The earliest form of Irish writing is a system known as the Ogham (also spelled “Ogam”) Script. This first appeared about the 4th century C.E. and may be indigenous to Ireland. The Ogham Script was used from the 4th century through the 7th century, a period during which the Irish were converting from paganism to Christianity.
While this system of writing is preserved today only on stones (about 350 are known to exist), archaeologists generally feel that it was probably done on wood as well. Suggestions regarding the use of the Ogham Script on wood come from the oral tradition and from stories such as those in Cormac’s Glossary. Most of the stones were concentrated in counties Kerry, Cork, and Waterford. The presence of Ogham Stones in Wales has led some scholars to conclude that their presence in Wales was the result of Irish settlement in the area. Other scholars, however, feel that Ogham Script actually originated in Wales rather than in Ireland. The stones found in Wales tend to be in both Irish and Latin, while those in Ireland are written only in Irish.
Initially it used a 20 letter alphabet which was later increased to 25 letters. The Ogham Script writing system consists of a series of grooves which are cut into the corner of a stone. The meaning of the signs is determined by: their length, number, and by which side of the stone (or both) they appear on. Each combination of grooves represents a different letter of the Latin alphabet. On the stones, the writing begins on the bottom of the left side, runs up, then across the top, and finally down on the right side.
The existing Ogham stones are usually memorial markers with the name and descent of an individual inscribed on them. The inscriptions are generally of the “X son of Y” type. They may have served as grave markers or as boundary markers indicating tribal territories.
The language used on the stones is Primitive Irish, an elevated and archaic form of the language which was probably confined to the older pagan priestly class and used for rituals and more formal oral presentations. The people who wrote the Ogham inscriptions used a conservative orthography rather than contemporary usage. Old Irish, the language which eventually replaced Primitive Irish, was the more common vernacular at the time most of the stones were carved. The late Ogham stones, such as those carved in the 7th century, used Old Irish and showed some Latin influences.
With the transition from paganism to Christianity, some of the Ogham stones appear to have been re-carved with Christian symbols and Latin script. In addition, the early Christians also adopted or modified the ancient pagan custom of the stones by making stones with Latin inscriptions and Christian symbolism.
In modern times (from the 19th centuries to the 21st century) people have moved many (perhaps most) of the stones from their original places to new settings. For some people it is a status symbol to have an Ogham stone in the front yard. While this has destroyed the archaeological context of the stones, it has probably helped to preserve them.
Shown above is an Ogham Stone in a housing area in Dingle.
Shown above are modern replicas of Ogham Stones in Dingle.
Shown above is a replica of an Ogham stone along with the replica of a Celtic cross stone.