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What Are Ogham Stones?

county waterford ogham stones Jan 25, 2024
Ardmore Ogham Stone

In the verdant landscapes of Ireland, history whispers from tancient Ogham stones. These stones, etched with the unique Irish script known as Ogham, offer a tangible connection to our distant past.

Before the age of manuscripts and vellum, our ancestors left their mark on more enduring materials, primarily stone. This blog post delves into the enigmatic world of Ogham stones, exploring their origins, characteristics, and the stories they tell us about early Irish life.


Origins of the Ogham Script

Pronounced ogg-um (Ogam) in Old Irish, and oh-um (Ogham) in Modern Irish, this is a distinctive alphabet (not a language, please note!) that originated in early Ireland.

It's not possible to date stone using normal archaeological methods for out of context objects, so it is difficult to set a definitive date on exactly when the Ogham alphabet was first used. Linguistic evidence though, dates the earliest Ogham inscriptions to between the 4th and 7th centuries CE (common era).

However, as David Stifter points out:

"Ogam could as well be suited for the language of the 1st or 2nd centuries ... as for that of the 4th century." - Ogam: Language, Writing, Epigraphy (2022).

The 4th century at least was a time of great transition and cultural evolution, setting the stage for the unique development of Irish language, and the script which expresses it.


Design and Structure of Ogham

Ogham's design is unlike any other in the world. Consisting of parallel lines in groups of 1-5, their meaning is determined by their position relative to a stemline.

This simplicity belies a complex understanding of language and symbolism. Unlike later Latin inscriptions, Ogham was typically carved vertically along the natural angle or edge of the stone, making it a three-dimensional script.

[Learn More About Writing Ogham Here]

This unique approach to writing demonstrates the ingenuity and creativity of our ancestors.


Reading and Interpreting Ogham Inscriptions

The method of reading Ogham is as unique as its design. Inscriptions generally read upwards, starting at the bottom left-hand side, across the top, and down the right-hand side.

However, variations exist, including inscriptions that read upward on both edges and even, though rarely, on the face of the stone.

These variations provide insights into the evolving use of the script and the preferences of different stone carvers or communities, as well as showing the use of Ogham to express Latin, as well as the original Irish language that it was designed for. (Probably.)

It's important to note though, as Stifter does:

"With few exceptions, Ogam is a chiefly medieval Irish and Scottish phenomenon. The employment of Ogam as a token pan-Celtic script in marketing is nonsense, as is the notion of Ogam inscriptions in North America." - Ogam: Language, Writing, Epigraphy (2022).

Of the approximately 500 surviving Ogham Stones and partial inscriptions, around 400 of them are here in Ireland. The alphabet was based on the sounds in our evolving Irish language.

So if people could stop arriving in our Learn Ogham Facebook Group, or emailing us, with photographs of naturally striated rock that they found in Albuquerque or Ontario and getting their nose out of joint when they are told that it is clearly and definitively not an Ogham Stone... that would be just great.


The Significance of Ogham Stones in Irish History

Ogham stones are more than just artefacts; they are the bearers of stories and the markers of history. 

"As a manifestation of the native intellectual culture, the inscriptions have always been the subject of antiquarian interest and of private curiosity in Ireland." - Ogam: Language, Writing, Epigraphy (Stifter, 2022).

Each stone, with its unique inscription, offers a glimpse into a world long gone. They tell us about the Irish language centuries before the widespread use of manuscripts, offering invaluable insights into the linguistic and cultural landscape of early Ireland.

An absolutely essential resource to have a browse in, for anyone interested in Ogham Stones, is Nora White's Ogham in 3D Project, which aims "to digitise and record in 3d as many as possible of the approximately four hundred surviving Ogham stones and to make the resulting 3D models freely available on this website as part of a multi-disciplinary digital corpus of Ogham stones."

[Explore the Ogham in 3D Project Here]

The website opens with the line: "Ogham stones are among Ireland's most remarkable national treasures.", and this is clearly the case.


The Legacy of Ogham in Modern Ireland

It's important to note that the Ogham alphabet played an essential part in the development of our post-colonial Irish identity.

[See Lora's Thesis on the topic Here]

Today, Ogham stones are revered as symbols of our rich heritage. They remind us of a time when our ancestors carved their words into stone, leaving a legacy that has endured through the ages.

These stones are not just relics of the past; they are a testament to the enduring spirit of the Irish people and our deep connection to our language and history.


Preserving Our Heritage

As we explore the mysteries of Ogham stones, we are reminded of the importance of preserving our cultural heritage. These stones are a link to our ancestors, a bridge to a time that shaped the very essence of what it means to be Irish.

By studying and preserving them, we keep alive the stories and the language of our forebears, ensuring that their legacy continues to inspire future generations.

[Ardmore Ogham Stone Image Copyright Nora White, Ogham in 3D]

OGHAM - Quick & Easy Reference Guide

>>> Free PDF Download

In this Guide you will find a brief history of the Ogham, and the Ogham letters laid out across two A4 sheets, for easy printing and quick reference or reminders as you learn.
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