It is often assumed that Ireland entered recorded history with the emergence of organized Christianity on the island at some point in the fourth or fifth century C.E. This assumption has meant that the histories of late antique and early medieval Ireland are primarily viewed through the lens of conversion. Religious identities, frequently imagined as a binary opposition of “Christian” and “pagan,” have been a dominant historiographical focus. This essay argues that it is more fruitful to examine the relationship between Ireland and its neighbors from c. 150–c. 550 C.E. through a frontier dynamic, a dynamic in which religious identity was but one factor among many. By recasting the Irish experience in this way, it is possible to take a more comparative approach which cuts against the grain of Irish exceptionalism. Moreover, situating Ireland within the scholarly discourse of late antiquity allows for a new and nuanced understanding of the social and religious changes that characterized this period on the island.
CROSSING A CHRONOLOGICAL BORDERLAND
D. A. Binchy, one of the great scholars of early Ireland, noted that the writings and career of St Patrick presented the first problem in Irish history, one which he did much to illuminate. His ground-breaking article “Patrick and his Biographers: Ancient and Modern” remains essential reading and continues to inform the historiography.1 Scholars still debate the parameters of Patrick's career and explore the relationship of his mission to that of Palladius,2 a bishop “sent to the Irish believing in Christ” by Pope Celestine in 431 C.E.3 This emphasis on establishing the conversion story of Ireland is not unexpected. It is, after all, directly inspired by some of the earliest extant sustained narrative sources from the island, including not only Patrick's fifth-century writings but later writings about him.4 Moreover, Patrick has trailed an immensely long literary cloak, winding through the confessional crises of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Ireland, right into the modern era.5 As a result, early Irish historical scholarship is greatly invested in analyzing conversion, Christianization, and changing religious affiliations. Yet, it rarely emphasizes the period before 400 C.E. in its own right, despite its clear importance for understanding how Christianity took root in the first place. It is often treated polemically, not analytically, left in a sort of pre-Patrician half-light. In part, this is a reaction to older approaches that had situated early Ireland in a nebulously defined heroic Iron Age, extending back into a romanticized Indo-European antiquity.6 Although early Irish scholarship has been methodologically transformed and invigorated since the 1980s, the fifth century as a chronological boundary has survived largely unquestioned.7 As Francis John Byrne memorably remarked, “the Patrician problem…bars the very portals of Irish history…”.8 Indeed, the fifth century functions as more than a chronological boundary; it is a disciplinary one as well, having far less significance for scholars working in cognate fields such as linguistics and archaeology.9 This has had a number of unintended consequences. The most obvious is the extent to which religious affiliations, often imagined as a binary opposition of “Christian” and “pagan,” are a central historiographical pivot.10 Terms such as “early Christian Ireland” are frequently used to describe the period from c. 400 C.E. to c. 800 C.E,11 although the usage is potentially confusing for non-specialists. It exists side-by-side with the preferable “early medieval” and, more infrequent, “late antique.” Given the extent to which modern scholarly discourse depends on elements of a shared vocabulary, the relative peripherality of Ireland to mainstream historical research on late antiquity is not surprising. Simply put, the vocabularies are sometimes mismatched or, as Chris Wickham remarked, “Ireland often perplexes.”12
Fruitful scholarly research in the last two decades, however, has brought Ireland far more into the historical mainstream, a mainstream which, itself, is deeply aware of the importance of regional variation and local diversity. Irish experiences are now situated within crucial comparative contexts.13 Moreover, the exploration of Irish-speaking communities, on both sides of the Irish Sea, has showed the limitations of treating Ireland as an archaic peculiarity, untouched by the experiences of its neighbors.14 As long as Ireland is considered in isolation, historical insight will be stunted. Many challenges remain, some of which I touch on in this paper. Nonetheless, the efflorescence of an outward looking scholarship, combined with advances in our knowledge of the material culture,15 have provided a space in which it is possible to use a shared academic vocabulary to consider Ireland's position in late antiquity, unlocking the portals of the island's history. These open to glimpses of Irish society between the second and sixth centuries C.E., before and after the imaginary boundary of the “Patrician problem,” glimpses that reframe conversion to Christianity as part of broader socio-political dynamics connecting Ireland and its neighbors, especially Roman Britain. This essay explores these dynamics rather than focusing on the conversion story. Moreover, this approach acknowledges that religious affiliations in late antiquity were often complex and contingent on many factors. They were not necessarily reflective of an inevitable shift to monotheism in Ireland or anywhere else.16
AN IRISH FRONTIER?
One of the most quoted “facts” in Irish history is that the Romans never invaded the island.17 Moreover, this non-invasion is often assumed to be the origin of Ireland's supposedly archaic culture. However, like many assumptions, it needs recalibration. While the Romans did not invade, despite the apparent ease of doing so according to Tacitus,18 the island was drawn into the Empire's cultural and economic orbits in various ways. These can be considered under the broad headings of material consumption, linked with commercial activities, and the emergence of the first literacy in the vernacular. These developments are inextricably connected to the island's relationship with its Roman neighbors across the imperial and post-imperial frontiers. Contemporary Ireland features in Roman sources from the first century C. E., largely through the conduit of Roman Britain.19 Contact seems to have been relatively small-scale and largely economic. There was a considerable intensification during the fourth and fifth centuries, almost certainly due to weakening Roman military power in Britain, which led to a shift in balance between the two islands.20 These are memorably attested in the writings of Patrick, himself a victim and, later, beneficiary, of the changing circumstances.21 The archaeological evidence presents a similar picture. Roman objects and Roman-inspired objects appear in material contexts in two distinct phases, during the first and second centuries C.E. and again in the fourth and fifth.22 Again, Roman Britain is the primary partner. A case can be made that these archaeological and textual sources should be considered in connection with Ireland's geographical and economic position on the maritime frontiers of Roman power. Arguably, the history of Ireland during late antiquity cannot be properly understood unless these frontier relationships are appreciated, at least to some degree. Yet, if Ireland was a frontier of the Empire, what did this mean and what does it entail for framing the history of the island before and during the transition to Christianity?
In recent decades, particularly in light of the important contribution of C. R. Whittaker,23 there has been an increasing emphasis on the permeability of the Roman frontiers over long periods of time. They are no longer viewed as lines on a map, as hard borders defended by large-scale fortifications, although these did exist in some places;24 instead they are seen as zones of complex cultural, economic, and military interaction. Ethnic and religious affiliations could be correspondingly complex, a factor which deeply influenced the post-Roman west.25 Moreover, the Roman ideology of imperium sine fine, of empire without end in time or space, meant that the very notion of a fixed border was conceptually alien. These views were deeply rooted and were echoed in late antique Christian writers such as Orosius in the first half of fifth century C.E.26 Additionally, it has been demonstrated that the sense of a limes as a defended border, marking the definite boundaries of imperial territory, had no real Roman equivalent.27 Limites were not necessarily defined by human buildings but could be geographical regions, borderlands through which tendrils of Roman influence ran.
These understandings of the limites are particularly important when considering Ireland. As a transmarine frontier zone the island did not require a wall, although Tacitus reports that the Roman governor Agricola had fortified the coast facing Ireland in the latter half of the first century, presumably to deter raiders and, perhaps, settlers.28 Around three centuries later Ammianus Marcellinus identified the Irish (Scotti) as among the peoples who had crossed the frontiers in order to attack Roman territories in the 360s.29 Thus, in its geographical and military sense, Ireland was one of the Empire's many frontier regions. While references to the island and its peoples are few,30 there are enough to show that the Romans viewed it in much the same way as other frontier regions: the island was a home to barbarians who could be exploited economically but who also posed an occasional military threat. This threat required political management. As Thomas Charles-Edwards has pointed out, Ammianus' reference to previous treaties, broken by the Irish, suggests some level of formal political engagement.31 This may have been similar, although on a smaller scale, to that seen between the Romans and the Gothic peoples.32 Perhaps significantly, the economic and military elements are also attested in the fifth-century writings of Patrick, the first direct textual witness to life in Ireland. He was, famously, a victim of Irish slave-raiding in western Britain and his escape from slavery was possible because of the transport connections between the two islands.33 Given these sources, it is surprising that the military role of the frontier in late antique Ireland has received so little exploration, although there has been some speculation on the likely presence of Irish soldiers in the late Roman army.34
But frontiers are not only defined in terms of geographical contiguity or military conflict. They were as much borderlands of the mind. Thus, processes of cultural contact, often understood as aspects of Romanization, were important. Romanization is a notoriously ambiguous term, used relatively loosely by scholars to analyze the extent of Roman influence on the ideologies, elite formation, identities, and material culture of their non-Roman neighbors.35 Unlike Romanitas, a word the Romans themselves adopted, although not commonly, to self-identify,36 it is a modern interpretative construct. Within limits, however, it is a very useful one. These limits include acknowledging the extent to which Romanization varied and fluctuated; it should not be used as a vehicle for flattening the diversity of regional experiences. For instance, the heavy contact between Romans and non-Romans on the Rhine-Danube frontier was not necessarily normative.37 It can be contrasted with more restricted interactions on the north African frontier or in Ireland between the first and fifth centuries C.E.38 Different social and economic opportunities determined the parameters of Romanization on the frontiers. This was shaped more by local circumstances than imperial policy. As a result, assimilation and acculturation were not always prominent factors.
These local circumstances are the key to understanding the role played by Romanization in late antique Ireland. Trade was of primary importance, although this needs to be qualified. For instance, coins are by far the most common Roman objects found in Ireland, with examples ranging from the first to the fifth century C.E. At first glance, these appear to furnish evidence for trading activity. However, this is not always the case. For instance, the Ballinrees (Coleraine) hoard, dating from the late fourth or early fifth century, is more likely the result of Irish raids on Roman Britain.39 It has been speculated that the similarly dated Balline hoard was formed from the payment made to an Irish soldier serving in the late Roman army.40 In addition, some coins functioned as display objects or as votive offerings, and this should not be all that surprising given that the Irish economy was not coin-based.41 Other items offer better evidence for economic activities. For example, potsherds from amphorae, found on Irish sites, point to a market for products such as wine and olive oil, in particular from the fifth century, although there is also evidence for earlier trade.42 The surviving amphorae are particularly useful, as Irish society was aceramic during this period, meaning that the pottery was definitely imported. It is likely that the Irish exported hides, livestock, and, perhaps, slaves in return. Moreover, mercantile activity is well-attested in the written sources. Tacitus refers to knowledge of the Irish coastline, gained from traders.43 Similarly, the section of Ptolemy's Geography concerning Ireland drew partially on information from those engaged in trade with the island.44 Several centuries later, Patrick escaped Ireland by taking passage on what appears to have been a merchant vessel, although like many of his descriptions, it lacks specificity.45 On balance, it is clear that travel between Britain and Ireland was relatively common. One of its main functions was to engage in the exchange of goods. Moreover, Atlantic and Mediterranean trading networks intersected, plugging Ireland into a much wider mercantile world, even if not always directly.46
Irish trade with this world was not only in perishable consumables. Intriguingly, items of personal adornment and toiletry implements, mainly, but not exclusively, of Romano-British origin have also been found on Irish sites. Finds include brooches, pins, and ear picks.47 It is not clear if these were primarily for personal use and display or were employed as votive offerings, although it is likely that both patterns coexisted. Bateson reviewed many of the relevant finds in the 1970s but his methodologies and catalogues are in serious need of updating.48 For instance, Jacqueline Cahill Wilson has pointed out that the use of older models of typological classification means that a significant number of Roman or Roman-style objects, such as dress pins or penannular brooches, have been dismissed in site analyses.49 The brooches are especially interesting because the penannular type, adapted from Romano-British models, became a prominent vehicle for elite display in Ireland, spanning the late antique and early medieval periods in an impressive example of continuity in material culture.50 These types of objects suggest that members of the Irish elites were visually emulating Romano-British models through choices of adornment; their adaptation into distinctive styles over time shows that this went beyond simple copying.
This is a potentially fascinating line of inquiry. To what extent were some Irish elites consciously basing their choice of ornament, practice of hygiene, and eating habits on those of their neighbors? After all, personal appearance is highly socially charged, potentially employing a large number of different markers, expressing gender, group affiliations, and status, a point explored in archaeological discussion of the Irish Iron Age.51 Moreover, the strongly east coast distribution of the catalogued Roman finds suggests that there may well have been regional differences in access to luxury goods and, perhaps, in styles of elite display.52 It is worth stressing these potential variations, as there has been an unfortunate tendency to treat early Ireland as culturally homogeneous, a judgment largely based on the writings of the Christian literate elites who had established themselves by at least the sixth century.53 It is dangerous to assume that the late antique Irish, or indeed their early medieval counterparts, were culturally undifferentiated. In addition, questions relating to elite emulation of Romano-British models can be profitably analyzed through comparing the Irish evidence with research on frontier interactions between Romans and barbarians elsewhere. For instance, one possibility, suggested by these comparisons, is that some Roman items may have found their way to the island through strategies of gift-giving, a well-attested imperial diplomatic practice.54 Recalcitrant barbarian leaders were frequently among the beneficiaries and these may have included the Irish treaty-breakers condemned by Ammianus. Furthermore, these gifts could, themselves, continue to circulate, especially as rewards bestowed by members of the elites on their followers. The ubiquity and practicality of gift-giving in Irish society is stressed in Patrick's Confessio.55 In fact, it is likely to have been one of the catalysts for the complaints leveled against him by his British critics. They appear to have believed that Patrick benefitted unduly from his converts' gifts.56 Despite its defensive tone, the Confessio does suggest that gift-giving was a primary means of exchange, both personal and political.
It is worth exploring a little more the practical medium for contact between Ireland and its neighbors. Sailors must have followed established routes and likely availed themselves of well-known points of disembarkation. Patrick, presumably, had such a location in mind when he made his escape from captivity, although he credits divine rather than human agency.57 There has been some debate as to whether the Romans established permanent or semi-permanent trading bases in Ireland. In particular, Drumanagh, located on the north Dublin coast, has been a prominent focus of conjecture. Suggestions have ranged from identifying it as a Romano-British emporium to fanciful notions that it contributed to an established imperial military presence.58 However, the recent geophysical survey of the site does not support the idea that it was a Roman settlement. On the other hand it is likely to have had some sort of commercial function, as do other locations in eastern Ireland.59 The current evidence supports the supposition that the Roman interest in the island was largely economic and that its main vehicle was Romano-British trade. This, more than likely, fed into political strategies of frontier management when needed. Such measures appear to have been successful until the latter half of the fourth century, at which point there was what became, in hindsight, a decisive shift in power balances throughout the Irish Sea zone.
THE EPIGRAPHIC HABIT: LITERACY ON THE IRISH FRONTIER
In an influential article, Ramsay MacMullen analyzed what he called the Roman “epigraphic habit.”60 This habit ensured that writing was an important vehicle for expressing imperial political ambitions. Throughout the empire monumental inscriptions were used to visually underscore elite civic, religious, and political identities. These inscriptions were powerful reminders of the Roman presence, even for those who could not read. The monuments themselves made a statement as physical objects placed in socially significant settings. The epigraphic habit was catching: along the Roman frontiers, literacies emerged among previous non-literate barbarian peoples.61 In this context, Irish writing was born. The importance of this earliest Irish literacy has been well-explored by linguists.62 Historical investigation has been stymied, however, by the chronological difficulties associated with its emergence as well as by its complex relationship to the dominant narrative of Christianization.63 This is unfortunate, as the practice of literacy among Irish communities provides a unique insight into the transitional period during which Christianity gained traction; it expresses forms of continuity before, during and after the conversion process.
This first literacy survives on free-standing stones, generally referred to as ogams, named after the script carved upon them.64 This was based on the Latin alphabet and knowledge of aspects of Latin grammar. The script, however, was used to write the vernacular. Visually, the script looks very different from the Latin alphabet, consisting of a series of notches and dots carved vertically on a stem-line, usually the stone's edge. The ogams have been dated to as early as the second century C.E., although, generally speaking, a fourth- or fifth-century origin is more commonly accepted.65 Stones with ogam inscriptions continued to be erected throughout the sixth century and into the early seventh. This is usually seen as marking the end of the orthodox monumental phase. The script continued to be used thereafter, both on stone and on vellum, but in contexts which lie outside the scope of this paper.66 These so-called “orthodox” inscriptions are short, normally containing a personal name, accompanied by a patronymic or tribal identification. Very rarely, they also note the profession of the person commemorated.67 It is widely accepted that the extant stones functioned as markers of individual and tribal affiliation. They may have indicated the presence of burials and/or acted as boundary markers between territories or estates.68 There has been some debate about the Christian or pagan character of the ogams,69 but the most likely explanation is that script was initially used in non-Christian environments. However, this did not stop it being subsequently adopted by some Christians. The debate, while useful, has obscured other questions. The ogam stones have yet to be fully appreciated as both material objects and as historical texts. We do not know who wrote the inscriptions, how they were trained, or many aspects of how the stones functioned in a society which was almost entirely non-literate. Moreover, their social roles, with a few exceptions, have barely been explored, even though writing and its usage are so socially significant.70
These roles can be illuminated by considering the striking distribution of the ogam stones. The vast majority of the more than 400 extant stones, though located throughout Ireland, have a southern and south-eastern bias. Examples are also found in Wales, Devon, Cornwall, and Hampshire, as well as in Scotland and the Isle of Man.71 In effect, ogam is a frontier phenomenon on both sides of the Irish Sea, extending into the west coast Atlantic zone. The Irish distribution is different from that of the eastern seaboard Roman finds, although there is a geographical area of overlap in the south-east.72 Much more work needs to be done on the potential meanings of this apparent disjunction. Preliminary questions may include considering whether this is an example of culturally distinct elites in different parts of the island using particular ways of expressing their affiliations. Moreover, the conspicously non-Roman appearance of the ogam stones is worth some thought. They function in similar ways to Roman monumental incriptions but they look dissimilar. What does this tell us about the nature of Irish elite appropriations of the epigraphic habit?
The British distribution, especially in Wales, may offer help. These ogam stones have been linked with Irish identities, associated with settlements. Bilingual ogams, where the Irish is accompanied by an inscription in the Latin alphabet, seem especially important.73 The contrasting appearances of the ogam script and the Latin alphabet, found on the same object, are a powerful visual statement, emphasizing specific group affiliations. This statement is one which was likely as clear to the non-literate as the literate because of the marked difference in the script forms. Moreover, Charles-Edwards has suggested that these Irish settlements may well be the avenue along which ogam first emerged as a conscious emulation of Romano-British epigraphic practice.74 This is an attractive suggestion. Other possibities include the Roman army, which was a major vehicle for literacy along the frontiers of the empire.75 It should not be forgotten, either, that Roman objects circulating in Ireland contained writing. Stamped ingots, such as those found in the Balline hoard, are one example.76 The ubiquitous Roman coins are another. Perhaps, significantly, the stamped objects and coins use literacy to express forms of ownership and identity. Their formulae are simple and emphasize names. Indeed, it can be speculated that coins may have influenced the form as well as content of the ogam inscriptions. Coins have letters stamped around their edge, and the coin's edge functions in a similar manner to the stem-line on the orthodox ogam inscriptions. Perhaps the Irish adoption of literacy was influenced by the portable as well as the monumental.
MANAGING THE IRISH FRONTIER: POLITICS AND RELIGION
This essay at various points, has noted the importance of frontier management for the Romans. As we have seen, there is evidence for this being a feature of relationships on the Irish frontier. It is best attested during the fourth and fifth centuries, a period during which there were considerable fluctuations of Roman power in northern and western Europe, especially Britain. Its best example, in an Irish context, is the one least considered. This is the role of the papally organized mission of Palladius to Ireland in the early 430s.77 Palladius was a deacon, associated with either Rome or Auxerre, with the former being the more likely.78 He played what appears to have been a significant role in inspiring the mission of Germanus to Britain. This mission was aimed at combating Pelagianism and appears to have operated at a confluence of papal and imperial interests.79 Palladius' own appointment as bishop for Irish Christians is clearly interconnected with these events. However, the importance of Palladius has been obscured by his tangential relationship to the historiography of Irish conversion, both for the early Irish and later scholars.80 He has suffered from the predominance of the Patrick problem and the associated treatment of the fifth century as sui generis. In addition, his mission occurred at the limits of western Roman power and at the beginnings of practical papal efforts at extending Christianity beyond the borderlands of the imperium sine fine. Arguably, Palladius can be situated more comfortably within strategies of frontier management than as an awkward component in a singular narrative of Irish conversion to Christianity.
The important participation of Christianity in late antique frontier management has been usefully explored, particularly in relationship to the converion of the Goths.81 Furthermore, as Andrew Gillett has shown, bishops came to increasingly function as envoys in the post-Constantinian empire, enhancing their political status.82 These envoys were vital to the running of the Roman administration internally and externally.83 Churchmen were ideal legates, especially as ecclesiastical communities gradually colonised their civil counterparts. Leo the Great is an apposite example. His participation in an embassy to Attila in 452 is famous, but an earlier one is just as significant. As a Roman deacon Leo had undertaken an embassy to Gaul in 440 to settle a quarrel between Aetius and the praetorian prefect.84 His status as a deacon of the Church of Rome no doubt gave him great personal influence and his efforts were successful. This provides a valuable insight into the sorts of activities that might be expected of a Roman deacon. Palladius takes on a new significance when considered as a participant in this environment.
Significantly, the beginning of Palladius' Irish career corresponded with a period of relative stability in the western Empire. Roman power in the west had revived under the great general Aetius, who began to re-establish a military presence in northern Gaul. At the same time, Pope Celestine apparently found himself in a position to influence events in Gaul and Britain through restored lines of communication which indeed extended to Ireland. It is worth considering the nature of this communication. Maritime connections with Britain remained important, since Palladius almost certainly arrived in Ireland via Britain rather than directly from the Continent.85 This suggests continuity with the patterns discussed earlier. Moreover, it is probable that Irish barbarian elites continued to be amenable to diplomatic overtures, and Irish Christian communities may well have played a pivotal role in such overtures. This suggestion is strengthened by the fact that these communities likely continued to participate in social events and rituals with non-Christians, a pattern found elsewhere.86 Late antique Irish Christians were in a unique position, sharing beliefs with their Romano-British neighbors as well as their pagan Irish counterparts. As a new bishop in Ireland, Palladius would have had every expectation of functioning as an envoy for this community, representing it to the relevant secular powers. Moreover, if his actions are linked with those of Germanus in Britain, it is reasonable to infer that he had the potential to function as a legate, reaching some sort of agreement with Irish political elites and facilitating a return to more peaceful conditions on the frontiers. Patrick's Confessio, for instance, makes it clear that the human cost of Irish raiding was substantial and had a deep impact on Romano-British Christians.87
The outlook for Palladius' mission must have seemed good: with communications established from Rome through Britain to Ireland, the bishop would have had expectations of solid and ongoing institutional backing. Unfortunately, events deteriorated over the next two decades. These can be summed up in two points: the decline in Roman military power and the loss of direct contact between Rome and Ireland as a result. By 454 Aetius was dead, and he was joined the following year by the western Emperor Valentinian III. The latter's death precipitated a period of imperial instability and a sharp decline of meaningful influence in the north-west.88 Over the course of the decade uncertainty grew and the Irish mission may have been cut adrift, a casualty of the ongoing fragmentation of the Roman west. Palladius may have been caught on the wrong side of the borderlands.89 However, the early years of the mission suggest that events in Ireland were part of wider processes and accommodations along the frontiers.
CHRONOLOGIES, CONTINUITIES AND CHANGES
In this essay I have attempted to escape the straitjacket of the Patrician problem and to re-evaluate late antique Ireland. By looking behind and beyond the problem, it is possible to reframe Christianization as one frontier phenomenon among many. Moreover, the emergence of Christianity on the island cannot be satisfactorily analyzed unless it is located within broader conceptual and comparative contexts. In particular, the active role played by Irish elites is much clearer when placed within these parameters. Rather than being passive recipients of a Christian message, they were actively engaged with their neighbors, particularly the Romano-British. Between the first and fifth centuries, elements of material culture, and their associated roles in articulating social affiliations, created the matrix from which the more familiar contours of early medieval Ireland emerged. This occurred on the frontiers of Roman power. However, it did not mean that the Irish became heavily Romanized. In many respects, Irish material culture looks very different from that of Roman Britain. Even the ogam inscriptions, one of the clearest examples of Roman influence, were visually calibrated to a native sensibility. Yet, this was not inward looking. Romanization may have had its limitations, but it was crucial nonetheless. As historians we have forgotten the Irish frontier, but it was not an amnesia that afflicted the late antique Irish. Living on the borderlands, they exploited their potentials to the full, creating vibrant forms of cultural expression in the process.