Ogham Tree Teaching Stone (Post 2): Research

At the beginning of March, I headed down to University College Cork (UCC) where the largest collection of Ogham (Ogam) stones is open to display in the country. The Ogham stones are located in the stone corridor of the main quadrangle at the University. The Ogham stones varied in height from 1.0 to upto 3.0m, markings (ogham letters) also varied from relative small scratches and cut marks to open rounded grooves. Thanks to JP Quinn (Head of UCC Vistor’s Centre) for showing me around and giving me a tour.


A Guide to the Collection

This text below is adapted from a guide to these Ogams by Professor Damian McManus, published by Cork University Press and available from the UCC Visitors’ Centre.

The Ogam (Ogham) Stones Collection in UCC

Ogam is:

  • the earliest written source of the Irish languageOgam Stones at University College Cork
  • the oldest recording of Irish personal names
  • the earliest real evidence of Irish scholarship and learning.

Ogam is both a script and an alphabet using strokes cut on, across and either side of a line. It was designed specifically for the Irish language and was originally used to commemorate named persons. The stones may have been used as boundary markers, property markers or burial markers.

The oldest Ogam inscriptions known date from about the fifth- to the seventh-century AD and were written on stone. The Ogam stones in UCC are examples of this. From the seventh century it was mainly used by those studying poetry and grammar. This later form was written on manuscripts and this ensured the survival of ogam into modern times. Inscribed stones bear the oldest known form of Ogam.

The oldest Ogam alphabet uses a series of 20 characters arranged in four groups with five characters in each. Each group is made up of one to five scored lines or notches which are placed to the left or right of a line (the stemline), or diagonally across it, or cut into it as small notches.

The inscriptions are generally read from bottom left to top right, and the classic inscription records the name of a man, his father and their broader tribal links.

JP Quinn also showed me the the Statue of Queen Victoria which was replaced by a statue of the Virgin by Seamus Murphy the brilliant Cork Sculptor of “Stone Mad” fame. I was shown the Marquette as the actual statue is hard to appreciate as it is on top of the building as you can see from my bad photo! UCC is well worth a visit if you are in Cork!

I also undertook a fair amount of internet research on Ogham and Ogham Stones and there is a lot spurious, mystical, new-age stuff out there. Even in the more academic/archaeological circles there appears to considerable amount of debate and rethinking amount Ogham. So from early on I decided to try and keep things as simple and accurate as possible and display only the 20 characters of oldest Ogam alphabet. The quote below is from the Ogham in 3D site:

Each of the characters were assigned names, which were meaningful words in the language, although some have since fallen out of use. These names are our most important source of information on the primary values of the characters. McManus (1991, 3) gives the following forms, normalised to Old Irish, from the manuscript tradition:

Beithe, Luis, Fern, Sail, Nin
hÚath, Dair, Tinne, Coll, Cert
Muin, Gort, (n)Gétal, Straif, Ruis
Ailm, Onn, Úr, Edad, Idad

The groups are known as aicmi (pl. of aicme ‘family, class, group’) in Irish and are named after the initial character giving Aicme Beithe, Aicme hÚatha, Aicme Muine and Aicme Ailme. The characters or letters are generally termed feda (pl. of fid ‘wood, tree’), the stemline druim ‘ridge, edge, back’ and a single score is called flesc‘a twig’. Although a number of the Ogham characters were named after trees, it is no longer accepted that all were.

The aim of commission is to use the stone as a teaching stone to inform about Ireland’s native flora, archaeological heritage and the local granite stone heritage of the area and to promote awareness and interest in our environment and history.

In my next post I will outline the selection, design and working of the Stone.

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