Report: Maynooth University Early Irish and Celtic Studies Research Seminar – Dr Elva Johnston (UCD): ‘A forgotten frontier? Situating Ireland in Late Antiquity.’

Report by Mark Louth (MA student in Maynooth University Department of Early Irish)

Since I finished my undergraduate degree the period of Late Antiquity has fascinated me. After I had graduated I took some time away from education but still could not help but feel the compulsion to read, write and think about the questions I had been missing out on by opting out of a Masters Degree. One of those questions that had stayed with me since I started to take an interest in the history and culture of medieval Europe was what exactly happened after Rome? I had read Gibbons. I had understood the chronology of the fall of the West, but I never really questioned it. With that a good friend recommended that I read Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, and to my amazement, I found many of my questions answered. Through this canonical text one learns that the post-Roman west did not cease, but simply changed and evolved, while the remnants of Classical administration survived in the east, facing the growth of Islam. For the first time, unbelievably, I started to think about continuity and change. Suddenly there was a buffer between the height of Roman civilisation and the Early Middle Ages, this being the period of Late Antiquity-needless to say this made the dark ages appear somewhat brighter.

Cue Ireland: The work of Brown and Wickham certainly supplied answers to many perplexities, yet Ireland still appeared to me as a lacuna within Late Antique studies. Last week Dr. Elva Johnston from UCD presented a paper that would act as a step towards filling that lacuna. As Dr. Johnston casually approached the subject of Ireland as an abstract, ideological and cultural frontier on the very western fringes of the late Roman world, one could not help but take note of the quote projected on the board to her right. Like some kind of a-priori yet unseen mantra we are faced with the often misread quote by Chris Wickham; ‘Ireland often perplexes’. It is as true now as it was when Wickham first published this statement twelve years ago. Taking this as her launch Johnston tackles the problems of framing Ireland in the context of Late Antiquity, her paper excellently taking up the points of lack of Roman military presence in Ireland, sources for Roman/Irish relationships in the fifth and sixth centuries while tying this around the Continental Roman and Romano-British material culture that is found in the Irish archaeological record.

Elva seminar

Dr Elva Johnston (UCD) with seminar convenor Dr Deborah Hayden (Maynooth)

The highlights of this paper were various, too many to name in this short post. Nevertheless, the most striking aspect of Johnston’s argument is the concepts of Irish identity, ideology and emotional and intellectual connections that are drawn to the wider world. Not at one point throughout the talk does Dr. Johnston fall into the cliché pitfall of painting Ireland as totally isolated from European affairs, a beacon on the periphery of a collapsing civilisation. Instead, the debate focuses on the social, religious and ideological consequences that Roman artefacts found in Irish soil represent. Copious are these, drawing up connotations of prestige, long distance communication, intellectual trade and most importantly, participation with the wider world. The old problem of looking at frontier zones as Roman military flashpoints is here done away with and instead Johnston presents Ireland; an intellectual and ideological frontier that never went through the traditional process of military trauma. From this we learn that Irish and Roman self perceptions of identity went a long way on both sides of the Irish sea; Johnston using Palladius’ mission as an example of ‘frontier management’ mirrored by the power of Irish elites mimicking Roman traditions through commercial transaction.

For young (and often confused) scholars such as myself it is enlightening to see someone tackle an old debate in the field of Early Medieval Irish history with such a fresh, interdisciplinary method. Many of my questions on Ireland in Late Antiquity are still apparent; however, through Dr. Johnston’s engaging presentation I will be careful when using the word ‘frontier’ in the strict context of pagan/Christian, Roman/non-Roman paradigms. As Dr. Johnston exhibits, labelling such as this is not entirely straightforward. With contact and trade comes communication, with communication comes cultural assimilation, coalescing in the shaping of perceptions and identities on both sides of the ‘frontier’.

‘Ireland often perplexes’-indeed it does, but I believe future research by aspiring scholars with an eye for Irish engagement with Late Antique Europe may someday clear up these perplexities. The groundwork for such research is now being set by Dr. Johnston.

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