Anyone who has an interest in Irish history, will encounter references to the Ogham alphabet. This is an ancient script that resembles tally marks in a straight line, it is believed to date as far back as 1500 to 2500 years ago and is thought to be named after the Irish god Ogma.This is a large time scale, few facts are known about this ancient method of recording information and most of what is known is shrouded in legend and mystery. There are many examples of Ogham carved into standing stones and a few examples have survived etched into wood. Ogham is found extensively on the many standing stones of Ireland but examples can also be seen in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man.
One of the difficulties about researching this period of Irish history is that there are no written accounts relating to the people of the period from 500 BC until Christianity arrived in Ireland in the 5th century AD. What is known has been obtained from records written by Greek and Roman historians or from stories told by the native people to missionaries and monks after the coming of Christianity and subsequently written down by them. The only exception to this is the Ogham record.
Ogham is also referred to as the Celtic Tree Alphabet and it looks nothing like today’s letters or writing, but surprisingly the letters of the Ogham alphabet correspond to those of the Roman alphabet and experts can translate them easily. Ogham was mainly used for carving names or inscriptions onto important stones, often grave stones or stone territorial markers. It is also believed to have been frequently used on wooden buildings, but very few examples of these have survived. Later,it was written down and can be seen in manuscripts, often as notes in margins, recorded as late as the 16th century.
There are some very good examples of Ogham stones to be seen in Ireland, some of which are at the National Museum in Kildare St, Dublin, but many survive still in their original location, placed there by people who lived more than 2000 years ago!
About 370 stone Ogham inscriptions have been discovered in Ireland. These are on standing stones that are from three to nine feet tall and mostly located in the southwest province of Munster in Ireland with others in County Kerry.
Where to See Examples of Ogham
One unusual example in St Flannan’s Cathedral in Killaloe has Nordic Runes as well as Ogham carved on it.
Another stone stands near Ballycrovane Bay on the Beara Peninsula, this is easy to find, as it is well sign posted.
The longest known inscription on any stone is on one of two stones at St Declan’s Church in Ardmore Co Waterford.
To see a group of Ogham stones visit Dunloe, which is 8kms west of Killarney on the R562 near the village of Beaufort.
In Kerry, the 12th century church at Kilmalkedar near Slea Head on the Dingle Peninsula has a good example.
A single ancient Bronze age standing stone stands near the Rathfranpark wedge tomb near Kilala in Co Mayo.
The Ogham Alphabet
The Ogham alphabet (vertical)