Ogham Alphabet and Writing

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Manuscript ornamentation

MS. ornamentation



SECTION 1. Learning in Pagan Times: Ogham.

Letter M
ANY passages in our old native literature, both ecclesiastical and secular, state that the pagan Irish had books before the introduction of Christianity. In the memoir of St. Patrick, written by Muirchu in the seventh century, now contained in the Book of Armagh, he relates how, during the contest of the saint with the druids at Tara, King Laegaire [Laery] proposed that one of Patrick's books and one belonging to the druids should be thrown into water, to see which would come out uninjured: a sort of ordeal. Here it will be observed that Muirchu's statement that the druids had books embodies a tradition that was ancient in the seventh century, when he wrote.

The lay traditions, many of them as old as Muirchu's Life, state that the pagan Irish used Ogham writing: and we find Ogham inscriptions constantly referred to as engraved on the tombs of pagan kings and chiefs.

Ogham alphabet

FIG. 52. Ogham alphabet (From Journ. Roy. Soc. Antiq. Irel. for 1902, p. 3. A few other characters were occasionally used.)

Ogham was a species of writing, the letters of which were formed by combinations of short lines and points, on and at both sides of a middle or stem line called a flesc. So far as we can judge from the specimens remaining to us, its use was mostly confined to stone inscriptions, the groups of lines and points generally running along two adjacent sides of the stone, with the angle for a flesc. Nearly all the Oghams hitherto found are sepulchral inscriptions; which answer exactly to the descriptions given in the old records. Where inscriptions have not been injured or defaced, they can in general be deciphered, so that many have been made out beyond all question. But as the greatest number of Ogham stones are more or less worn or chipped or broken, there is in the interpretation of the majority of the inscriptions some conjecture and uncertainty.

Ogham stone

FIG. 53. Ogham stone

As to the antiquity of Ogham writing, the best authorities now agree that it is a survival from the far distant ages of paganism, and that it was developed before Christianity was heard of in Ireland. But while we know that it originated in pagan times, the custom of engraving Ogham on stones, and of—occasionally—writing in Ogham characters in vellum books, continued far into Christian times. In the ancient tales we find it often stated that Oghams were cut on rods of yew or oak, and that such rods were used as a mode of communication between individuals, serving the same purpose among them as our letters serve now.

There are many other considerations all tending to show that there was some form of written literature before the advent of Christianity; and several circumstances indicate a state of literary activity at the time of the arrival of St. Patrick. Both the native bardic literature and the ancient Lives of Patrick himself and of his contemporary saints concur in stating that he found in the country literary and professional men—all pagans—druids, poets, and antiquarians, and an elaborate code of laws.

We have seen that in the most ancient native literature it is expressly stated that the pagan Irish had books, and the statement is corroborated by an extern writer, a Christian philosopher of the fourth century, named Ethicus of Istria; whose testimony seems indeed decisive. He made a tour of the three continents, writing a description—or "Topography"— of his journey as he went along, and among other places, he visited the British Islands. From Spain he came direct to Ireland, where, as he says, he spent some time "examining their volumes." This opening statement proves that when he visited—which was at least a century before the time of St. Patrick—he found books among the Irish; and it implies that he found them in abundance, for he remained some time examining them. The fact that there were numerous books in Ireland in the fourth century implies a knowledge of writing for a long time previously.

From all that precedes, we may take it as certain:—

1. That native learning was actively cultivated and systematically developed in Ireland before the introduction of Christianity: and

2. That the pagan Irish had a knowledge of letters, and that they wrote their lore, or part of it, in books, and cut Ogham inscriptions on stone and wood. But when or how they obtained their knowledge of writing, we have as yet no means of determining with certainty.

It is true indeed that no books or writings of any kind, either pagan or Christian, of the time before St. Patrick, remain—with the exception of Ogham inscriptions. But this proves nothing: for in this respect Ireland is circumstanced like most other countries. A similar state of things exists, for instance, in Britain, where, notwithstanding that writing was generally known and practised from the first century down, no manuscript has been preserved of an earlier date than the eighth century.

There is nothing, either in the memoirs of St. Patrick, or in Irish secular literature, or in the "Topography" of Ethicus, giving the least hint as to the characters or as to the sort of writing used in the books of the pagan Irish. It could hardly have been Ogham, which is too cumbrous for writing long passages or treatises in books. But whatever characters they may have used in times of paganism, they adopted the Roman letters in writing their own language after the time of St. Patrick: which are still retained in modern Irish.

Irish alphabets

FIG. 54. Two Irish alphabets of Roman letters: the upper one of the seventh century: the lower of the eleventh. The three last characters of the first alphabet are Y, Z and &c. (Two forms of s in each). From Miss Stokes’s Christian Inscriptions, II. 135

These same letters, moreover, were brought to Britain by the early Irish Christian missionaries already spoken of, from whom the Anglo-Saxons learned them: so that England received her first knowledge of letters—as she received most of her Christianity—from Ireland. Formerly it was the fashion among the learned to call those letters Anglo-Saxon: but now people know better. Our present printed characters were ultimately developed from those old Irish-Roman letters.

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