Book Review: Ogam Stones at University College Cork

Ogam Stones at University College Cork by Damian McManus

This book came up as a suggested purchase for me, and I thought ‘Why not?”

It is a very thin book, 23 pages in all, and is meant as a ‘guide’ to accompany a visit to the National University of Ireland, in Cork, where 27 ogham stones are kept on display.

The booklet comes in two halves –

The first half explains what ogham is and the different forms of Irish that it expresses – Primitive Irish (5th-6th Century) and then later into Old Irish (7th -9th Century), so obviously the written oghams change over time as the spoken language changes.

It explains that the assumption that the oghams all relate to trees was made up in the medieval period, mainly due to trees being the largest semantic category for the letter names (but by no means all the letters are named after trees) and also some of the names and meanings had been forgotten from manuscript ogham, so the assumption was carried over into them.

There is a small table showing the ogham symbols and their corresponding letter sounds in the modern alphabet, and it briefly explains how the ogham is used with a system of ‘kennings’ or phrases. For example, the third symbol ‘fern’ is means alder tree in Old Irish, and its kennings are ‘vanguard of warrior bands’,  ‘milk container’ and ‘protection of the heart, which point to the use of alder wood as material for shields and liquid vessels. (paraphrased from the booklet, the other kennings are not stated or explained within)

The letters are given as follows ..
Beithe – birch tree, Luis – flame/herb, Fern – Alder tree, Sail – willow tree, Nin – fork, Uath – fear, Dair – oak tree, Tinne – rod of metal, Coll – Hazel tree, Cert – bush, Muin – neck, Gort – field, Getal – act of slaying, Straif – sulphur, Ruis – red, Ailm – pine tree, Onn – ash tree, Ur – Earth, Edad -?, Idad – ?”

There the follows a sketch map showing the locations of the known ogham stones in Ireland, and how the script was written and can be translated – the script on stones followed a set pattern which follows the formula of [stone of ] “name”, son of  “family name” which may then also be followed by the name of the tribe they represented.

The second half of the book numbers the stones that are on display in the University, and a transcript of the ogham written on it – these are literally the transcript into primitive or old irish with little in the way of explanation, but they are generally “name” son of “surname”.

What I did find interesting is the inscription on stone number 6 – BRANI MAQQI mU[]C and the rest is missing…. which translates as Bran, son of…. and the lost part shows the beginning of a word form that would presumably have given the name of an ancestor. Bran=Raven, as most of us are familiar with from the second branch of the mabinogion, so I was fascinated to read that Bran was used as a name both in brythonic Britain and in Ireland, and of course our mythology tells of a union between Wales and Ireland.

This all is directly in line with the ogham booklets within the ovate course from the British Druid Order, we take our information from the Scholars Primer – Auraicept na n-Éces which was most probably written in the 7th century, with additions up to the 12th Century.

We don’t ignore the more modern version of how ogham is used today within paganism as a tree alphabet, as of course, it is now common use, but we start by grounding and using the original meanings and kennings, and being accurate.