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The Atlantic Histories of Late Antique Ireland

Elva Johnston

University College, Dublin

This paper will offer a new analysis of Irish social communities between the first and fifth centuries CE (concentrating primarily on the fourth and fifth), situating the island within the material and interpretative parameters of the Roman Atlantic West.

The history of Late Antique Ireland is frequently assumed to begin with the missions of Palladius, appointed as the first bishop for the Irish believing in Christ in 431 CE, and that of Patrick, a Romano-British bishop who flourished at some point in the fifth century. The combination of a fixed date and texts (Patrick’s authentic writings) has skewed scholarship, maximising interest in religious change and minimizing research on everything else. Furthermore, debates have tended towards the sui generis with the fifth century functioning as the explanatory horizon for all early medieval cultural achievements in the seventh century and later. Effectively, it is treated as a point of origin rather than as an era of transition. For various historical and historicist reasons, not least debates around nationality and politics, the formative nature of interactions with the Roman West, particularly Britain, but also further afield, have been underappreciated or ignored. An unintended consequence is that Irish developments have been largely peripheral or even absent from consideration of the Roman Atlantic West. Yet, the island’s position as the major Roman Atlantic maritime frontier and its ongoing permeability to it neighbours, continuing and amplifying patterns present from prehistory, show that a reassessment is necessary.

This has now begun to be addressed in various ways. The major breakthroughs have been archaeological. Late Iron Age Ireland is now far better understood than it was even a decade ago. The number of identified unambiguously Roman objects has increased substantially through a combination of new discoveries and reclassification. Major research in identifying trading networks, across the artificial boundaries imposed by religious change, have been particularly important in positioning Ireland within broader frameworks, including the ecological and geophysical. Historians have lagged behind in comparison: pre-Christian Ireland is rarely considered in academic circles, apart from polemical debates concerning conversion to Christianity. Central developments, such as the adoption of the epigraphic habit from arguably as early as the second century CE, have had merely niche application. This is despite the fact that Ireland’s earliest vernacular literacy is based on an appropriation and adaptation of the Latin alphabet that predates serious Christianization. The usage of the so-called ogam script across Late Antiquity is one of the most important forms of continuity in a period that experienced changes in belief, expansions in settlement, and the emergence of major political power blocs. Intriguingly, the distribution of the script, found almost exclusively on free-standing perpendicular cut stones, contrasts with that of portable Roman objects. These latter have an eastern distribution while the ogam stones are found primarily in south-westerly locations. To complicate matters further, ogam inscriptions are also found among Irish or partly Irish speaking communities in western Britain. These distribution patterns have the potential to unlock differentiated responses among Irish-speaking communities (broadly defined) to developments in the Atlantic West.

This paper has two related aims. Firstly, it will introduce scholars to the types of sources available for writing histories of Ireland, ones that situate it relatedly on the Roman Atlantic rim. It will also suggest how Irish experience can function as a comparator that enriches the way we think about Roman influences on the Atlantic littoral but also in other frontier regions.

Session/Panel Title

New Perspectives on the Atlantic Facade of the Roman World

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