Though today the Irish language is written in a classic roman script, it hasn’t always been. You may be familiar with the more traditional Gaelic type (cló Gaelach in Irish) used for countless Irish pub signs or whenever someone wants to invoke a sense of Irish authenticity. For the most part, it contains all 26 characters of the English alphabet and is largely legible to modern eyes, having been adapted from monastic scribal transcriptions of Latin texts. But there’s an even older writing system unique to Ireland that bears little relation to modern scripts that still enchants and mystifies hibernophiles the world over.
The script is called ogham (pronounced oh-um), and was first developed in Ireland around 1,500 years ago. It was primarily used to communicate Primitive Irish, although later on, it was also adapted for Old Irish and even Pictish, Latin, and Old Walsh. While it has survived only through brief inscriptions and manuscripts, it continues to be a source of fascination today and has found its way onto trinkets, artworks, and popular imagination, with attempts to write modern Gaelic and English words onto ogham. Aside from its historical mystique, part of the reason why this works so well is because ogham is visually striking compared to most modern languages, expressing itself through slashes and lines.
Its alternative names are ogam and ogum. Since much of it is shrouded in mystery, nobody is quite sure where the name itself originated. One theory is that it comes from the Irish phrase og-úaim—literally “point-seam,” or the seam caused by a sharp weapon. More poetically, it might also be referring to the Irish Warrior-God Ogham, who’s also known as the “God of Eloquence”—a fitting name for an alphabet.
FEATURES OF OGHAM
It’s important to clarify that ogham was never a language, but instead a script or writing system. Each letter shares a central line, with additional straight or diagonal marks. This form of writing is extremely convenient, since ogham was carved primarily onto wood or rock and the edge was used as a central line. Another characteristic is that it reads from bottom to top, or left to right.
Here’s a diagram showing the original ogham alphabet:
The original ogham system consisted of 25 letters that were divided into five groups or aicme, with five letters each. These corresponded to around 80 Gaelic sounds. It’s not certain how these were grouped phonetically, but it’s notable that the second aicme contains stop consonants except for /h/ and the fourth aicme is made up purely of vowels. It’s also easy to identify which family a letter belongs to because each family have certain visual characteristics. The first aicme has its marks to the right of the line, while the second aicme has these to the left; the third aicme is the only one that uses diagonal marks, and the fourth aicme’s marks go from left to right, cutting through the central line. Interestingly, the vowels in the fourth aicme can also be represented with dots instead of lines.
You might notice that the fifth aicme looks different, with more complex symbols rather than line markings. These forfeda seemed to have been been added after 600 AD, since they didn’t appear in early inscriptions, and were probably meant to account for new developments in the Irish language. Sometimes additional markings in the form of arrowheads were used to represent the start and end of sentences.
THE HISTORY OF OGHAM WRITING
Ogham was the only writing system in Ireland from 400 to 700 AD, which coincided with the Roman Empire. Passing information on orally was much more popular back then, to the point that Julius Caesar commented that the Celts preferred memorizing poetry rather than writing it down, “lest it be vulgarized and lest the memory of scholars should become impaired.” Ogham signaled the start of the shift from oral to written culture, though eventually it would be phased out as well.
From 400 to 700 AD, ogham was inscribed into stone and wood, and around 400 stone monuments all over Ireland still remain today as a testament to this. Most of them can be found in the southwest region of Ireland, especially Kerry, Cork, and Waterford, and also in England, Scotland, and Wales, where some of the Irish migrated towards.
These inscriptions are typically brief, consisting of names with a brief nod back to the family tree. For example, it wouldn’t be unusual to see “Cairthinn, son of Enechglass.” The name was often used in the possessive, implying that the stone belonged to the person named. These stones seem to be memorials, and saga writers dramatized this by proposing that they were for heroes who died in battle. Alternatively, the stones could also be boundary markers or legal proof of land ownership. But despite the prevalence of monuments, ogham was perhaps most commonly inscribed on sticks and trees, which faded quickly back into history while stone still remained sturdy throughout the centuries.
As with all languages, Primitive Irish would evolve over the years, eventually being replaced by old Irish as Christian missionaries brought in Latin. The Roman alphabet became more prevalent after 600 AD, and ogham gradually faded away. However, it never disappeared completely, since there were several medieval manuscripts that described how to use it, including the Auraicept na n-Éces (The Scholars’ Primer), the Book of Ballymote, and Leber Ogam (The Book of Ogham).
THE PURPOSE OF OGHAM STONES
Even though historians are roughly aware of ogham’s timeline, from mainstream use to gradual disappearance, much about its purpose remains murky. Aside from its upfront function as inscriptions for memorials or markers for property ownership and business transactions, there are speculations that it also served as a secret code. The Irish might have used it to send messages undetected by the Roman Empire, or Christians might have adapted it to communicate among themselves. Perhaps the most fascinating is the claim that bards and Druids used ogham for rituals and magic. But because they were secretive and valued their knowledge highly, they didn’t put ogham into writing—they resorted to creative means such as treating their nose as the central line and using their finger to gesture the markings.
Another interesting aspect of ogham is its association with trees. However, even though it’s dubbed as the “Celtic tree alphabet” and many scholars claim that each letter is linked to a tree, the original ogham system wasn’t exactly like that. Only eight letters were connected to trees– alder, ash, birch, hazel, oak, pine, willow, and yew–and the rest weren’t. Beyond trees, each letter has been layered with symbolism over the years,
WHERE TO FIND OGHAM STONES
Ogham stone monuments are scattered all over Ireland, so you’re in luck—you have hundreds of sites to choose from! For an overview of these sites, we recommend taking a peek at ogham in 3D, an ambitious project that aims to record all of the existing ogham stones in 3D and make these available for free to everyone, including those owned by the National Museum of Ireland. The website is a treasure trove of information, detailing the inscriptions on each stone along with academic commentary. It also provides thorough descriptions of the stone itself and the site where it’s found, and an interactive 3D view is available to all site visitors.
For those who’d rather make the journey and see the stone in person, the easiest to visit—but also the most insulated—would be the National Museum of Ireland. Located at Kildare Street, Dublin, its seven galleries contain many ancient artifacts, from Viking horns to Egyptian mummies. Head over to its Prehistoric Ireland section to see an ogham stone hailing from Aglish during 500 or 600 AD.
If one stone isn’t enough, then you might as well aim high and go for Ireland’s largest collection of ogham stones, which can be found in University College Cork. Its cloisters contain an exhibit called “Stories in Stone” that’s open to everyone, and you’ll be greeted with an entire row of stones that were collected from 1861 to 1945. Aside from the advantage of quantity, you’ll also find a lot of information here about the stones because they’ve been studied extensively by the Archeology Department.
To see the stones in a more natural setup, though, Dunloe in Kerry might be a better choice. Between Beaufort Village and the Gap of Dunloe, you’ll find a collection of eight ogham stones arranged in a circle. These have been around for as early as 500 and 600 AD. When they were discovered, seven of them were part of the ceiling of an underground passage, and the eighth was from the ruins of a nearby church.
Finally, consider paying a visit to the Breastagh Ogham Stone in County Mayo. It’s a National Monument that’s said to be a former Druid Pillar, with the stone having been around since the Bronze Age and the inscription only added after. Scholars say that the inscription refers to the grandson of Amalgaid mac Fiachrae, a fifth-century king. An interesting feature of the stone is that it has ogham written on both sides of one edge.
A SPECIAL TERM: ANAM CARA
One term that you might want to take note of is anam cara, which literally means “soul friend.” As explained by John O’Donohue, anam cara is rooted in ancient Celtic spiritual tradition, and it describes someone to whom you could share your true self with freely, a soul-deep, eternal connection that defies convention and culture. Aside from the profound sense of intimacy and belonging that you experience with your anam cara, you’re also inspired to transcend yourself, since your anam cara opens up your perspective and frees you to realize and act on possibilities.
This is a refreshing take on friendship, as we’re all too guilty of using the word lightly in this day and age—a friend can be as fleeting as someone we add on a social networking website, or we can get too caught up in being busy that we struggle to relate authentically. Anam cara can mean a platonic friend, a lover, or even a teacher. In fact, monks before referred to their spiritual guides or companions as their anam caras. It was valued so highly that St. Bridget, one of Ireland’s patron saints, said, “A person without an anam cara is like a body without a head.”
To call someone your anam cara is a major compliment! If you’re thinking of getting a creative (and Irish-inspired) gift for a special person in your life, you can experiment with incorporating the ogham version of anam cara into your gift’s design, or maybe simply drawing it on a card or letter for that person.
If you have other words in mind or you’re just generally curious about writing in ogham, you can check out online resources such as Ogham Transliterator and dCode. Both of these transliterate words in Latin characters—including English and Gaelic—into ogham. It’d be interesting to see what your name looks like!