook on Irish history published in 1900. See also D’Alton 1912.)
These legends had been collected by a Catholic priest in the seventeenth century called Geoffrey Keating who had an uncritical mind. The Irish scholars in the nineteenth century, though somewhat sceptical, were however reluctant to dismiss his accounts altogether for they knew he had used sources which were no longer extant. And so it came about that Irish schoolchildren up to the middle of the twentieth century were still being taught about Milesians and the Fir Bolg. It does not appear to have occurred to any of the scholars that even if there was a basis of truth in any of the legends, the legends themselves might have been composed elsewhere and imported by storytellers. For this reason they are unsafe sources for any conclusions, for example, with regard to the use of chariots in Ireland.
In the succeeding centuries, the great triennial feis of gathering at Tara was said to have started. About 300 BC a queen called Macha was said to have built a palace at Eamhain Macha near Armagh (Ard Macha, the Height of Macha), and to have established the ‘Knights of the Red Branch’ who ruled over Ulster for 600 years. Modern historians do not waste much time sifting the myths and legends about supposed people and events before the days of writing. But they do survive especially in Irish nationalist mythology and most people would be expected to recognise a reference to them.
About this time there was supposed to be an invasion of Scotland led by a man called Fergus, who was said to have gained control of the Highlands of Scotland, and to have become the first king of Scotland. However his biographer in the Dictionary of National Biography (1888) dismisses him and the list of forty-five kings who succeeded him on the throne of Scotland as completely fictional. There was also the story of the three cousins, called the Three Collas who invaded Ulster and overthrew the kingdom of Ulster centred on Eamhain Macha. The Fir Bolg were said to have occupied Galway, and to have been driven to the Aran Islands by the king of Tara. There seems to have been no such a thing as a king of All Ireland. However, as there are no written records we cannot be dogmatic about this. In the first century AD a king called Conaire was said to have lived from whom nine Irish saints claimed descent.
There was supposed to be a king called Tuathal (Toole) who imposed a tribute on the men of Leinster. Tuathal Techtmhar was supposed to have crossed the Shannon from Connaught in the second century, and imposed the Boromha (Boru) tribute on the Laighing. Whatever about tuatha, there was a tribute claimed and resisted in later times. Some regard Tuatha as the local variation of the common Celtic god Teutates. Tuatha is said to have been succeeded by Conn Cead Cathach, (Conn Ked Caha, Conn of the Hundred Battles, or Conn the Hundred Fighter) though some consider the latter a minor deity. Connacht would appear to be connected with this Conn, though –acht (an abstract suffix) is difficult to reconcile as a tribal ending. To this period too the genealogists assign Eoghan Mor (Owen More), from whom the Eoganacht, and the division of Ireland into the two divisions, Leath Mogha and Leath Cuinn (the half of Mogh Nuada = Eoghan Mor and the half of Conn. Mogh Nuadat is translated as the Slave of Nuada Nuada himself was the local version of the Celtic god Nodens, He was supposed to be a king of the Tuatha de Danaan who lost a hand in battle. The god of medicine, Dian Cecht, made him a silver hand to replace it. However as the loss of a hand counted as a defect he had to resign the kingship. It would make more sense if Eoghan and Conn were minor deities around whose shrines amphictyonies of tribes bonded themselves. Unsurprisingly, we find later in the historical period a group called the Connacht in the northern half of Ireland and another called the Eoganacht in the southern half. Whatever the basis for the story, it was true that no king of either half ever ruled in other half until well into the Christian period. Historians are increasing sceptical about the amount of historical truth that can be extracted from such myths.
In this period were set the two mythological cycles of tales, those of the Tain Bo Cualigne (Toyne boe Coolny - the Cattle Raid of Cooley) and those of the Fianna. The tales of the Fianna are very late, being recorded mostly in the Middle Ages. But there may have been some historical kernel. About the time of Christ there was supposed to have been a queen in Connaught called Medb (Maeve) who fought a campaign against Conor mac Nessa king of Ulster over a bull called the Brown Bull of Cualigne (Cooley, the tuath of the Cualigne in the Cooley peninsula in north Louth). The Tain if it ever had an historical basis must be placed in this time when the Connacht and the Ultonii had a common frontier (Kinsella).
As in the Bible the genealogies would have reflected political
realities not factual records. In the third century was said to have lived
Cormac mac Art, the idealised king, the Irish Solomon, who ruled wisely. He was said to be a grandson of Conn Ced Cathach. He allegedly ruled from Tara,
and there founded three colleges, one for the study of military science, one for
history and literature, and one for law. In his time there was a body of
devoted youths called the Fianna
(Feena). From spring until autumn, so long as there was a danger of invasion
especially by the Romans, they lived in camps and survived by hunting. They
were commanded by Cormac’s son-in-law Finn mac Cumhail (Cool). On Cormac’s
death they rebelled against his son Cairbre
Lifechair (Cairbre of the Liffey),
who fought against them and dispersed them. There was some human occupation of
Tara in the Roman period, with some Roman remains. As Raftery notes, there is
no indication that they were native Irish. (For authoritative speculations see
de Paor, St Patrick’s World, and
Raftery Pagan Celtic Ireland).
Finally, we come to Niall NoiGiallach
on the very verges of the historic period, and who probably did exist around
the time claimed.
Ireland was traditionally divided into five regions or provinces, of
which four survive. They were Ulaid
(Ully or Ulla) in the north, Mumu in
the south, Lagin (Lagin or Line) in
the east (which three later received the Norse termination -ster), Fir nOlmacht in the West, and Mide in the centre. Though Fir nOlmacht (Men of Olmacht)
undoubtedly refers to a people, it is unclear if the other names refer to
people or places. Fir nOlmacht was
re-named Connacht (Connaught. The
word Olmacht has the same formation
as Connacht and Eoganacht, so all three may refer to divinities.) Even in the early
historical period the regions were quite distinct and cut off from each other
by woods and bogs. Mide, present day
Meath and Westmeath, may not have been a geographical region in its own right,
but added because of speculations about the nature of the cosmos or ordered
world (de Paor). Equally, for similar cosmic reasons combined with changes to
overlordship, Mide could have been
shrunk to a nominal province in the centre. Some historians think that Mide, the fifth province, was not county
Meath but a small territory in the middle of Ireland roughly where county
Longford is, but with a sacred significance of being the centre of Ireland Its
shrine would have been at Uisnech (Ushnach)
hill. From its summit twenty of the thirty two counties can be seen. . (A
different ancient tradition gives the provinces as Ulster, Leinster, Connaught,
West Munster, and East Munster.)
Raftery describes four great cultic centres in Ireland in the Iron
Age, one each in Ulaid, Laigin, Mide, and Connacht, and remarked on the absence
of Iron Age material from Mumu. It is therefore possible that it was Mumu that
was added as the fifth province. Eamhain
Macha the great cult-centre of Ulaid
was probably long since abandoned but surviving in the form of an annual royal oenach or fair. The same seems to have
been true of the other three major religious sites. No archaeological remains
of royal palaces have been found. As Raftery remarked it is difficult to
reconcile archaeological evidence with the literary sources when dealing with
royal sites (Raftery 81). The boundaries of these provinces have scarcely
changed from that day to this, though North Leinster or Meath was for a long
time counted as a fifth province) For political reasons in the heyday of the Ui Neill Meath was counted with Ulster
not Leinster, and so remains as part of the ecclesiastical province to this
day. For the purposes of Henry II in 1171 it would have still been counted with
Ulster, and his occupancy of Tara would have given him at least nominal rights
over the whole province. Throughout the Middle Ages
this overlordship was recognised by the Oirgialla
if not by the Ui Neill.
Around about 100 AD we begin to get scraps of written information about Ireland. There is one piece of solid historical evidence about the period, and that is Ptolemy'’s map. Again a lot has to be built on a single document. Claudius Ptolemaeus, or Ptolemy was born in Alexandria about 100 AD. He was apparently a Ptolemid but a Roman citizen, and he wrote in Greek. He is chiefly famous for his theory of the motions of the stars and planets, Ptolemy’s system. Though later proved to be incorrect by Copernicus and Galileo it was reasonably accurate for the purpose of making astronomical predictions, and the date of Easter could be computed with some accuracy for centuries in advance. He knew that the world was round, but agreed with the accepted idea that the earth was the centre of the universe. His very ingenious theories explained the motions of the stars, the sun, the moon and the planets so well that it was 1400 years before it was questioned. He first rejected the argument that the apparent motions of the heavens were caused by the rotation of the earth. One of his arguments was that if any object were thrown up vertically it would not fall down in the same spot if the earth were moving. His solution to the movement of the heavenly bodies was basically a theory of large circles (cycle, kuklos) around the earth, each with a smaller circle, an epicycle on it. The motion of a planet therefore was along the circumference of the epicycle, which in turn moved along the cycle. With certain further refinements the system actually worked so that prediction regarding the position of a heavenly body became possible. Ptolemy, like most of the Greeks, was a geometer, so a geometric solution was sought and then valued. The calculations regarding the date of Easter used the Roman numerals.
He was also a geographer and drew a map of the world on which he plotted places by degrees of latitude and longitude. Much of this information about the British Isles he probably obtained from mariners. The ascertaining of latitude is quite simple while an estimate of the total size of the earth was made in Egypt by measuring the length of one degree of latitude and multiplying it by 360. Directions north, south, east and west are also easy to determine. Longitude could probably be only estimated by the number of days sailing. Though the positions are given only relative to each other, they are surprisingly accurate for the north, east, and south coasts of Ireland, which would indicate a constant traffic of trading ships.
The positions of the mouths of the Shannon, Boyne, Lagan, and Avoca
are given. The names are given in their P-Celtic form. He lists fifty five
names of peoples and places, only a few of which can be identified with any
certainty. The rivers Logia, Buvinda,
Oboca, and Senos can be
identified as the Lagan, Boyne, Avoca, and Shannon. The Lagan would have led
into the lands of the peoples later called Ulaid
who were always amongst the most open to influences from across the Irish Sea.
The Boyne and Shannon are navigable for a considerable distance inland.
Munster, as usual, is almost a blank except for descriptions of the coast. It
is recorded as being inhabited by a tribe called the Iberni whose name in Latin Hiberni
gave their name to the country Hibernia.
(St Patrick calls it Hiberione, which
looks as if it was taken from a Greek source, and the people Hibernionaces.) Whether the name Ireland
is derived from this or from yet another goddess cannot be determined. Though
the Avoca is a tiny river, it leads to the deposits of placer gold in Wicklow.
Of the names of the tribes given, the Voluntii
(in the Christian period Ultonii)
can possibly be identified with the Ulaid.
(Some prefer to connect them with the Iverni.)
The Brigantes are found in Ireland as
in England. Tribal names could change
from one generation to the next as the four-generation families split on the
death of the head of the family There was a tendency in Ireland to change the
form of the name and to drop terminal syllables, so that Menapii could become Fir
Monaigh (Fermanagh) the Belgae Fir Bolg, Dumnonii Fir Domnann. If these latter were accepted as equivalents
it would be an argument for an actual landing of Celtic-speaking tribes in
Ireland, but not necessarily as dominant tribes.
What the connection was between the tribes of Leinster and those on the opposite Welsh coasts, and those of Ulster with those on the opposite English and Scottish coasts is hard to determine. In the days when the existence of a separate invasion of Q-Celtic speakers was taken for granted it was concluded that the Q-Celts re-invaded the British coasts as Roman power declined. On the other hand there is no indication that when the split between P-Celtic and Q-Celtic occurred it had to be along the line of the Irish Sea. The fact that certain tribes in Ulster were known as Cruithin or Pretani would seem to indicate that they spoke P-Celtic for a considerable period after the rest of the country was speaking Q-Celtic. (In the one ‘c’ occurs where ‘p’ occurs in the other: mac/map a son, ceann/pen a head). Q-Celtic was spoken as far inland as Breconshire in mid-Wales. In the north of Britain it dominated the Highlands. No mention is made of interpreters in the stories of St Patrick, and it is not until St Columcille started speaking to the Picts in Scotland that their need is mentioned.
We are lacking information about contacts with Britain during the Roman period. There should be no doubt that some of the warrior families on either side of the Irish Sea had close connections with each other, and indeed were closely related. Nor should it be thought that migration was one way. When the Romans occupied the west and north of Britannia many warriors may have fled to Ireland and Scotland. British warrior families may have continued to land during the Roman period. Some think the name Cashel is the Latin castellum. They also point to the resemblance between Laigin and Lleyn on the opposite Welsh coast. Indeed, some see the rise of aspiring new groups like the Connacht, the Eoganacht, and the Deisi who were between them to conquer and occupy much of Ireland to migrations in the later Roman period. These new migrants, it is assumed had experience in the Roman army. The other theory is that these were Irish tuatha who gained experience in raiding Britain.
Yet invasions from Ireland were no problem to the Romans in Britain in the early Roman period unlike attacks from Scotland. This may have been because the few points at which invading boats could have landed were too well guarded by the Romans. All sailors in those days, and for long after, travelled along the coast to the points where the channel was narrowest, then crossed straight to the opposite shore, and followed the opposite coast to their destination. In any case the Romans never saw fit to invade Ireland, though some settlements either of Romans or of Romanised Britons seem to have been made. Among these presumably were the first Christians. Later, slave-raiding would have added to the number of Christians.
What was the population of Ireland about the time of the birth of Christ? The Roman general Agricola considered that Ireland could be conquered with a single legion of 6,000 troops. This would indicate that he did not expect to meet more than about 10,000 to 12,000 in a pitched battle or in separate skirmishes. As the warrior class at that time probably did not exceed 5% of the population, and the warriors themselves not more than 2%, the total population could have been half a million. But if the free classes were armed and only the unfree deprived of arms, the population could have been much lower, perhaps 200,000. Among the Macedonian Greeks, also an Indo-European group, at the time of Alexander the Great, there was an inner core of the army based on kinship with the ruler, and an outer core based on political obligations, calculations of self-interest, pay, and custom (Keegan 34ff). The unfree classes were never armed before the 16th century.
Nothing ever remains the same for long. By the fourth century the balance of power had changed. Technology had also come to the aid of the attackers. Ships no longer needed to crawl along the coasts. Invaders from Scotland could make wide sweeps out into the Irish Sea before turning in to attack further down the coast (Divine 234). Similarly raiders from Ireland did not have to aim at the nearest point on the opposite coast. (Divine 234). (Merchants would of course have still followed to older safer routes)
It is likely too that there were many of the warrior class in Ireland who had seen service as Roman legionaries, or as Roman auxiliary troops, and would have been acquainted with Roman ways. Like all warrior classes they found the lure of plunder in badly defended rich regions irresistible. Slave raiding was particularly attractive. One of the many questions that surround the life of Saint Patrick is why he was never ransomed. We can deduce that he still had relatives in Britain, and there would have been no difficulty in sending messages through the merchants. It may be that his family was too impoverished to pay the ransom demanded. It would also explain why they were annoyed when he chose to spend the revenues of his office in bribing the local chiefs of the slave raiders.
About 300 AD Constantius Caesar reorganised the defences so that they faced towards the west. By mid-century the various clans in Ireland and Scotland were combining for massive raids. These reached a recorded peak about 400 AD and then declined while the attacks of the Saxons on the other side grew. There is no obvious reason for this. As literacy was wiped out, no records were written.
With regard to Irish society at the time we are equally in the dark. It is not at all clear how far descriptions of contemporary practice in Britain and the Continent applied to Ireland, apart from what was common in the Iron Age. Some at least of the practices described in later tales and law codes were doubtless observed, but it is impossible to decide which.
The religious year
seems to have been divided into four quarters marked with feasts of four gods.
The first was in February, with the feast of the goddess Brigit, daughter of
the Dagda, the second in May with the
feast of Belenos, (Bealtaine) the
third in August with the god Lug (Lughnasa),
and finally the feast of the dead and the underworld, sacred to the great god,
the Dagda and his mate the Morrigan (Samain) The Dag da said
to mean The Good God and the Mor rigan,
said to mean Great Queen, could have come from either the Indo-European or the
native religious tradition. The names of three feasts are still kept in the
Gaelic calendar. The survival of the cult of the dead and the underworld should
be noticed. But as de Paor notes (de Paor, St Patrick 27ff) there was much not
typically Indo-European in the religion of Ireland when it was finally
committed to writing. Indeed, in the Mor Rigan and the Dag Da we may see a survival of the
myths of Osiris and Isis. Lug was a common Celtic god, and Bealtine is usually
connected with Belenos. The goddess Brigit may be connected with the Brigantes
in Britain. Macha of Eamhain Macha,
and Medb, associated with the Connacht,
may be alternative names for the Mor Rigan
(Cunliffe). Nuada seems to be the same as Nodens,
After the year 300 AD there seem to have been various changes, the most notable of these being the revival of agriculture. The long period of decline came to an end and signs of tillage re-appear. Why this was so is unclear. There was no noticeable change in climate for the rate of bog increase was unchanged. Nor are there any signs of a decrease in warfare. It is thought that the difference was made by the introduction of the plough with the coulter drawn by ox-teams, This would have allowed the farmers to plough deeper and draw up minerals from a lower level, as much as nine inches. The sour acid soil that favoured the growth of heathers and birches would have been ploughed again. Even in the fallow periods trees other than birch could thrive. Some soils in Ireland are permanently fertile, but there are many soils which need long fallows and indeed become so exhausted that they return to wasteland and are reclaimed periodically. Such are the heavy clay soils in south Louth which were reclaimed by the Cistercians in the Middle Ages, and reclaimed again in the 18th century by Baron Foster who spread vast quantities of lime to counteract the acidity. By this time iron was quite common, displacing the bronze tools. Whether or not the ox-drawn coulter plough was introduced at this time or not, it is reasonable to assume that contacts between both side of the Irish Sea were numerous.
Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.