Ogham (pronounced oh-am) is an ancient form of Irish writing comprised of patterns of parallel strokes to the side or across a continuous line.
Well, that's the technical explanation of this old Celtic form of communication, but for me the very word brings to mind images of ancient stones pointing skyward in mystical spots throughout the Irish landscape.
So today, let's explore some of these magnificent structures from centuries past and learn a little about the stories and messages carved on their edges and faces.
Table of Contents
What is Ogham?
Ogham was the ancient Celtic alphabet. It can be found inscribed on stone monuments all over Ireland.
These Ogham stones date back to the era between the 4th and th centuries AD.
It can also be found in manuscripts that date back to between the 6th and 9th centuries.
Ogham is the method our Celtic forebears used to write the old Irish language. It was a primitive form of writing. The Gaelic language or Irish was first recorded using Ogham.
Old Welsh, the Pictish languages and Latin were also inscribed using the Ogham alphabet.
Ogham stones are found throughout Ireland, in Scotland, England and Wales, and also in Brittany and the Isle of Man.
Approximately 400 ogham stones bearing inscriptions survive throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and western Britain
The notches and strokes of Ogham are etched into stone adjacent to or across a central midline. Twenty letters make up the Oghamic alphabet.
Is Ogham Writing Celtic in Origin?
A medieval Irish manuscript called the "Book of Ballymote" claims this ancient script was invented by Ogma, the Celtic god of literature and eloquence. I think Ogma has been inspiring Irish writers for centuries.
This ancient Celtic script of Ogham is also referred to as the Celtic Tree Alphabet or the Gaelic Tree Alphabet.
Each character of this ancient alphabet is associated with a specific tree. The vertical reference line resembles a tree trunk and is known as a flesc (pronounced as flay-shk). The crossing lines resemble branches or twigs eminating from the trunk.
The Ogham Alphabet has 20 letters and 20 trees associated with it. These letters are grouped into four groups of five trees known as aicme.
Each of the twenty letters of the Ogham alphabet are called feda or trees. They are gathered into four families or groups called aicme.
The letters are formed by a cluster of one to five straight lines, etched along a vertical egde or line.
The trees revered by the Celts and represented by this alphabet included the oak, alder, willow, hazel, and birch.
One theory about the origin of Ogham is that the Celts of Ireland created it as a cryptic alphabet. They hoped that those with only knowledge of Latin, like the Romans, would not be able to decipher it.
Another theory about its origins suggests that early Christians in Ireland created it out of a desire to be unique. Damian McManus, Professor of Early Irish in Trinity College, Dublin suggests that "the sounds of the primitive Irish language were too difficult to transcribe into Latin." Therefore, the Celts created their own form of writing.
An ancient 11th century Irish text known as the Leabhar Gabhála or the Book of Invasions claims Ogham was invented some time after the fall of the Tower of Babel.
Did the Druids use Ogham?
Robert MacAlister (1870 - 1950), an Irish archaeologist, suggested that Ogahm was invented by Gaulish Druids around 600 BC.
He believed that Ogham was originally a form of communication through hand signals, or an early form of sign language. It was finally written down on standing stones or on wood in early Christian Ireland.
Some believe that the druids recorded information on sticks using Ogham. They may also have carved their magic on these sticks using this ancient form of writing.
This theory may or may not be true. However, the ciphers are somewhat similar to old Germanic runes.
Another explanation for this writing is that it was a means to combine the Latin alphabet with the old Irish language.
What was Ogham used for?
Current knowledge of Primitive Irish has been gleaned from the many Ogham Stones found throughout the island of Ireland.
Ogham was a form of written communication that was specifically designed to be carved.
Scholars believe Ogham's primary purpose was for writing and recording names, rather than long stories or passages of script. It may even have been a secret form of communication.
Ogham stones were used as evidence of ownership of tracts of land. When the owner of a piece of land died in ancient Ireland, he was usually buried near the boundary of his land.
A stone was erected over the deceased's grave and his name inscribed on the stone. These markers became ways to define family territories.
What was Ogham written on?
Originally Ogham was carved into stone monuments, and evidence of this type of Ogham writing remains to this day through Ireland's Ogham Stones. The period of creating Monumental Ogham was between the 5th and 7th centuries.
Manuscript Ogham was used between the 9th and 16th centuries. During this period Ogham inscriptions were written into texts.
Scholastic Ogham refers to the study of Ogham from the 16th century onwards. During this time an additional group of five characters were added to the alphabet.
Is Ogham read from the top or bottom?
Many people wonder if you read Ogham in an upward or downward direction.
Most inscriptions usually represent personal names, or tribal names. Inscriptions start at the bottom of large upright stones, and run upward towards the top.
The inscriptions run over the top of some stones, as if the sculptor ran out of space (a bit like how my children sometimes misjudge the space available to the edge of their copybooks).
Vertical Ogham inscriptions are read from the bottom to the top.
In some manuscripts Ogham was written along a horizontal line, and in these cases it was read from left to right.
Some Ogham inscriptions include an arrow at the beginning. This arrow indicates the direction in which the writing should be read.
Ogham Stones on the Dingle Peninsula
Ancient monuments and standing stones are scattered throughout the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. It would quite literally take days to see each and everyone of these stone mementos from the past.
The stone pictured above is near Ballyferriter.
This Ogham stone is found near Kilmalkedar Church in County Kerry. It amazes me to think this actual piece of rock has stood on this very spot for centuries.
The Ogham inscriptions on its edges represent a very primitive writing form, but this stone bears a message our ancestors wished to share.
Little did they know we would be standing in awe, trying to decipher their meanings hundreds, nay thousands of years later.
Ogham Stones in County Cork
The Ballycrovane Ogham stone in County Cork is the tallest in the world and stands at over 17ft high.
Many of these stones are found in areas called "Cloghmore" which means "big stone" in Irish.
So if you come across an Irish town with a name that starts with "clogh" or "cloch" , then more than likely there's an ancient stone somewhere nearby.
The old standing stone, pictured above is in Bantry, County Cork. It bears Ogham inscriptions together with Christian carvings and images of men in boats.
Perhaps this stone was erected to mark the departure of St. Brendan and his crew of monks, before they left the shores of Ireland to cross the Atlantic for America.
Ogham stones are dotted all around the Irish countryside, but not all are found right by the side of the road.
Be prepared for a little walk when going in search of ancient pillars. Many of these stones are found right in the middle of a working farm field. Cows and sheep meander around these ancient reminders of our predecessors.
Aghnascribba Ogham Stone In County Tyrone
The rocks around the base of this old stone at Aghnascribba, near Greencastle in County Tyrone were placed to protect the stone from back scratching cattle.
The name of Aghnascribba, comes from Gaelic or Irish and quite literally means "the place of the writing". The ancient stone markings on this monument probably inspired the name for the hinterland all around it.
This stone bears linear incisions on one corner which apparently read "DOTELLO MAQI MAGLANI".
The word "maqi" is a precursor to the more modern Celtic word "mac" meaning "son of", so it appears this stone remembers Dotello who was the son of Maglani.
Standing stones bear witness to Ireland's ancient origins. These treasured monuments form an integral part of our sacred landscapes, and stand as evidence of our history and legend.
Their survival is testament to how Irish people revere their past. I am proud of how the Irish continue to acknowledge the spiritual essence of a place by leaving these stones undisturbed.
May they stand for many centuries to come.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
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