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True colour image of Ireland, captured by a NASA satellite on 4 January 2003. Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales and a part of south west England are visible to the east.

Hibernia is the Classical Latin name for the island of Ireland. The name Hibernia was taken from Greek geographical accounts. During his exploration of northwest Europe (circa 320 BC), Pytheas of Massilia called the island Ierne (written Ἰέρνη). In his book Geographia (circa 150 AD), Claudius Ptolemaeus ("Ptolemy") called the island Iouernia (written Ἰουερνία). It is likely that the Romans saw a connection between these historical names and the Latin word hibernus meaning wintry.

Iouernia was a Greek alteration of the Q-Celtic name *Īweriū from which eventually arose the Irish names Ériu and Éire. The original meaning of the name is thought to be "abundant land".


Hibernia in the historical record

The island of Ireland was never incorporated into the Roman Empire. The fact that the Romans never occupied Ireland meant that Roman influence on Ireland was limited to contacts with Britain and other conquered provinces of the Empire.[1] Roman historian Tacitus makes reference to an expedition to Ireland by the general Agricola in A.D. 82. He is reported in one passage to "have crossed the water", the water in context is unknown and perhaps is reference to some exploratory mission, however the remainder of the passage deals exclusively with Ireland. According to Seneca, Agricola was of the opinion that Ireland could be conquered with one legion and a moderate amount of auxiliaries, in all roughly 6,000 men. Reference is also made about an Irish king who had fled the island in search of refuge. Agricola provided him with safety in the hope that it may be a reason to possibly invade the island. The Ulster historian Richard Warner has theorised that the Midlands leader Tuathal Techtmhar, usually thought mythical, was in fact historical and went to Britain to get Roman support for his military campaigns (along with other later exiles). If there is any truth in this hypothesis, the Romans may have had a greater influence on the southeast of Ireland than normally thought by scholars.[2] Overall, the relative lack of Roman influence on Ireland meant that it preserved its ancient culture to a much greater degree than continental countries such as Gaul.[3]

Irish tribal expeditions harried the Roman provinces of Britannia (Britain) and Gaul (France) as evidenced from surviving Roman texts.[citation needed]

In the early first century, Roman and Greek knowledge of Ireland was thin. The geographers Strabo and Pomponius Mela describe a cold land inhabited by savages who feast on the flesh of their dead fathers, where, despite the cold, the grazing was so tasty and lush that cattle exploded if allowed to eat unchecked.[citation needed]

By the second century, the geographer Ptolemy gave coordinates for a surprisingly detailed map of Ireland, naming tribes, towns, rivers and headlands. This information could have come from a variety of sources but does demonstrate the increasing knowledge and interest in Ireland.

Irish written history does not mention Rome at all. If Rome is referred to by some other name, no one has yet put a convincing case forward.

However, the lack of written history does not mean that Rome or the Roman province of Britannia did not significantly interact with Ireland. Archaeologists have found an enormous fort complex at Chester (Deva Victrix) in northwest England that may have been planned as a centre to rule the islands, or as a military base to deter Irish invasions.

Ireland and its neighbours

From early in the archaeological record, the peoples of North West Europe, including Britain, Gaul, Spain and Ireland had mutually warred, traded and settled.

Significant British settlement in the Southwest of Ireland occurred around year 1. Ptolemy, in 100s, records Irish tribal names identical to those of tribes in Gaul and Britain, suggesting significant settlement, particularly of the Brigantes and Belgae.

At this time Ireland, western and central Europe was home to several Celtic peoples, with their associated Celtic religion, supervised by the Druids. In Ireland and Britain, a number of historians have argued that its peoples shared a broadly similar Celtic heritage. The Isle of Anglesey, Welsh Ynys Môn, was the centre of the Druidic religion, just across the Irish Sea from Ireland. Other historians, however, have disputed that such a homogeneous group existed.[4]

Transport and communication was often along rivers and coasts, with the Irish Sea being a part of this network. When Julius Caesar briefly invaded southern England in 54 BC, he received the submission of many tribes, including that of the Orcadians in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. Communications could be long distance, but whether any Irish knew of the Romans at this time is uncertain.

Rome often projected its power beyond its boundaries. Beyond the West coast of Britannia was the Irish Sea, with many easy crossings, and many distinctive mountain landmarks to ease navigation. The spread of Roman power to Ireland's neighbours would have had significant effects on Ireland. By 51 BC French Gaul had been conquered by the Romans, with the permanent garrisoning of Britain starting after the second invasion in 43. England and Wales would remain within the Roman Empire for another 350 years.

Revolts by the newly subjugated British tribes may have increased settlement from Britain to Ireland and reduced settlement in the other direction. Events such as the destruction of the druidic shrine and sacred groves at Anglesey in 60 by the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus would have been noticed in Ireland.

Evidence of Roman influence

Four centuries of Roman presence in Roman Britain were related to ancient Hibernia with a continuous trade and commerce, even if in a very small scale. Geographer Ptolemy in the second century made a map of Hibernia full of data on rivers, mountains and people demonstrating a knowledge of the island that could have been originated even from the presence in Hibernia of Roman explorers/traders living in small trading places of the Ireland's south and eastern coast.[5].

Generally in Ireland, Roman material is rare and found in different contexts from the native La Tene material. No roads have been identified as being Roman, and no large Roman settlements have been found. However in the southeast of Ireland, where native material is rare, Roman-style cemeteries and large quantities of Roman artifacts have been found.

A group of burials on Lambay Island, off the coast of County Dublin, contained Roman brooches and decorative metalware of a style also found in northern England from the late first century. However this could represent, for example, Brigantes fleeing reprisal from the crushed revolt of 74.

Three places in Ireland have all produced early and late Roman archaeological material: the midland ritual complex of Tara, the northern hillfort of Clogher, and Cashel, in the south. Tara and Clogher have no native finds of similar age. Each of the three became capital of a new kingdom, and each kingdom's traditions place their origins in Britain. British settlers whose arrival would explain those traditions could have been either supported by, or fleeing from, Roman influence.

At Drumanagh, 25 km north of Dublin, a large (200,000 m²) site was identified in 1995 as possibly Roman. Consisting of a peninsula defended by three rows of parallel ditches on the landward side, the site appears to have been a port or bridgehead. [6]

The Roman historian Tacitus mentions that Agricola, while governor of Roman Britain (AD 78 - 84), entertained an exiled Irish prince (may be Tuathal), thinking to use him as a pretext for a possible conquest of Ireland.[7] Neither Agricola nor his successors ever conquered Ireland, but in recent years archaeology has challenged the belief that the Romans never set foot on the island.

Indeed, in 82 Agricola "crossed in the first ship" and defeated peoples unknown to the Romans until then. Tacitus, in Chapter 24 of Agricola,[8] does not tell us what body of water he crossed, although many scholars believe it was the Clyde or Forth; however, the rest of the chapter exclusively concerns Ireland. Agricola fortified the coast facing Ireland, and Tacitus recalls that his father-in-law often claimed the island could be conquered with a single legion and auxiliaries. This conquest never happened, but some historians believe that the crossing referred to was in fact a small-scale exploratory expedition to Ireland.[9]

Roman and Romano-British artefacts have been found primarily in Leinster, notably a fortified site on the promontory of Drumanagh, fifteen miles north of Dublin, and burials on the nearby island of Lambay, both close to where Túathal is supposed to have landed, and other sites associated with Túathal such as Tara and Clogher. However, whether this is evidence of trade, diplomacy or military activity is a matter of controversy. It is possible that the Romans may have given support to Túathal, or someone like him, to regain his throne in the interests of having a friendly neighbour who could restrain Irish raiding.[10] The 2nd century Roman poet Juvenal, who may have served in Britain under Agricola, wrote that "arms had been taken beyond the shores of Ireland",[11] and the coincidence of dates is striking.

Roman coins have been found at Newgrange. [12]

According to Phillip Rance some tribes of Hibernia, called Attacotti (Old Irish term: aithechthúatha), from southern Leinster were Foederati (allies) of the late Roman Empire, and fought together with the Roman legions in the second half of the fourth century[13]

Roman sources mention raids on Britain by two groups of people usually associated with Ireland, the Scotti and the Attacotti. The origins and meanings of Scotti and Attacotti is uncertain. Attacotti disappears with the Romans. Scotti means Gaels to Adomnán in the late seventh century, but not to Columbanus in the early sixth century, who uses the older term Iberi instead. The Scotti are perhaps a confederation of tribes in Ulster, and the Atacotti one in Leinster, but this is not certain.[14]


Tuathal was, in the Irish myths, a High King of Ireland. He was the son of a High King Fiacha Finnfolaidh. His father was overthrown and killed in a revolt by the King of Ulster. Tuathal's mother, who was the daughter of the King of Alba (Britain at the time, because Alba became the name for Scotland later on), fled to Britain with her son. 20 years later he returned to Ireland, defeated his father's enemies in a series of battles and subdued the entire country. He became High King at Tara, in the center of Ireland. There he convened a conference where he established laws. He annexed territory from each of the other four provinces to create the central province of Míde (Meath). Four fortresses were built, one for each of the four areas of land.

Some consider him to be the first real High King.[citation needed] The dating of Irish history/mythology in the first centuries AD is prone to error; however, the most popular belief is that Tuathal was exiled in AD 56 and reigned from around 80 to 100.[citation needed]

Tacitus, the Roman author, tells us that around this time Agricola had with him an Irish chieftain who later returned to conquer Ireland with an army. Juvenal later wrote that Roman arms were "taken beyond the shores of Ireland." Excavations at sites linked to the tale of Tuathal have produced Roman material of the late 1st or early 2nd centuries. It would be consistent for Tuathal to have been that Irish chieftain.

Post-Roman usage

The High King Brian Boru (c.941-1014) based his title on being emperor of the Irish people, which was in Latin: "Imperator Scottorum", as distinct from claiming to be Emperor of the island of Ireland. From 1172 the Lordship of Ireland gave the title "Dominus Hibernae", Lord of Ireland. The Kingdom of Ireland created the title Rex Hiberniae, King of Ireland, for use in Latin texts. In 1642 the motto of the Irish Confederates, a Catholic-landlord administration that ruled much of Ireland until 1650 was: Pro Deo, Rege et Patria, Hibernia Unanimis. (In English: For God, King and Fatherland, Ireland is United).

By the eighteenth century Hibernia was used on Irish coins and companies such the Hibernian Insurance Company were established (now the Hibernian Group). The name took on popularity with the success of the Irish Patriot Party. At a time when Palladian classical architecture and design were being adopted in northern Europe, Hibernia was a useful word to describe Ireland with overtones of classical style and civility, particularly by the prosperous landed gentry who were generally taught Latin at school. The Royal Exchange in Dublin was built in 1769-79 with the carved inscription "SPQH" for Senatus Populusque Hibernicus - The senate and people of Ireland.[15] The Royal Hibernian Academy dates from 1823.

Hibernia is a word that is rarely used today with regard to Ireland.[16] It is occasionally used for names of organisations and various other things; for instance: Hibernia National Bank, Hibernian Insurance Group, Ancient Order of Hibernians, The Hibernian magazine, Hibernia College, Hibernian Football Club, HMS Hibernia, the Hibernia oil field, and modern derivatives, from Latin like Respublica Hibernica (Irish Republic) and Universitas Hiberniae Nationalis (National University of Ireland).

The compound form Hiberno- remains more common, as in Hiberno-Norse, Hiberno-English, Hiberno-Scottish, Hibernophile etc.

See also


  1. ^ Hibernia
  2. ^ British Archaeology, no 14, May 1996: Features
  3. ^ "The Celts". 
  4. ^ R. English, Irish Freedom, p. 12-67.
  5. ^ Vittorio di Martino (2003), Roman Ireland, The Collins Press
  6. ^ Romans in Ireland
  7. ^ Tacitus Agricola 24
  8. ^ Agricola 24
  9. ^ Vittorio di Martino (2003), Roman Ireland, Chapter two
  10. ^ Vittorio di Martino, Roman Ireland, Introduction
  11. ^ Juvenal, Satires 2.159-160
  12. ^ Carson, R.A.G. and O'Kelly, Claire: A catalogue of the Roman coins from Newgrange, Co. Meath and notes on the coins and related finds, pages 35-55. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, volume 77, section C
  13. ^ *Philip Rance, ‘Attacotti, Déisi and Magnus Maximus: the Case for Irish Federates in Late Roman Britain’, Britannia 32 (2001) 243-270
  14. ^ Charles-Edwards, pp. 158–160. Origins in the Hebrides have also been suggested for the Attacotti. The Late Roman army as recorded by the Notitia Dignitatum included auxilia palatina named for the Attacotti, the normal interpretation of such names being that they were recruited from prisoners of war.
  15. ^ McPartland E. The Royal Exchange Competition JRSAI vol.102, p.63. See the original SPQR
  16. ^ Although it is found in the first line of the Aeolus section (part 2, episode 7) of James Joyce's novel Ulysses: IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS (a fictional newspaper headline referring to Dublin).

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




Latin Hibernia, influenced by L. hibernus, wintery

Proper noun




  1. (poetic) The island of Ireland.

Derived terms


Proper noun

Hibernia (genitive Hiberniae); f, first declension

  1. Ireland (the island)


nominative Hibernia
genitive Hiberniae
dative Hiberniae
accusative Hiberniam
ablative Hiberniā
vocative Hibernia
locative Hiberniae

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