Ancient British Ireland and the First Battle of the Somme

The Manapians or Menapii were a tribe of Belgae (Fir Bolg in Gaelic) originating in northern Gaul in pre-Roman and Roman times. According to descriptions in such authors as Strabo, Caesar, Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy  their territory had stretched northwards to the mouth of the Rhine in the north, but more lastingly it stretched along the west of the Schelde. In later geographical terms this territory corresponds roughly to the modern coast of Flanders, the Belgian provinces of Oost and West Flanderen. It also extended into neighbouring France and the river deltas of the southern Netherlands. They may well have been a Germanic-speaking people with Celtic-speaking over-lords and eventually many were to become Franks or “French” or Flemish (Dutch). It was the Manapians along with the Morini and other Northern tribes who maintained an independent Gaulish area following Caesar’s campaign of 57 BC, when he massacred 50,000 Belgic warriors at the earliest recorded Battle on the Somme.The Old Roman Road on which the Caesars travelled was to become the Western Front at Thiepval. I always explained this when commentating on our Somme Commemoration Pilgrimages over the years.

In the 19th century the great Belgic leader Ambiorix became a Belgian national hero because of his resistance  against Julius Caesar, as written in Caesar’s Commentaries of the Gallic War (Commentarii de Bello Gallico). In 54 BC  Ambiorix brought together an alliance of Belgic tribes, the Eburones, Menapii, Nervii and Atuatuci allied to local German tribes. He launched an attack on 9000 Roman troops under Sabinus and Cotta, Caesars favourite generals, at Tongres and wiped them out. Caesar retaliated quickly, determined to exterminate the Belgic confederacy which was ruthlessly ravaged in all-out genocide. Ambiorix, however, was never captured and disappeared from the pages of Continental History, but the Eburones re-emerged in Britain as the Brigantes (Ui Bairrche) and thus they and the Manapians (Managh) came to Ireland, the latter occupying a fortress at Drumanagh in Leinster, which, although it is the largest in Ireland, has remarkably never been fully excavated. Are they afraid of what they might find?

In 52 BC the brilliant Belgic leader Commius of the Atrebates turned against his former ally Caesar. He led a large force to join the armies of his kinsman Vercingetorix against him in a great insurrection which was to change the course of European history. Following Vercingetorix’s defeat, Commius became over-leader of the Belgic Atrebates, Morini, Carnutes, Bituriges, Bellovaci and Eburones and many Belgae followed him to his British Kingdom in the last Celtic-speaking folk movement to Britain, rather than endure the savagery of Roman civilisation. In the twenty years following Julius Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March, 44 BC, Commius’ British Kingdom grew in size and wealth. In the nine years from 34 BC there were three occasions under Caesar’s successor Octavian (Augustus Caesar), 34, 27, and 26 BC, when a full scale invasion of Britain was contemplated. Commius then appears to have set up a Belgic enclave around the mouth of the Shannon in Western Ireland which became known as and was recorded by Ptolemy as Gangani, the descendants of Gann, the form of his full Celtic name. Ptolemy also designates the Lleyn peninsula in northwest Wales as the “headland of the Gangani”.

Meanwhile his sons took over from one another in surprisingly swift succession as kings of South East Britain. Each re-emerged as Kings of the expanding British Belgic settlements in Western Ireland; these were Tincommius (Gaelic Sen Gann), Epillus (Eochill) and Verica (Ferach). However a war between the tribes of Britain brought Verica (Bericus) to the Court of the Emperor Claudius to ask for support. And so in the year 43 AD a Roman army under the able command of Aulus Plautius landed in Britain. Among the distinguished soldiers of this army were Vespasian and his son Titus, both of whom were destined to become Emperors of Rome. It was therefore among the Britons that those soldiers were trained who destroyed that Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.

By this time the Brigantes controlled the largest section which is now northern England and a significant part of the midlands, centring on what is now known as Yorkshire. The modern town of York was originally known by the name of Eboracum, founded by the Romans in 71 AD and deriving from the Eburones, whose High Goddess of Sovereignty was Brigantia. Ptolemy also places the Brigantes in South Wexford and the attributes of Brigantia have been taken over by “St Brigit”. They survived into the period of documentary history as the Ui Bairrche giving their name to the Barony of Bargy. It could be that the Brigantes invaded Ireland under pressure from later Belgic and Gaulish tribes and that prior to this they had lived in parts of Britain which were more proximal to Wexford. But they could also have migrated under pressure from the Romans in the 70’s AD, perhaps landing at Lambay Island.

The legendary Ninth Legion, Legio IX Hispana, the Spanish Legion, was one of the oldest and most feared units in the Roman Army. Put together in Spain by Pompey in 65 BC, it came under the command of Julius Caesar who was Governor of Further Spain in 61 BC, and served in Gaul throughout the Gallic Wars from 58 – 51 BC, the Legion was decisive in ensuring Caesar’s control of the Republic. After Caesar’s assassination it remained loyal to his successor Octavian. It fought with distinction against the Cantabrians in Spain from 25 – 13 BC but suffered terribly in the British revolt led by Boadicea ( Boudicca) in 60 AD, losing as many as 50 – 80 per cent of its men . However, several high ranking Officers who could only have served after 117 AD are well known to us, so we can safely assume that the core of the Legion was still extant in the reign of Hadrian, 117 – 138 AD.

The first great leader of the Fenians (later “Gaels”, which means “Wild Men” or “Raiders” in the native British tongue) in Ireland, Tuathal (Teuto–valos) Techtmar, was probably a Roman soldier, commanding Q-Celtic speaking auxiliaries from Spain. The earliest known source for the story of Tuathal Techtmar’s conquest of Ireland from the Aithech thuatha (Vassal Tribes) is a poem by Mael Mura of Othain AD 885. Mael Mura intimates that about 750 years had elapsed since Tuathal Techtmar had marched on the ancient British or Cruthin ritual centre of Tara to create his kingdom of Meath, which would date the invasion to the early 2nd Century AD. This is probably approximately correct. The standard pseudo-historical convention is employed, however, to make him an exiled Irishman returning with a foreign army.

The account in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, which does contain a shadow of history, is probably older and in this we see that Tuathal was born outside Ireland and had not seen the country before he invaded it. We can synchronise his invasion to early in the reign of Hadrian (122 – 138) and his death fighting the Cruthin near Antrim in the reign of Antoninus Pius (138 – 161).This fits with Juvenal (c 60 to 127 AD) who wrote “We have taken our arms beyond the shores of Ireland…” Tuathal may indeed represent the fictitious Mil Espáne (the Soldier from Spain), or even the Ninth Legion, the Legio IX Hispana, but that we will probably never know.

What we do know, however, is that the Manapians were driven north under pressure from the Southern Gaels to merge with the older British Cruthin in Ulster. We meet them again in their last strongholds of Taughmonagh (Tuath Monaigh or the Manapian Nation) in South Belfast, Fermanagh (Fear Manach or Men of the Manapians), Monaghan (Muinachan) and the Mournes (Monaig). The Brigantes we meet again in Knockbreda, the Hill of the Brigantes and, of course, Newtownbreda. Remnants of other British clans settled close to one another in southern Ireland, such as the Velaborians and Coriondians have been lost to history.

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