The Oghams

A stone engraved with oghams in Dingle - hollin.elizabeth - cc
A stone engraved with oghams in Dingle - hollin.elizabeth - cc

This is the oldest known writing in Ireland, if not in the whole of the north west. Probably a variant of the Germanic runes, it is characterized by a succession of notches more or less separated from each other and obeying variable orientations according to “the letters”.

Presentation of the Oghams

A language with mysterious origins

There are nearly 600 oghams scattered all over the island:

  • Munster: Kerry 130, Cork 84, Waterford 48, Limerick 3, Tipperary 2, Clare 0.
  • Leinster: Kilkenny 14, Kildare 8, Meath 5, Wicklow 5, Carlow 4, Wexford 3 maybe 5), Louth 2, Dublin 1, Laois 0, Longford 0, Offaly 0, Westmeath 0.
  • Connaught: Mayo 9, Roscommon 3, Leitrim 1, Galway 0, Sligo 0.
  • Ulster: Antrim 2, Cavan 2, Armagh 1, Derry 1, Fermanagh 1, Tyrone 1, Donegal 0, Down 0, Monaghan 0.

Many clues would seem to indicate to archaeologists that stone was not the only support. Wooden shelves with a vertical line on them allowed the natives to write. What we know about the Celtic people’s relationship between knowledge and trees (such as the Dagda tree, the yew) tends to support this theory.

Another thesis would put forward the hypothesis of Libyan origins of this writing imported by the first Gnostic missionary monks around 350 AD.

Some specialists also suppose that the oghams should be classified in 4 families whose origins are different, among others since the age of the reindeer, the notched stick used to calculate. On the idea of the numbering which would be at the origin of the Oghams one advances the idea of the numbering by 20 (corresponding to the fingers and toes) which would be at the base of the prehistoric calculation.

A little less down-to-earth, one version attributes the origin of the Oghams to a deity from the Irish pantheon, which is not without highlighting the importance of this writing. This goes back to the time of Bres, son of Elatha, King of Ireland. Ogma, son of Elatha and Delbaeth, was a very learned man in language and poetry. He had created this alphabet for scholars, excluding the boors and shepherds to prove his intelligence. The term Ogham would come from Ogma. It is by the letters that Gaelic is measured by poets. The father of Ogham is the hand or the knife of Ogme.

The inscription of the Oghams has been studied by many great researchers. One reference is the study made in a collection attributed in part to Manus O’Duignan during the 14th century for Tonnaltagh McDonagh. The book is a compilation of translations of manuscripts, treatises and other documents as diverse as they are varied. It includes the saga of Finn and Brian Boru and explanations of the language of the Oghams.

The Oghams in Irish mythology

We remember that Lug (the polytechnic god) learned of the abduction of his wife by reading an Ogham engraved on birch. Oghams are also mentioned in the famous Razzia of the Cooley cows.

Cuchulainn cuts with his characteristic ardour oak branches on which he engraves the name of the Oghams before throwing them far behind his chariot and magically stopping the enemy army on the banks of the river. These notches were most frequently aligned on either side of a natural edge of a raised stone and read from bottom to top. In the case of a horizontal support, the reading was from left to right.

The unsuitable support did not allow to bring back long texts and it was a question there especially of indicating names, dates etc… Its alphabet is composed of 15 consonants followed by 5 vowels. It is the only alphabet working in this way.