In a cloistered hallway known as the Stone Corridor on University College Cork’s campus in Cork, Ireland stands 28 Ogham stones. The Stone Corridor holds the largest public display of Ogham stones (pronounced “ohm”) in all of Ireland and is located in the Main Quadrangle Building. Once you enter, it is nearly impossible to miss the rows of beautifully preserved, standing stones. Every stone except one are from Cork. In fact, most of the surviving Ogham stones are found in Counties Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, thus the theory that Ogham is probably a south of Ireland creation.
First discovered in 1785, the Mount Callan stone in County Clare launched the research into these intriguing objects. Ogham stones are thought to have two potential uses: burial stones or boundary markers. Scholars have found support for the burial stone interpretation because the translations have shown to be names. The inscriptions tell the viewer a name of someone being commemorated and whose descendant they are (most are men, but there is one stone that records a woman’s name). However, since burials tended to be on the border of properties, Ogham stones were possibly boundary markers that served a complimentary purpose as burial stones (or vice versa).
The Ogham script is well suited for chiseling into hard materials like stone because the alphabet consists of slash marks along a centerline. (While there is speculation that the Ogham alphabet was used on wood, no evidence of wood engraved with Ogham script has been found.) Some think the name “Ogham” is connected to the Irish God, Ogma, but this is widely debated. Ogham technically refers to the characters themselves, while the script as a whole is aptly named Beith-luis-nin after the order of letter groupings BLFSN. The Ogham script is also known as the “Celtic Tree Alphabet” due to the linkage of the numbers of letters to old Irish names for species of trees.
There are 380 known Ogham stones with the Irish language inscribed on them. These inscriptions are the earliest written form of the Irish language and the oldest recordings of Irish personal names, dating back to the mid fifth and late seventh centuries. Reading the script is not easy: each letter needed to be recognized based on the placement of the line in relation to the stem, identify vowels versus consonants, and be able to read the message from the bottom of the line upwards. The original twenty characters were arranged in four groups of five characters each, with five more being added during the 7th century making a total of five groups.
As a writing system, the Ogham alphabet has been called as inefficient, complicated, ambiguous, impractical, and even barbaric by scholars. It is certainly safe to say that Ogham is complex, but it also has a certain elegance to it. Then brings us to the question, why did Ireland needs such a cumbersome alphabet?
Although the Roman alphabet was in use in Ireland when Ogham was created, Ogham did not evolve from any other alphabet. It can be said that Ogham is the earliest attempt to put Primitive Irish into a written form. Thus, if Ogham were to be read aloud, the reader would be speaking Irish. There are several theories as to why Ogham was created when Latin was already being used. One is that Ogham was a method of conceal messages. Another is that the Irish wanted to reject Rome and its impositions. An Ogham researcher and supporter argues
that it was for a quest for uniqueness and that the Primitive Irish language was too difficult to translate into Latin. It could also be that the Ogham script was an intention to intertwine the Latin alphabet with Irish, which is suspected because of bilingual inscriptions found on some stones. Lastly, it is possible that Ogham originated as a sign language used by Gaulish Druids from Cisalpine Gaul in approximately 600 BCE. There is not much evidence for any of these theories, thereby retaining the mystery surrounding the Ogham alphabet.
As Ireland became more Christian, Latin became the language more commonly used and Ogham began its demise during the 7th century. Ogham is seen today as an ancient language studied and wondered about. While it is not used practically, people can find prints, paintings, even jewelry with Ogham words as a way to get in touch with the history. Ogham is a part of Ireland’s history and adds a touch of mystique to the culture. Why not embrace it?