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A Tale of Ogham | Celtic Cultural Minute

Dunloe Ogham Stones. Coolmagort Ave, Beaufort, Co. Kerry, Ireland.
Bob Linsdell
CC BY 2.0, Via Wikimedia Commons
Dunloe Ogham Stones. Coolmagort Ave, Beaufort, Co. Kerry, Ireland.

On many a windswept Irish hillside can be found a tall stone pillar, moss-covered and worn with age. Carved into the side of the stone is what looks like long lines of hatch-marks or notches. This is an Ogham stone, and the hatch-marks are a form of beautiful, somewhat mysterious writing called Ogham, which was created to represent the old Gaelic language.

Ogham was used in Ireland and parts of western England, Scotland and Wales between the second and sixth centuries. Ogham would have been easily carved into trees and wooden posts to mark land borders or burial sites, but the Ogham inscriptions that have survived down to us are those that were cut into stone, and they are usually from the fifth and sixth centuries.

The original Ogham alphabet represented about 80 sounds from primitive Gaelic, with 20 symbols arranged in four groups of five. Each group, or aicme, was made up of single strokes, with each letter represented by one, two, three, four or five strokes. A single line runs down thru the center of the letters, connecting them like branches to a tree trunk.

Sometimes called the Druid’s Alphabet, Ogham was developed during the Roman Empire, and it seems to demonstrate the spread of Rome’s influence far beyond its imperial frontiers; the fact that Ogham has five vowel sounds (although old Gaelic has ten) is one of the reasons scholars believe that Latin, which also uses five vowels, was an influence on the creation of Ogham. Norse runes are often cited as an influence as well.

Each Ogham letter symbol had a name, and originally eight of the letters were named for trees – the birch, alder, willow, oak, hazel, pine, ash and yew. Their selection gives an idea of the power and importance of these trees in early Irish society.

In our own day, the Ogham alphabet has become beloved again by artists and craftspeople for it’s simple, evocative beauty. Whether etched into a wedding ring, tattooed on a shoulder, or hand painted as a house blessing, the ancient voice of the Celts lives on.

For Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle. Slainte!

Kate Scuffle is the host of Lehigh Valley Arts Salon and the Celtic Cultural Minute on WDIY. She is an administrator, producer, educator, writer and artist in the non-profit/arts communities.
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