Ogham Writing

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter X

It is to be regretted that the subject of Ogham writing has not been taken up by a careful and competent hand.[8]Cuneiform Characters There are few people who have not found out some method of recording their history, and there are few subjects of deeper interest than the study of the efforts of the human mind to perpetuate itself in written characters. The Easterns had their cuneiform or arrow-headed symbols, and the Western world has even yet its quipus, and tells its history by the number of its knots.

The peasant girl still knots her handkerchief as her memoria technica, and the lady changes her ring from its accustomed finger.The Quipus Each practice is quite as primitive an effort of nature as the Ogham of the Celtic bard. He used a stone pillar or a wooden stick for his notches,—a more permanent record than the knot or the Indian quipus.[9] The use of a stick as a vehicle for recording ideas by conventional marks, appears very ancient; and this in itself forms a good argument for the antiquity of Ogham writing. Mr. O'Curry has given it expressly as his opinion, "that the pre-Christian Gaedhils possessed and practised a system of writing and keeping records quite different from and independent of the Greek and Roman form and characters, which gained currency in the country after the introduction of Christianity." He then gives in evidence passages from our ancient writings which are preserved, in which the use of the Ogham character is distinctly mentioned. One instance is the relation in the Táin bó Chuailgné of directions having been left on wands or hoops written in Ogham by Cuchulainn for Méav. When these were found, they were read for her by Fergus, who understood the character. We have not space for further details, but Professor O'Curry devotes some pages to the subject, where fuller information may be found.Ogham writing on a pillar stone Ogham WritingIn conclusion, he expresses an opinion that the original copies of the ancient books, such as the Cuilmenn and the Saltair of Tara, were not written in Ogham. He supposes that the druids or poets, who, it is well known, constantly travelled for educational purposes, brought home an alphabet, probably the Soman then in use. "It is, at all events, quite certain that the Irish druids had written books before the coming of St. Patrick, in 432; since we find the statement in the Tripartite Life of the saint, as well as in the Annotations of Tirechan, preserved in the Book of Armagh, which were taken by him from the lips and books of his tutor, St. Mochta, who was the pupil and disciple of St. Patrick himself."

We give two illustrations of Ogham writing. The pillar-stone is from the collection of the Royal Irish Academy. It is about four and a-half feet high, and averages eleven inches across. It was found, with three others similarly inscribed, built into the walls of a dwelling-house in the county Kerry, to which it is believed they had been removed from the interior of a neighbouring rath. The bilingual Ogham was found at St. Dogmael's, near Cardiganshire. The Ogham alphabet is called beithluisnion, from the name of its two first letters, beith, which signifies a birch-tree, and luis, the mountain-ash. If this kind of writing had been introduced in Christian times, it is quite unlikely that such names would have been chosen. They are manifestly referable to a time when a tree had some significance beyond the useful or the ornamental. It has been supposed that the names of the letters were given to the trees, and not the names of the trees to the letters. It is at least certain that the names of the trees and the letters coincide, and that the trees are all indigenous to Ireland. The names of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet are also significant, but appear to be chosen indiscriminately, while there is a manifest and evidently arbitrary selection in the Celtic appellations. The number of letters also indicate antiquity. The ancient Irish alphabet had but sixteen characters, thus numerically corresponding with the alphabet brought into Greece by Cadmus. This number was gradually increased with the introduction of the Roman form, and the arrangement was also altered to harmonize with it.

The Ogham alphabet consists of lines, which represent letters. They are arranged in an arbitrary manner to the right or left of a stem-line, or on the edge of the material on which they are traced. Even the names of those letters, fleasg (a tree), seem an indication of their origin. A cross has been found, sculptured more or less rudely, upon many of these ancient monuments; and this has been supposed by some antiquarians to indicate their Christian origin. Doubtless the practice of erecting pillar-stones, and writing Oghams thereon, was continued after the introduction of Christianity; but this by no means indicates their origin. Like many other pagan monuments, they may have been consecrated by having the sign of the cross engraven on them hundreds of years after their erection.


[8] Hand.—A work on this subject has long been promised by Dr. Graves, and is anxiously expected by paleographists. We regret to learn that there is no immediate prospect of its publication.

[9] Quipus.—Quipus signifies a knot. The cords were of different colours. Yellow denoted gold and all the allied ideas; white, silver, or peace; red, war, or soldiers. Each quipus was in the care of a quiper-carnayoe, or keeper. Acorta mentions that he saw a woman with a handful of these strings, which she said contained a confession of her life. See Wilson's Pre-Historic Man for most interesting details on the subject of symbolic characters and early writing.