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[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter Seven

                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.


The Roman Empire

Origin and Growth of Christianity


Christianity and the Slave Trade

Christianity in Britain

Ireland in the Roman Period  

Ptolemy’s Map


 The Roman Empire

Despite what historians of the nationalist school tried to prove, almost everything in Irish society in the historic period was either derived straight from Rome or was largely modified and developed under Roman influence. Modern writers point out that even such supposedly ‘Celtic’ works like the Tain were redacted by persons acquainted with classical scholarship. Roman influence is all-pervading in Ireland.

There was almost nothing original about Roman culture itself. The inhabitants of Rome just adopted from the surrounding peoples what they needed, and in course of time, through constant conquests, Roman became like one of the great cities of the Middle East and the Roman Empire like one of the great empires of that region. The Republic became wracked by civil wars, in the midst of which Julius Caesar, who had been one of the ruling consuls in 59 BC was murdered. Eventually, the Romans decided in 27 BC to give supreme authority to a single elected emperor, the first being Caesar Augusts (27 BC to 14 AD). (Centuries later, the Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus decided to date the Christian era from the birth of Jesus, and not as the Romans did, from the supposed date of the founding of Rome. Later still the idea developed of dating events before the birth of Jesus backwards.) The Roman state lasted from a supposed origin in 753 BC until the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 AD. But that did not mean the end of its influence, for though the Turks might be the rulers of the city and the remains of its empire they still retained much of the culture and skills of the older empire. The influence of Rome on Ireland was immense. Christianity was born in the Roman province of Judaea, part of the former kingdom of Israel, and it spread through all the cities of the Roman Empire, adopting the Roman language and Roman customs as it grew and spread. The Church organised itself on Roman lines into provinces and dioceses. The hierarchy or holy government paralleled the civil government. At its head was the Pope, the religious equivalent of the Roman Emperor. Ireland is one of those countries in Northern Europe which were never themselves under Roman rule but which received all their culture and trappings of civilisation from Rome through the Church. In this connection it is worth recalling that the Latin language was written, spoken, and read by the Christian clergy in Ireland continuously from 432 AD until the Vatican Council in 1962. The authority of the Pope, the bishop of Rome, is still widely recognised in Ireland.

The Roman Republic about 200 BC conquered the Celtic-speaking warriors who had entered Italy and occupied the Po valley. The Romans then pushed across the Alps and conquered Gaul. This conquest was completed by 50 AD. They invaded Britain in 43 AD and gradually conquered the island as far as the Firth of Forth. The Romans brought their own urban organisation. One of these towns was London; others York and Lincoln. The legionary settlement at Caerleon-on-Usk in south east Wales, which was later to be the great centre for the conversion of Wales, provided two martyrs in the reign of Diocletian in 303 AD, as did Verulam (now St Alban's) where St Alban was executed. As elsewhere in the Empire the great development of Christianity took place after Constantine became emperor in 312 AD. Constantine was proclaimed emperor by the army at York.

There were almost always more advantages for impoverished northern warriors to conquer the richer southern regions than the reverse. The expansion of the Roman Empire to the north is an exception. Partly it was to acquire secure frontiers, and partly to provide the occasion of conquests to ambitious Roman leaders. Britain was probably never profitable over-all to the Empire, and even the metals it supplied could probably have been obtained more easily and more cheaply by trade. Nevertheless, for individuals there was always the chance to obtain farms or estates from conquered lands.

 The history of western Europe, the Mediterranean basin, and the Middle East for the next four hundred years was chiefly a history of the Roman Empire. The Empire continued to grow until about 100 AD and remained with more or less fixed borders for the following three hundred years. From the Atlantic seaboard it stretched eastward along both shores of the Mediterranean to include the Greek and Egyptian Empires, Mesopotamia and northward from the Persian Gulf to the shores of the Caspian Sea. They did not conquer the Persian Empire, nor did the Persians conquer them. The language of Rome, Latin, became universally spoken in the western half of the Empire, though it did not replace Greek in the eastern half. There was a large element of religious freedom within the Empire despite periodic and usually localised persecutions of Christians. Roman law was everywhere applied. The Roman army was the all-pervading power that ensured interior peace, though not always protecting the Empire from raids from outside. Cities grew and with them trade. The city culture that had been developed in Sumer in the Bronze Age permeated to the boundaries of the Empire even if in fact most of the people lived in small villages or rural areas. The presence of cities and peaceful trade routes meant that everywhere surplus agricultural produce could be traded.

The Romans advanced to the most northern point in Scotland, but as the region was thinly populated, had indifferent soils, and few minerals they did not attempt to retain what has become present day Scotland. Wales on the other hand had abundant minerals and so was strongly held. England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland were not separate countries, but were, as they always had been, part of Western Europe. At this time the islands were ruled by British-speaking Celts, and were collectively known as the British Isles. British was a dialect of Gaulish. For a period of about four hundred years Roman-occupied Britain was ruled in the Roman fashion.

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 Byzantium which he named Constantinople. The threat from the semi-Romanised tribes in Germany was regarded as being much less. During a period of civil war in the West, the Romans withdrew the imperial army from Britain. (Alaric the Visigoth chief was a Roman cavalry officer displeased with his failure to achieve promotion.) The withdrawal was supposed to be temporary but proved permanent. Meanwhile the local Roman administrators were expected to provide for their own defence, and nobody saw any reason why they could not. In the fifth century AD when the Pope took a passing interest in Ireland the Roman Empire was still largely functioning. The death of the last Latin emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 AD is regarded as marking the end of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, and the beginning of the Middle Ages. [Top]

Origin and Growth of Christianity         

In Palestine during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was the Roman governor of Syria, Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Luke 2.1). ‘In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the lands of Itureae and Trachonitis, Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness’ (Luke 3.1). This marked the beginning of the preaching of Jesus who was crucified. After his death Christianity was preached by the twelve apostles of Jesus and the thirteenth apostle Paul, first among the Jews in Palestine and in the Diaspora and then among the Greeks. It spread throughout the Roman world, at first largely in Greek-speaking areas and in the cities, but later in the Latin-speaking parts and in the rural areas.

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 Jerusalem. The Romans built a temple of Jupiter on its site.) Christian worship developed along the lines of that of the Jews of the Diaspora, namely by appointing houses, and later constructing buildings for communal worship. The Greek-speaking Jews called their meeting place a synagogue and the Greek-speaking Christians called theirs an ekklesia. One was from a Greek word to come together, the other from a Greek word to be called together. To this day there are many similarities between worship in a Christian church and in a Jewish synagogue. Christian churches, like the synagogues, became larger and more ornamented, and the worship more elaborate and formal. The structure of the mass is derived from that of the Jewish Passover meal.The distinctive characteristic of this worship was that it was indoors. The worship was presided over by men who could read the scriptures and instruct the believers. The Jews called these rabbis from the Hebrew rab a master. The Christians called them bishops from the Greek episcopos an overseer, and priests from the Greek presbyteros an elder. Each bishop had a principal church, called his cathedral, in which he placed his chair (cathedra) or seat (sedes from whence see) He had about him a body of priests called canons, or diocesan canons, who sang the weekly, and later daily Eucharist. Sacred chants were composed to accompany the psalms of David from the Bible, which formed the basis of all Christian worship. Attached to the church were lesser functionaries like deacons and acolytes.

. 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 whole of Egypt. In the West bishops in the principal towns claimed vast areas as their diocese. In 446 Pope St Leo the Great ruled that bishoprics should only be established in large cities. A further grade was being gradually added of priests who were not bishops in lesser settlements (later called parishes) outside the towns. Some of the earliest country parishes were administered by deacons, but afterwards priests were the rule. They were independent of the bishop to a certain extent because they had their own lands administered by the parish priest to support them. There were also minor churches dependent on the archpriest of the diocese. These were often at shrines and were supported by offerings of pilgrims. Nor is there any need to suppose that establishing churches without bishops was a peculiarly Irish custom (Catholic Encyclopaedia; Diocese, Parish).

 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 Italy there could be hundreds of bishops. Seven (later six) little satellite towns outside Rome had bishops. All the bishops in a civil province were presided over by an archbishop. The patriarch of the capital of the Empire, Rome, claimed the highest status of all, basing the claim of his see on the fact that it was the city in which Peter the chief of the apostles had settled. When Constantine transferred his capital to Constantinople, the bishop of that city claimed the primacy. Later Jerusalem and Constantinople were given patriarchal status making five in all.

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 St. Paul said, ‘The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness. For when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words (Romans 8.26). This passage is echoed in the Declaration of St. Patrick.

When 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 bishop's chair was at the very back at the centre of the semi-circular apse, and the priests and ministers sat on either side of him along the curved walls of the apse. In front of them was the holy table or altar, and the body of the worshippers filled the basilica. (In medieval times the altar was placed against the back wall, and the seats of the bishop and the clergy were placed in front of the altar. This meant that a gap had to be left between the seats or stalls as they came to be called to allow the ordinary worshippers to see the altar. The result was the familiar choir stalls in cathedrals.)

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 Rome itself was in particular danger, and the bishop liable to be hunted down and killed on almost any pretext. All the early popes were venerated in Rome as martyrs.           

            The essential tenets of Christianity were summarised at an early stage in the Apostles' Creed. This consisted of three parts. The first stressed belief in one only god, the Father and Creator. The second part dealt with the fact that the Son of Sod became man and died on a cross, went up to heaven, and will return to judge the world. The third part dealt with the Holy Spirit, the Church, the 'sharing of the holy things' or 'sharing with the holy ones', the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting in heaven. The article on forgiveness of sin included the initial repentance, the obligation of leading a holy life, and the forgiveness of sins committed after baptism. Those who were being instructed in the Christian faith were called catechumens. The chief period of instruction was during Lent, and they were allowed to attend the first part of the mass. It would seem that formal instruction in the truths of the Christian religion was given in the early parts of the Sunday mass, called until recently the 'mass of the catechumens'. (The word mass is derived from the words of dismissal Ite, missa est, depart, it is done.) The preparation concluded at Easter with instruction in the sharing of the holy things, baptism, the Eucharist, and confirmation. The sermons of St Cyril of Jerusalem (313? -387) provide a complete example. In these latter the mystery of baptism, the mystery of the Eucharist, and the mystery of the conferring of the Holy Spirit were explained. 

The official and public worship of the Church was spread out over a cycle of one year. This was called the 'liturgy', in Greek leitourgia, the ‘work of the People’ (of God). The worshipping People of God was called the Ecclesia, from the Greek ecclesia, ‘The People of God duly summoned or called together’. The Church year began in spring with the celebration of Easter, the great annual commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The dates of Easter and Pentecost were based on two of the great Jewish pilgrimage feasts Pesach (Passover) and (Shabuoth, seven weeks plus one day equals fifty, pentecoste, days). The third Jewish feast was Sukkoth (tabernacles or tents) and was held in the autumn. The Christians never celebrated this.

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 Alexandria. (In 465 AD the Church in Rome altered the method of calculation and this new method of calculation was gradually adopted in the Western Church except in the British Isles where the old method was adhered to.) In the fourth century a preparation of forty days was added, or at least fixed at forty days. An annual cycle of readings from the Bible was observed and it commenced at the beginning of Lent (and later on Septuagesima Sunday) with the story of the creation of Adam and the Fall. The church year ended with the climax of the feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus foreshadowing his final manifestation at the Second Coming, the Parousia. The origin of the feast of the Epiphany is obscure but it is known to have been celebrated towards the end of the second century AD. Later in the Sixth Century in Rome and elsewhere a shorter period of preparation called Advent (the Coming) was added to prepare for the Second Coming. Christmas was celebrated as a separate feast in Rome from 354 AD and probably came to Ireland with the adoption of the Roman liturgy.

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 Roman Empire because they were transferred bodily into Ireland by the first missionaries. Just as in the nineteenth century Catholic missionaries went into the jungles of Africa and took the mass and other ceremonies in Latin with them so too did the first missionaries in Ireland. There was no attempt to adapt it to local culture. That idea came into its own after the Second World War. Nor did the local people in either case want a watered-down version of the religion. They wanted all the trappings. In Africa, churches were built as far as possible in the Baroque style. The converts wanted this for they said the native architecture reminded them of the paganism they were giving up. There never was any such thing as a ‘Celtic’ Church or a ‘Celtic’ Christianity. There are no remains of the first churches built for they were all made of wood. But the clerics would have constructed them as replicas of the wooden and thatched churches in rural parts of Gaul. The robes would have been identical, the ceremonies identical, the ordering of the bishop or priests household identical, and Latin would have been the language of the clergy among themselves. There were no significant differences in public worship in the Latin West until about 500 AD. After that date various modifications were introduced into Gaul, and these formed the Gallican Rite.

Yet almost as soon as it was freed by Constantine, the Church was rent by religious controversies. It split into two factions, the Arians and the Catholics. Arianisn was named after Arius, a North African priest, who held that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity was not equal to the Father, the first person.  Though this doctrine was condemned at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) it spread widely, largely because it was favoured by the emperors in Constantinople. It just happened also that the chiefs of various Teutonic-speaking tribes on the northern borders of the Empire were adopting Christianity, and they accepted the Arian version. Most of the great religious controversies that shook the ancient Church were concerned with the nature of the Trinity, and the relationship of Jesus as man to God. These did not affect Ireland, for Gaul always adhered to the Church of Rome, so no rival theories were brought to Ireland    Among other numerous disputes over doctrine were those on Pelagianism, Donatism, Monophytism, and Nestorianism. Remnants of these various heretical churches are still found across the Middle East, Christianity spread far and wide from the patriarchate of Antioch, and surprising as it may seem nowadays, reached as far as north China. Some Nestorian Christians were still to be found in China when Marco Polo arrived there in the thirteenth century.  The first and only Christian penetration of Central Asia was made by the Nestorians, but these churches were largely wiped out by the spread of Islam. These Christians were counted as heretics by the Latins because they accepted the views of Nestorius of Antioch, patriarch of Constantinople, that there were two persons, one human and one divine, in Christ. The rival view, espoused by the theologians of Alexandria, said there was only one person in Jesus, the divine person. The orthodox and Latin view as defined at the Council of Chalcedon was that there was one person and two natures, human and divine in Jesus. The Nestorian view was that there were two persons in Christ, so consequently Mary was the mother of Jesus but not the mother of God. The Greek word theotokos, mother of God, became the touchstone of orthodoxy. The Nestorian church was at first centred on Edessa in Mesopotamia, but later in Persia. It was virtually wiped out by the medieval Mongol invasions. The Monophysites were especially strong in Egypt and Armenia and, and still has several million adherents in Egypt to this day. But by and large the orthodox doctrine prevailed both in the eastern and western churches. The various tribes in the West who were originally Arian gradually accepted the teaching of Rome.

            One East. One consequence 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 Nicaea in 325, at Constantinople in 381, at Ephesus in 431, at Chalcedon in 451, and at Constantinople in 481. The definitions of these five councils have generally been accepted as the statement of orthodox doctrine.

             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 France were the Councils of Arles in 314, of Orange in 441, of Vaison in 442, and Tours in 461. Some bishops from Britain attended these councils (de Paor, St Patrick).

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 Rome. In the case of an archbishop, the bishops of the province also attended. The local ruler was also represented. Many abuses gradually led to the exclusion of the laity. In the depths of the Dark Ages the papacy became a pawn of the great families who lived around Rome. Their opinion was still considered, though they could not attend in person but could only send a message. If the message was from the king it was usually attended to. The election did not confer the priestly or episcopal powers; these were conferred by the local bishops. [Top] 


            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 Egypt at a place called the Thebaid and in the Libyan or Western Desert at Scete not far from the Nile delta in the fourth century when the 'Desert Fathers' flourished. There were raids by barbarians on the southern flanks of the Empire as well as the northern and gradually the deserts of Egypt became unsafe, and the heartland of monasticism moved to Palestine and Syria.

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 Egypt via the Red Sea. But the different characteristics of Syrian monasticism could have come via Persia. (These characteristics of Syrian monasticism that involved certain afflictions and macerations of the flesh did not reach the West before the twelfth century, and came via the Byzantine Empire.) Egyptian monasticism restricted itself to fasting which was a common expression of grief, mourning, purification and repentance, and was not aimed at 'subduing the flesh'. Egyptian practice was the common one in western monasticism until the twelfth century)

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'.

Monasticism was 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 Thebes, now Luxor on the Nile) gathered aspirants into monasteries with fixed times for prayer, work, repasts, and instruction, monasticism was essentially a private spiritual quest. Some of the clergy however, like St Martin and St Augustine endeavoured to combine monastic exercises with their public ministry.

                Many of the monks were simple Coptic peasants, but many also were learned men from Alexandria and other Greek-speaking cities. These had studied philosophy and were trying to express Christian thought and experience in terms of the current Neo-Platonist philosophy. The principal Christian philosopher at the time was Origen (185-254). Evagrius of Pontus (345-400) belonged to the Origenist school. He spent many years in the Egyptian deserts and, from his experience, wrote various works on prayer. He stressed the need to attain apatheia  (not afflicted by human passions) and hesychia (peace, or tranquillity of soul). Two books about them called their 'Lives', and their ''Sayings' became the standard reading for monks. To these were added the 'Institutes' and  ‘Conferences’ of  John Cassian. It was the custom in Benedictine monasteries to read a chapter from Cassian each day. The house in which this was done was called a chapterhouse. Down the centuries when public buildings were few, religious and lay lords often used the chapterhouses of monasteries for their meetings. There were no proper rules for monks, and a novice found out how to be a monk largely by listening to what advice the superior of the monastery, the abbot, gave him, or through listening to the readings in church. The ideas of Evagrius were adopted by Cassian and recommended by St Benedict for the more proficient monks. (It may be also noted that in the sixteenth century a Jesuit priest called Rodrigues went through the old stories of the Desert Fathers and adapted them for the use of novices in his own day. 'Rodrigues' became a staple in the formation of novices in nearly every religious order for the following three centuries.) It is possible to read Cassian and entirely overlook his teaching on mystical prayer, being beguiled by his tales of the Desert Fathers. Though the adaptation of Evagrius' teaching on prayer was central to the work of Cassian he had to be circumspect because some of the teachings of Origen had been condemned. In the Eastern Church, St Basil commended the care of the poor to monks.

Different interpretations of monasticism were introduced into the western Empire by St Augustine, and St Martin of Tours.  These were bishops and Augustine wrote a brief treatise or Rule for a community of priests. This Rule was frequently adopted by canons in cathedrals. Canons who followed a rule were called regular canons. Gradually the diocesan canons became known as a chapter. In time the monks added the singing of the Eucharist to their hours of prayer, while the canons added the monastic hours to their sung Eucharist’s, and all used the Gregorian chant. The two bodies became virtually indistinguishable, but canons were always priests with the pastoral duties of priests while monks were mostly laymen. The Rule of St Augustine was spread widely as a spiritual treatise, and from the tenth century onwards was used as the basic Rule for many monasteries and Orders. Being short and flexible it was very adaptable and from the twelfth century onwards it was widely adopted in Ireland.

St Martin of Tours was by far the most influential figure in introducing monastic ideals to Gaul, Britain and Ireland. He founded a monastery at Ligugé near Tours before 370 AD, the first in Gaul. This was an attempt, like St Augustine's at Hippo to combine a monastic observance with the duties of a bishop. Two proper monasteries were founded in the south of France early in the 5th century, the monastery of Lerins near Cannes by St. Honoratus of Arles c. 410, and the monastery of SS Peter and Victor founded by Cassian in Marseilles c. 415. Cassian had lived for many years in the Egyptian desert and made it his duty to spread the teachings of the Desert Fathers far and wide and also the hysychasm of Evagrius.

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 Saint Paul’s outside the walls, St Mary Major, and St John Lateran. St Mary Major remains in its original glory. St Paul’s is a close replica rebuilt after a fire in the nineteenth century. There was the church of San Clemente and the Church of Santa Sabina. Christians coming to Rome from that day to this, would go around the basilicas and churches, and venerate the relics of the martyrs. The mention of walls reminds us that Rome itself was now liable to be attacked. In the following centuries came the glorious churches at Ravenna, and the new churches in Constantinople. Besides the great beauty of the architecture, the churches were often embellished with mosaics. Sculpture was in decline, and the tendency was to concentrate on relief work especially on the exterior of sarcophagi. In simplified forms this was to be taken up in Ireland. The relief work on sarcophagi was transferred to reliquaries. It was the great age of the Latin Church Fathers, the great religious teachers, St Jerome, St Augustine, St Ambrose, St Leo the Great, St Gregory the Great. The definitive translation of the Bible into Latin was made by St Jerome, who studied Hebrew for that very purpose. St Augustine became the unrivalled teacher of Latin Christianity for a thousand years, and his Confessions (rather Professions) was one of the most beautiful books ever written, and helped to form the Western mind. These developments came to an end in the middle of the sixth century but ever afterwards provided an ideal of what a Christian civilisation should be. [Top]

Christianity and the Slave Trade

            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. St Paul returned a runaway slave to his owner. Though slavery could be mild, it does not follow that all masters were kind, and women slaves could be expect to be systematically abused, especially by the master’s sons.

            In the 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 Africa about which Britain could do nothing. With regard to slave-owning, the slaves were largely owned by American, Spanish, and Portuguese slave-owners in the Americas, and again Britain could not interfere. But carrying the slaves in ships across the Atlantic was something the British navy could do something about. When the carrying of slaves across the Atlantic was stopped, slave-raiding would cease in Africa, for there would be no market for the slaves.

            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 Rome. But as the local rulers in Scotland, and Ireland, and later in Scandinavia, found there was an excellent source of slaves within the Roman Empire. The Irish raids on Britain were recorded in Roman times, and St Patrick was the most famous slave. There is no need to assume that slave-raiding ceased during the Anglo-Saxon period. though it may have become more difficult. We can assume that the British and Anglo-Saxons equally raided each other to get slaves. For the Irish, slave-raiding was a lucrative extension to the cattle-raiding.

            The consequence of this was that there would have been quite a few Christians scattered among the pagan peoples in Northern and Central Europe, both inside and outside the old frontier. Priests from their own regions could visit them on occasion provided they brought suitable gifts to the local chief. It is reasonable to assume that the first missions in Ireland, Scotland, Frisia, Saxony, Franconia, Bavaria, Switzerland and Scandinavia were to these scattered groups of slaves. [Top]  

Christianity in Britain

There are no records about the origins of Christianity in Britain, but Tertullian (d. 225 AD) mentioned its presence. According to Tertullian, a priest from Carthage, Christianity had already spread over the Roman frontiers in his time. Origen (d. 254) too made vague references to them (Collingwood 270). As mentioned above Caerleon and Verulam produced martyrs in the persecution of Diocletian (303-4). According to Gildas the monk writing much later the many churches which had been destroyed were re-built when the persecution was over, and many more were built. Three bishops from Britain, from London, York, and from a colony of Londoners (probably Lincoln), along with a priest and a deacon, attended the Synod of Arles in 314 AD (Collingwood 271). It does not seem that any British bishop attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 though its condemnation of Arianism was accepted universally in the British churches. Three British bishops had their travel expenses paid by the Emperor Constantius to attend the council of Ariminium in 360. Other bishops from Britain may have travelled at their own expense.  There are almost no relics of Christianity in the villas of the rich, showing that it was still a religion of the poorer classes. Even by 400 AD it was probably a minority religion, and pagan temples were still being built. Almost certainly too it was confined to the towns. Saint Patrick's father would have been a Roman official in a town, though he may have resided mostly in a villa outside the town, having also a casa or town house. Britain was divided into Roman provinces and each should have had a bishop or archbishop of its own. Whether there was more than one bishop in each province in 410 is another matter. After 208 there were two Roman provinces in Britain, but no attempt seems to have been made to establish metropolitan sees. There were up to fifty Roman towns, some no more than villages, but twenty with more than 1,000 inhabitants. Verulam (St Alban’s) could have as many as 5,000. Twenty bishops might be a reasonable estimate. It would seem that the British bishops looked to the Roman city of Auxerre as their mother or metropolitan church, and that Auxerre exercised supervision not only over the churches in Britain, but also over the Christians in Ireland as well. But the Church was thriving and there were numerous bishops at the time of the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD. Pope Gregory I who sent him was probably badly informed about conditions beyond the pagan settlements in Kent. Contacts between Britain and Rome would have be difficult following the conquest of the coasts of southern Britain by the Saxons around 500 AD.

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 Wales, where an island of civilisation survived during the barbarian invasions. France and most of Britannia was over-run but the Roman ways survived in Wales. The legionary centre at Caerleon and its neighbouring town Caer-went in south east Wales was to become the great centre of Christianity, and from there it spread all over Wales. There can be little doubt that the first Irish Christians and missionaries came from Wales. As Christianity disappeared from eastern and southern Britain it would have become stronger in northern and western Britain. At least half of Britannia was still Romanised, and British-speaking.

The period following the Roman withdrawal from Britain (410 AD) coincided closely with the first arrival of the first Angles, Saxons, and Jutes and the spread of Christianity to Ireland. The first two were connected, for the weakening of Roman power meant that the barrier to the settlement of peoples from beyond the frontiers could not be prevented. These peoples from the east had settlement as their primary object. The raiders from Scotland and Ireland were concerned mostly with plunder though there may have been some Irish settlement in Wales. The weakening grasp of the Romans facilitated the raiding, and as Roman Britain was comparatively rich, the raids were profitable.        By the end of the Roman period which was a century after the reign of Constantine (d. 337 AD), Christianity was reasonably well established in Britain.

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 Gaul seeking help against the spread of Pelagianism. Pelagius himself may have been British, but the local bishops evidently did not feel sufficiently confident of their theological learning to dispute with the Pelagians. Or perhaps the local bishops were divided on the subject. According to Bede, writing 300 years later the heresy was introduced by  Agricola son of Severianus a prelate. The point at issue was whether man was saved solely by grace, or whether he could help to sanctify himself by his own efforts. The stricter type of Christian, like the heretical Montanists, condemned the laxity of certain Christians, and practised an austere form of life. Pelagius believed that Christians should make effort to sanctify themselves. (The point has never been solved to the satisfaction of all Christians.) According to Prosper, Germanus through the deacon Palladius, consulted Pope Celestine I, and received papal authorisation to deal with the affairs in a different province. Presumably this was not strictly necessary, as he had been invited to assist.

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 Britain in 438. Gradually Roman urban life was breaking down, and was being replaced with British chiefdoms. These were still Romanised, and the change by no means meant a return to the early Iron Age. After 446, Angles, Jutes, and Saxons came to settle in Britain, after they were given land in Kent by a British chief called Vortigern who ruled in south east England. [Top]

Ireland in the Roman Period (100 to 400 AD)

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. [Top] 

Ptolemy’s Map  

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.