The Romans never conquered Ireland, though some free-lance legions seem to have settled in Ireland, notably at Clogher in Co. Tyrone, but as the Empire declined, Roman Britain was often the target for piratical raids from Ireland. The Ballinrees Hoard, buried underground and found by a labourer in 1854, may well have been booty from such a raid. It comprised over 1500 Roman silver coins and 200 ounces of silver plate and ingots, and is now divided between the British Museum and the Ulster Museum.
A similar raid brought Saint Patrick into the country sometime in the fifth century, and he was the greatest figure in the conversion of Ireland to Christianity. Brought to Ireland as a slave, he returned voluntarily to spread the gospel. There is a strong tradition that St. Patrick tended to sheep on Slemish Mountain where it is thought he was kept as a slave, and when he returned he certainly travelled widely in the province, baptising many people at a holy well in Templepatrick.
At Dunseverick, he was reputed to have baptised Olchan, a local man who became Bishop of Armoy. An inscribed standing stone cross is thought to mark the site of a church founded by St. Patrick’s at Duncrun, near Bellareena. Inscribed on the ancient stone, known as “Old Patrick” and enclosed in a circle, are the letters “chi” and “rho”, the first two letters of the name “Christ” in Greek. This shows the Celtic Church knew Greek and links it with European thought. What makes the stone unique in Western Europe is the fact that the same symbols appear on the other side, but with “rho” reversed.
The next great figure in Irish Christianity was St. Columba, or Colm Cille, who was born in Donegal. He founded the monastery of Iona, and, about 590 AD, organised the Convention of Drum Ceatt, held at the Mullagh, close to Limavady. This was to settle disputes between the Dal Riata and the Ui Neill and, according to one account, to prevent the poets being expelled from Ireland.
The introduction of Christianity did not bring an end to internal conflict. In the fifth century, the earliest period of recorded history, as opposed to myth and legend, Ulster was dominated by the Ulaidh, who controlled the whole North of Ireland. However they lost ground continually to the Uí Néill, a Connacht dynasty founded by Niall of the Nine Hostages. The great epic poem, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, written several centuries later, seems to reflect this inter-provincial struggle, but changes the ending so that, thanks to Cuchullain, Ulster emerges victorious.
In reality, the Ulaid were pushed into Counties Antrim and Down, and the Uí Néill became the dominant power in the northern half of Ireland. The Ulaid in Antrim, were divided into two groups, the Dál nAraide, or Cruthin, and the Dál Riata. This latter group began the Gaelic invasion of Scotland. This happened about 502 AD led by Fergus and his brothers Lorne and Angus. They gave Scotland its name (from scotti or raiders); its religion (through their Kingsman St. Columba) and its Kings From them were descended the Scottish Kings and Queen Elizabeth II is of the same lines, who, for over a century ruled a kingdom which straddled both countries. The final downfall of the Ulaidh came in the Battle of Moira in 637, which brought an end to King Congall Caech the One-Eyed., and his doomed attempt to become king of all Ireland.
Christianity suffered from the ravages of the Vikings, who, from about 800, staged many violent and destructive raids on Irish monasteries, but they also had a constructive side, opening trading posts that became the first Irish cities. They were responsible for the founding of Larne, known originally as Ulfrek’s Fjord. They made less of a mark on Ulster than on the other provinces, because Ulster armies were more successful against them. The Viking invasions necessitated the building of round towers as safe refuges for monks. The ruins of a round tower can be seen at Armoy, a topless stump beside the Church of Ireland parish church. Little more than the base survives of the Tamlaght round tower, beside the ruins of a sixth-century monastery, near the village of Ballykelly.