Experts Claim Romans May Have Established Colonies in Ireland


Old notions of Ireland’s independence crash hard against the craggy cliffs of Drumanagh.

It is here, 20 miles north of Dublin, that Roman adventurers in the 1st to 5th centuries may have built a fort, traded and perhaps launched armed expeditions deep into the island.

The claim, made by Ireland’s two senior Iron Age archeologists--but ridiculed by some colleagues--would shatter the long-accepted notion of an old Gaelic Ireland sealed from foreign aggression.

“The idea that Ireland was Romanized goes against the romantic view of the country,” says Diarmuid O’Giollain, a lecturer in folklore and popular culture at University College Cork. “Ireland, which has lost so much of its indigenous traditions and language to colonization, requires an image of itself as having a great unfettered past.”

But now? Barry Raftery, professor of archeology at University College Dublin, says the old image of Irish isolation doesn’t square with the findings at Drumanagh.


“Drumanagh is almost certainly a Roman trading colony of some sort,” Raftery says. “It is unquestionably the most important Iron Age site yet found in Ireland. We know already that Ireland was heavily Romanized. The only question is whether there was a serious military invasion.”

Richard Warner, keeper of antiquities at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, is even more gung-ho about Drumanagh. He says it could require “rewriting the history books for the whole of that early Christian period . . . up until the 5th century.”

But few of their colleagues are persuaded.

“You couldn’t possibly say there was any kind of Roman invasion based on the evidence,” says Michael Herity, recently elected president of the Royal Irish Academy and a retired colleague of Raftery. “People who suggest there is any just don’t have their feet on the ground.”

Ireland was free of substantial outside influences until the Viking invasions of the 9th century, Herity says.

“Even then, Ireland successfully swallowed up any overseas influences and retained its distinctively Irish, Celtic character until after the English imposed their rule,” he says.

The archeologists seem to agree on one point: Ireland’s most mysterious age runs in the centuries before St. Patrick arrived in the 5th century. Assumptions have had to fill in this void where archeologists’ analysis of suspected settlements, such as Drumanagh, should go.

The trouble is, no one has been legally allowed to dig at Drumanagh--and therein lies a tale of state secrecy and scholarly sniping.

In the 1950s, farmers plowing around Drumanagh turned up shards of Samian ware, the reddish pottery common in Roman households. Drumanagh had the shape of an ancient promontory fort, a piece of coastal land defended on three sides by the sea and the fourth side by man-made ridges.

No one in authority paid too much attention. The find was never added to the National Museum’s collection of scattered Roman coins, pottery, jewelry, weapons and tomb remains found throughout Ireland since the 1700s.

Interest in drawing the scattered finds into some coherent story gained momentum in 1973 when a Belfast doctoral student, J.D. Bateson, published the first modern study of more than 140 finds. He concluded that most were later imports by collectors or hoaxers.

Then the vandals and treasure hunters got to work.

Raftery, 50, remembers enthusiastically exploring Drumanagh in April 1977 after a farmer plowed a furrow 600 yards long through the site before police intervened.

“It was very deep plowing, unauthorized . . . from the ramparts to the cliff, about 15 meters wide,” Raftery recalls. “I observed at least nine hut sites, disturbed by the plowing, and I picked up a piece of late 1st century Gallo-Roman pottery. People from the Roman world were there--a very dense occupation.

“Could it have been a town, maybe the earliest Irish town?”

In the mid-1980s, treasure hunters found a trove of Roman coins and ornaments there. The loot was impounded at Sotheby’s in London, where the bandits had tried to sell it. Raftery says he had been allowed a glimpse of the find but said he’s not supposed to discuss what it is.

Other archeologists have found Roman burial sites on an island off the coast near Drumanagh.

“You’ve caskets in stone-lined graves with a Roman coin left inside, to pay the ferryman when crossing the River Styx,” Raftery says. “These could be Irish mercenaries returning home after fighting for the Romans in Britain or Gaul [medieval France].”

Neither archeologist has been allowed to explore Drumanagh itself because the government thinks the owner is asking too much for the land.

David Sweetman, chief archeologist for the Office of Public Works, says he doesn’t appreciate Raftery and Warner “hyping up” the site. Half a dozen vehicles driven by would-be treasure seekers got stuck in Drumanagh’s mud on the same weekend that a British newspaper published a long article on the site.

“There are 120,000 archeological sites in Ireland and you could pick any one and blow it up to be anything,” Sweetman says. “But if you hype up a site you only encourage people to trample them. As a result, Drumanagh has been stripped pretty thoroughly.”

Warner says Irish officials are blowing a smoke screen because they’re cheapskates.

“Even if many metal objects have been taken out, it simply means some of the finer objects wouldn’t be found. But all the contexts and the buildings--the treasure hunters wouldn’t have done much damage to that,” Warner says.

Most archeologists, though, have sniped at the Roman theory as more fantasy than fact.

“I think the Romans took one look at Wales and said: ‘Forget about Ireland,’ ” says Billy O’Brien, an archeologist and Bronze Age specialist at University College Galway in western Ireland.

They particularly ridicule Warner’s efforts in a 1995 paper to connect medieval Irish legends to archeological finds and possible Roman figures.

“You’ll not find anyone else on that limb,” suggests Jim Mallory, an immigrant from California and archeology lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. The chances of Warner being right are in opposite proportion to his certitude.”

Herity says his own aerial photographs of Drumanagh suggest that the housing spotted by Raftery was round, not rectangular in the Roman manner.

“We see a typical Celtic, or Irish, promontory fort and round huts,” he says.