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An Ulster-American Odyssey

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Odysseus' journey

Classicists, ancient historians, and the general reader are familiar with the story of a family man, separated from his wife and baby son, and reunited joyfully after 20 years. The myth of the abduction of Helen by Paris, the 10-year Trojan War which followed, and the further 10-year-long homecoming of Odysseus to Ithaka, is contained within, among other works, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.


The Greek epic cycle of myths tell us that the Greeks sailed to Troy in order to save Helen, wife of Menelaus, and restore her to her rightful home in Sparta with her husband and daughter. War ensued and Troy was eventually overcome when the Greeks concealed themselves within a wooden horse. For Odysseus, a decade of war was followed by another decade of wandering. He was detained by Calypso for seven years, and endured many dangerous adventures such as capture by the giant Polyphemus the Cyclops and a journey to the Underworld.

Penelope weaving

Despite losing his fleet of ships and all his men in a series of incredible and fantastic adventures, Odysseus’ story has a happy ending. He is reunited with his wife Penelope, who has been avoiding marriage to one of the many suitors who have moved into the palace. So sure is Penelope that her husband will eventually return to her, that she does everything in her power to repel the suitors who are intent on destroying Odysseus’ palace and using up his belongings. She insists that she will marry one of the suitors once she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, but every night, after weaving all day, she unpicks her work to delay the shroud’s completion. At the time of Odysseus’ homecoming, his son Telemachus, a baby when Odysseus left for Troy, is now grown to manhood. Father and son join together to brutally slaughter the suitors (no Greek myth is complete without the bloodbath), and the family live happily ever after.

The ancient Greek myths are magical, exciting and often pitiless in their violence. While it is unlikely that a 10-year war was fought for a beautiful woman or that Odysseus endured this dangerous and terrifying journey home to Ithaka, the waters around Troy were indeed important trade routes, as they were situated near the mouth of the Hellespont which leads to the Sea of Marmaris, and, by extension, the Black Sea.

hittite cunieform

It was only during certain months of the year that marine conditions were calm enough to allow safe passage through the Hellespont and it is likely that Trojan officials imposed tolls on ships for the privilege of waiting nearby for the weather to ease. Not all visiting ships would have been content with this arrangement and fighting surely broke out. Hittite inscriptions indicate that commercial agreements were forged with peoples called “Ahhiyawa” (the Achaean Greeks?) and a city called “Wilusa” (Ilion?) was mentioned. Unfortunately, the truth remains a mystery.

Moving forward 3000 years, we come to the story of Hugh Rogan, one of many thousands of Irish men and women who journeyed to the so-called New World, attempting to escape the poverty and hardship of Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. The harsh, 3000 mile journey across the Atlantic to Philadelphia could take as long as 12 weeks.

rogan odyssey map

Hugh Rogan’s odyssey to the New World took place approximately 35 years after the lesser-known 1740/41 famine which killed 38% of the population, a proportionately greater loss than the numbers who died during the Great Famine which occurred in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Hugh’s story is kept alive by the Ulster-American Folk Park, a living museum in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, which tells the story of Irish emigration. The Folk Park houses original properties from both Northern Ireland and America which have been painstakingly photographed, catalogued, bricks numbered, and transported to the site of the museum to be rebuilt.

On the tour around the museum, visitors are introduced to homes and lifestyles typical of Ulster people during the 1700s. Visitors are guided towards the ship to ‘sail’ across the Atlantic. On disembarkation, they find that they have arrived in the New World where exhibits include wagons, smokehouses and log cabins.

Rogan house UAFP

The Museum’s final exhibit is the Tennessee Rogan Plantation House, built by Hugh’s son Bernard. Hugh was born in 1747 near Strabane in County Tyrone. At the age of 26, he married Nancy, 10 years his junior. When their son Bernard was less than a year old, Hugh left his family to travel to America. There are conflicting reports of his reasons for leaving. One story states that Hugh had become active in fighting the oppression of British landlords, and was forced to leave Ireland with his brother-in-law Declan Carlin. An alternative reason given for his departure was that he intended to establish a business in America and would return, in time, for his wife and son. He arrived successfully in America, but before he could return to Ireland to collect his family, the War of Independence broke out and he found himself once again fighting against the British Crown.

Hugh remained in America and settled in Tennessee, and there are reports of him participating in many brave exploits both in the War of Independence and in protecting the local community from the Native American Indians. A decade after his arrival, the war against the British was over. Hugh believed it was now an opportune time to travel back to Ireland to his wife and son. His brother-in-law, Declan, who had also left his wife in Ireland, had married a local girl and had no intention of ever returning home. Declan was worried that if Hugh made it back to Ireland, he would tell his wife what he had done. So Declan persuaded Hugh that Nancy believed her husband to be dead and that she had remarried in Ireland.

Hugh remained in Tennessee for another 10 years when he was tracked down by a nephew who had recently emigrated from Ireland to America. The nephew brought a letter from Nancy begging Hugh to come home. Overjoyed that his wife had not remarried after all, Hugh returned to Ireland to be reunited with his family.


When Odysseus returned to Ithaka, he had been disguised by the goddess Athena as an old man so he could successfully defeat the suitors who were simultaneously competing for Penelope’s hand in marriage, eating all the food in the palace, and partying with the maids. Hugh did not need any such disguise. When Nancy was told that an old man with grey hair had arrived in town claiming to be Hugh, she replied, “That can’t be my Hugh, he has red hair!” Nancy had remained faithful to Hugh for 20 years and still remembered him as a young man.

We can only guess at the stories which Hugh told Nancy to provide proof of his identity. Penelope tested Odysseus by asking the nurse to move the bed outside the bedroom and spread it with blankets. This was impossible because Odysseus himself had carved the bed into an olive tree. When he protests, Penelope knows without doubt that this is her husband. Although there is contention over the point at which Homer’s Odyssey ended, by book 23 line 296 the reunion of husband and wife is concluded by their going to the olive wood bed together.

Nancy and Hugh’s love story continued with their arrival in Tennessee in 1797 after a journey over sea and land which lasted more than nine months. A short time later, Nancy gave birth to a second son named Francis. Hugh died in 1813 at the age of 66 while Nancy survived him by another 26 years, living to the age of 82. The descendants of Hugh and Nancy can be found in Sumner County, Tennessee, while Rogans continue to live in the same area of County Tyrone.

Helen McVeigh

GoTAH V – The Titan and the Colossus

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So far we have seen ancient influences on the use of molten metal, battlefield tactics, the burning of a daughter in search of divine favour and the role of a woman, her actions and fate in sparking a decades-long struggle across two continents. In this the fifth entry in GoTAH, we will look at an ancient structure and its counterpart in G.R.R. Martin’s world of Ice and Fire, both on screen and in the book series.

There is a more prominent anciently-inspired structure – the 800-foot tall Wall and that of the emperor Hadrian in the north of England (and we will almost certainly return to that connection in a later instalment), but instead we will cross the Narrow Sea from Westeros to the northernmost of Essos’ Nine Free Cities, Braavos.


There are numerous interesting aspects to this city such as it having been founded by runaway slaves from Valyria, keeping its existence secret for 111 years, home to the most dangerous sect of assassins, the Faceless Men, and equally dangerous Iron Bank many of which have inspirations from ancient, medieval and modern history.


However, as the video and map above suggests, the most recognisable structure in Braavos looms over the entrance to the lagoon – the Titan of Braavos.

The magnificent structure was so revered in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire that it appeared in the pages of Lomas Longstrider’s Wonders Made By Man, a status which also echoes the position of its inspiration as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ – the Colossus of Rhodes.


(Although it could not have been one of the ‘original’ wonders if the fifth century BC historian Herodotus compiled the earliest known version of what would become the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’, given that the Colossus was not built until the third century BC. A similar problem is faced by the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, while the Statue of Zeus at Olympia was completed during Herodotus’ lifetime.).

A statue of the god of sun, Helios, (something reflected in the name ‘Titan’, which was the second generation of divine beings in Greek mythology, overthrown by the Olympian deities under the leadership of Zeus) the Colossus is usually depicted as having stood astride the entrance to the harbour, although this appears to be a medieval misconception, perhaps deriving from a misinterpretation of the dedication of the statue, which mentions “Not only over the seas but also on land” and “over sea and land” (Anthologia Graeca 4, 171 H). It has been suggested that the Rhodians, or anyone else for that matter, would not have been able to build a bronze statue with its legs apart as it would have collapsed under its own weight of bronze and stone ballast.

Another reason given for the Colossus not straddling the entrance of the Rhodian harbour, even if his legs could have held his weight, was due to sheer impracticality. To position it there would have required the closing of the harbour entrance throughout its erecting. Furthermore, given that the Colossus is recorded as having fallen over during the 226BC earthquake only 54 years after its dedication, had it been at the entrance of the harbour, it would have blocked it and the Rhodians lacked the ability to remove such an impediment for it to then lie visible on land for the next 800 years (Strabo XIV.2.5; Theophanes, Chron. AM6145 on it taking 900 camels to remove the ruins when it was sold to a Jewish Edessene merchant following the Arab conquest of Rhodes by Muawiyah I in the early 650s).


It is the misconception of the Colossus which has proven the inspiration for the Titan, although it could be argued that in devising the base of the Titan, G.R.R. Martin found a natural solution to the problem of a spread-legged statue being unable to support its own weight. Rather than a completely man-made structure, the lower half of the Titan was carved out of the black granite of a naturally occurring archway. The feet and legs of the Titan were shaped out of the pillars of the archway, while the top of the arch comprises his waist and lower torso. Above the waist, the Titan is bronze and to stabilise ‘him’, his empty left hand rests on top of the outcrop beside the archway.


It could be then that the inspiration for the Titan was not just the factual Colossus of Rhodes but perhaps also the fictional Argonath (Pillars of Kings) of Lord of the Rings, two enormous statues of Isildur and Anarion carved into the rock either side of the Anduin river on the northern border of Gondor (which also wield weaponry and show defiance for their enemies). This would be unsurprising given the overall inspiration of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle Earth on G.R.R.Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.


Another misinterpretation possibly from the Colossal dedication – “did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence” (Anthologia Graeca 4, 171 H) – carried over into the popular view of the Colossus and subsequently to the Titan of Braavos – that Helios held aloft a torch like the Statue of Liberty in New York or at least held out his hand in some kind of gesture. This was almost certainly beyond the technological abilities of the ancients. A relief in a nearby temple shows Helios standing with one hand shielding his eyes and it is possible that the Colossus was constructed in the same pose. Taking its cue from this misconception, the Titan, rather than holding a torch, wields the hilt of a broken sword (whether broken by time or a symbolic gesture of defiance.

Unsurprisingly, in a world of fantasy, G.R.R. Martin had the Braavosi make something much more out of the Titan than the Rhodians were able to make out of the Colossus. At 400 feet, the Titan is about four times bigger than the original Rhodian Colossus (although as we will see below, there are plans for a near 500 foot version of the Colossus…). This difference in size is reflected in build time – the shaping of the Titan from the granite archway took three generations, while “it is said that it was twelve years before this statue [the Colossus] was completed.” (Pliny, NH XXXIV.18, 41) But even at this comparatively small stature, Pliny the Elder described the Colossus in suitably colossal proportions…

“Few men can clasp the thumb in their arms, and its fingers are larger than most statues. Where the limbs are broken asunder, vast caverns are seen yawning in the interior. Within it, too, are to be seen large masses of rock, by the weight of which the artist steadied it while erecting it.” Pliny, NH XXXIV.18, 41

Unsurprisingly, given their sizes, both the Colossus and the Titan became symbolic of their cities. The image of the Titan appears on Braavosi coinage, much like the god Helios, subject of the Colossus, appears on Rhodian coins. This depiction perhaps provides the only clear evidence we have about what part of the Colossus might have looked like as the depiction of Helios will have been something of a standard. If this was the case, then surviving coins suggest that the head of the Colossus will have had curly hair and worn a crown of sunbeams. Within the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, due to the recent Braavosi origins of the family, the sigil of House Baelish, formerly headed by Littlefinger, contains the fiery-eyed head of the Titan, displaying his bronze half-helm, and green-dyed rope hair.


The origin stories of both statues stem from acts of defiance in the face of a much larger foe. The Colossus was built to celebrate the resistance of Rhodes to the siege by Demetrius ‘Poliorcetes’ (‘the Besieger’), son and eventually successor of Antigonus I Monophthalmus in 304BC, and paid for by selling off the equipment left behind by the besiegers (300 talents worth as well as leftover metal from Demetrius’ force). The Titan was a symbol of the slaves who had escaped the Valyrian Freehold to found Braavos on the islands and lagoon of the north-westernmost point of Essos sometime between 700 and 1700 years before the events of A Game of Thrones.


While such towering structures will have had a psychological effect, it was only the Titan which had actual military applications. Any friend or foe looking to enter the Braavosi lagoon by sea had to pass under the Titan, who hides a few surprises under his green bronze skirt and in his chest… namely a collection of murder-holes and arrow slits from which various heavy or volatile missiles can be dropped onto or fired at anyone foolhardy enough to try to force entry into Braavos. The Titan’s body also contains numerous halls and chambers, making it not only a potential battle tower but also a garrison and storehouse. It is unsurprising then that bristling with so many projectiles, by the time of A Game of Thrones, it has been perhaps four centuries since anyone tried to defy the Titan’s wrath and force their way into the Braavosi lagoon.

Titan of Bravos

The Titan is not just a defensive fortress. Its sheer height made it a useful lookout tower, letting out a loud ‘roar’ to warn the Arsenal of Braavos of approaching ships. This ‘roar’ is also used to herald the rising and setting of the sun and the hours of the day, effectively making it a clock. The eyes of the Titan are made from burning fires, allowing it to act as a beacon and effectively a lighthouse, lighting the way back inside the lagoon for returning ships or steering enemy ships on the rocks.

Perhaps inspired by the Titan of Braavos coming to prominence through the popularity of A Game of Thrones, in December 2015, a group of architects announced plans to build a new Colossus of Rhodes. Taking up the popular misconception that the original bestrode the harbour entrance, this new Colossus, at 500 feet tall, would be taller than the Braavosi Titan.

Also like the Titan, the new Colossus is to be multi-purpose, housing a cultural centre, a library, an exhibition hall, and a lighthouse, all to be powered by solar panels. And the modern equivalent of 300 talents and metal scrounged from Demetrius’ weapons? An estimated $283 million, to be raised through private donations and crowdsourcing.

Unsurprisingly, given the scale of the project, the Wondrous stature of its predecessor and the state of the Greek economy, the rebirth of Helios has yet to get off the ground.


Alston, R.H.J. ‘Rhodian coinage and the Colossus,’ Revue Numismatique 6 (1988), 75-90

Conrad, L.I. ‘The Arabs and the Colossus,’ JRAS 6 (1996), 165–187

Haynes, D.E.L. ‘Philo of Byzantium and the Colossus of Rhodes,’ JHS 77 (1957), 311-312

Martin, G.R.R., Garcia, E, and Antonsson, L. World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones. London (2014)

Maryon, H.  ‘The Colossus of Rhodes,’ JHS 76 (1956), 68-86

The Classical Association in Northern Ireland

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Centre for Public History

In our latest blog, Dr John Curran outlines the activities of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland:

In 2015, a new partnership between the ancient historians at Queen’s and the broader public led to the formation of The Classical Association in Northern Ireland/Cumann na gClasaicí i dTuaisceart Éireann. The Association seeks to bring a number of different constituencies together to explore and celebrate the history and heritage of Classical antiquity.


Already, distinguished scholars from Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland have delighted audiences with lectures on a wide range of subjects from ancient Greek music to Rome’s trade with India. Poetry evenings have celebrated the unique interpretation of ancient Classical culture by Northern Ireland’s most distinguished poets Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney and provided a platform for the next generation of writers in Belfast and beyond. Film nights have featured Queen’s historians examining the…

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“The Earliest Latin Lives of St Patrick: Hagiography and History” Dr Elizabeth Dawson Review

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The Classical Association in Northern Ireland’s 2017-2018 public programme was successfully launched, as an impressive crowd braved the miserable autumn weather to attend Dr Elizabeth Dawson’s lecture on “The Earliest Latin Lives of St Patrick: Hagiography and History”.

Having completed a PhD in early medieval history at UCD, Dr Dawson is currently a lecturer of history at Queen’s University Belfast, focusing on the cults and lives of early Christian saints, and the development of the Patrician cult from the fifth to twelfth century.

Dr Dawson began her talk by discussing the fifth century writings of St Patrick; the ‘real’ Patrick. The Confessio and Epistola ad Coroticum are the only surviving Latin works that can be attributed to Patricks own authorship. All information regarding the ‘real’ Patrick is gathered from these two highly significant sources. The Epistola is a letter of denunciation against a chieftain named Coroticus. Dr Dawson explained that with this source the historian gains an insight into Irish conversation in the 4th/5th century.


However, Patrick’s Confessio is more informative. Written as a defence against his ecclesiastical superiors in the British church, the Confessio provides crucial biographical information.  Patrick (born c.410) was of Romano-British origin and was brought to Ireland as a slave at a young age, escaping after six years. Patrick then became a priest and when encouraged by a vision he returned to Ireland as a missionary. There is currently a scholarly dispute on how well-educated Patrick was. Dr Dawson stated that she agrees with David Howlett who claims that Patrick must have been relatively well-educated to have written the Confessio and the Epistola ad Coroticum.

A major part of Dr Dawson’s talk was dedicated to two 7th century hagiographers, Tírechán and Muirchú. These two earliest Latin lives are not only essential to the establishing of the narrative of St Patrick but also to gain an understanding of Irish politics and society in the 7th century. However, both are accused of being Armagh propagandists (especially Muirchú) who were trying to use the authority of St Patrick as a way for Armagh to establish ecclesiastical dominance in Ireland.


There is very little biographical information on Tírechán as he does not feature in any annals or genealogies. All information we have on the hagiographer comes from the Book of Armagh which was written two centuries later. Dr Dawson labels Tírechán the ‘underdog’ of the two writers since he is often criticized by academics for his ‘crude writing’ and ‘low Latinity’. But there is merit to be found in Tírechán’s Collectanea, as he names numerous locations, cult sites, dynasties and early church characters.

Dr Dawson then proceeded to discuss the Vita that was constructed by Muirchú, whose hagiography has seen more academic treatment than that of Tírechán. Muirchú appears to have been of greater social importance than his fellow hagiographer, as he is a signatory on the Lex Innocentium; a treaty created to help protect innocents during times of war.  Furthermore, Muirchú claims to be the foster son of Cogitosus, the author of St Bridget’s Vita, which would suggest that he comes from a hagiographical tradition. Dr Dawson explained that miracles feature heavily in Muirchú’s Life of St Patrick, especially where Patrick was trying to convert local kings. In many of the conversion stories the Irish kings were faced with two choices; conversion or divine retribution culminating in the king’s death. Dr Dawson claimed that the purpose of these stories was to show that Christianity was superior to secular power. Muirchú was using the conversion stories as an analogy; ecclesiastical Armagh was St Patrick and the secular powers were the pagan kings.


Dr Dawson concluded her lecture by showing that although the two Latin lives were narratively different, when woven together they provide an interesting picture not only of St Patrick but also of politics, society and the Patrician cult in 7th century Ireland.  The Classical Association in Northern Ireland are extremely grateful to have had an expert on Patrician hagiography on our 2017-2018 event programme.

Barry Trainor

Check out our Gallery of photos from this event.