Ogham: Ireland’s Written Past


Niamh Duffy


The History of Ogham

Ogham – otherwise known as one of the earliest forms of written Irish – dates as far back as the fourth century, though some scholars believe it to be even older. Most examples of Ogham that have survived until the present day can be found inscribed into large standing stones (or ‘monoliths’), but it was also written down in manuscripts, particularly after the 6 the century AD. Today, the language is most commonly referred to simply as Ogham, but it can occasionally be known as beth luis fearn (after the first letters of its alphabet), or ogham craobh (‘tree ogham’).

There is much about the Ogham language that historians still don’t know, but it is not entirely a mystery to us. While it is pronounced [oh-am] in Modern Irish, the world ogham was spelt – and pronounced – slightly differently in the past. In Old Irish, it was spelt as ogam, not ogham, and was pronounced [ˈɔɣam].

Historians are not entirely sure why this language is named the way it is. One possibility is that it was named after the ancient Irish god, Ogma, though others believe that its name is derived from the phrase og-úaim (‘point-seam’, meaning the mark made by the point of a sharp weapon). Despite the uncertain origins of the word, the language itself has more definite roots, taking inspiration from various Greek, Roman, or Runic languages.

This diversity does not end with Ogham’s origins. Although it was a language intended to write Primitive Irish, its alphabet could also be used to write in several others, including Old Welsh, Pictish, and Latin. It remains unclear why such a language came to be developed in the first place, but some believe that it was designed as a way of communicating secretly, in a script that foreign invaders would not understand.

Reading the Ogham Alphabet

The Ogham alphabet contains 25 letters, divided into five groups called aicmí. Originally, there were only 20 letters, and four aicmí (known as the Aicme Beithe, the Aicme hÚatha, the Aicme Muine, and the Aicme Ailme). The fifth aicme, known simply as Forfeda, was added several centuries later, mainly to use in written manuscripts. It is believed that these five additional letters were introduced to include a wider range of sounds in the Ogham alphabet.

In a manuscript, Ogham would have been written horizontally across the page, reading from left to right. On a standing stone or monolith, however, the letters were inscribed around the stone’s edge. These examples are still read from left to right, but also from bottom to top. The image below shows the Ogham alphabet, depicting each letter as it would have been written both vertically (as on a stone) and horizontally (as in a manuscript):

Many surviving Ogham stones can be seen in various sites around Ireland today, particularly in the Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry. They are often popular tourist attractions, with thousands eager to visit some of the most remarkable surviving relics of Ireland’s ancient past – and it is easy to see why. With its enigmatic origins, and the questions it raises about the history of the Irish language, it is no wonder so many people flock to see samples of Ogham writing, and to witness these impressive glimpses into Ireland’s rich and fascinating history.





http://www.megalithicireland.com/Ogham Stones Page 1.htm


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