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Ogham Stones

DSC03966The tour bus sped along a narrow paved road in Ireland. John, the bus driver, manhandled the long 40-passenger bus as if it were a Volkswagen beetle. Over bumps, around curves. I hoped there wouldn’t be a vehicle from the opposite direction. The road, with no marked lines, was as narrow as the country roads I learned to drive on in Pickett County.

I leaned close to the Gordon, the tour guide, and asked, “Is there a reason we’re travelling on this back road?” Gordon didn’t understand. I tried again. “Why are we on this narrow road? Isn’t there a better road to get wherever we’re going?”

“Oh, yeah, but we’re driving by some Ogham (OH-ehm) stones,” Gordon said. I frowned. “They were used to communicate before Christianity. It’s markings on rocks that were stuck in the ground.” And with a simple explanation, I was hooked. “We’ll stop, but not get off the bus,” he said. I stared out the bus window and watched Ireland fields of green flash by. Herds of cattle. Flocks of sheep.

Finally, John slowed the bus and announced, “Ogham stones on the right. Get your cameras ready! One of the best collections of Oghams in this part (the southwest) of Ireland.” Six stones, the tallest about eight feet tall; the shortest, three feet. Twelve to twenty-four inches wide. With short carved lines around the perimeter. No letters I recognized. Just lines along the sides and the top of stones, which looked like tombstones. Lines like a Tennessee black bear scratches into the bark of an oak tree.

“So what do those lines say?” I asked. Neither John nor Gordon, both well-educated Irishmen, knew. “Probably someone’s name or maybe directions to somewhere,” Gordon suggested. “The writing usually started at the bottom left side and went across the top and down the right side.” Left to right – like we write.

Those stone tablets had been positioned in the ground close to the road for people, such as my twenty-one American travelling companions and me, to see. Located on private property near the Gap of Dunloe close to Killarney, these stones show the earliest form of Irish writing by the Celts and date back to third century AD. Because they were originally the roof of an underground passage that collapsed at the end of the last century, they were protected from exposure and are well preserved. (http://www.destinationkillarney.ie/dunloe-ogham-stones)

Those letters, formed only with straight lines, were carved centuries ago. Each of the twenty main letters of the Ogham alphabet, used for about 500 years, was also the name of a tree. The letters consist of one to five perpendicular or angled strokes, meeting or crossing a centerline. The number, position, and direction of the lines identify the consonants and vowels, and the vowels can also be written as dots. The origin of the Ogham alphabet isn’t known; it may have been adapted from sign language.

Seeing the Ogham Stones was a three-minute stop on a weeklong Ireland tour. They impressed me as much as the miles and miles of rock fences dividing pastures, flocks of Blackface Mountain sheep, the 700 foot high Cliffs of Mohr, Calla Lily gardens in tropical Ring of Kerry, and even Blarney Castle.

Here was a written language used by early Irish people. Simple lines carved on standing stones. If John hadn’t driven the long way around on the back roads, I wouldn’t have learned about the Ogham alphabet. And my trip to Ireland wouldn’t have been complete.

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One Response

  1. The number of times I though I was going to die on those back roads down south – I can’t even tell you.

    Like

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