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Ogam script in the RIA Library collections

In our latest Library Blog post guest blogger Deborah Hayden, Department of Early Irish, Maynooth University takes a fascinating look at the Irish language writing system of Ogam in the manuscripts of the RIA library.

Many of the medieval and modern manuscript sources housed in the Royal Irish Academy library offer valuable evidence for use of the script known as ‘ogam’, a distinctive writing system that was invented for the Irish language and is attested on stone monuments in Ireland and Britain from as early as the fourth century. The major new collaborative project OG(H)AM, run by researchers at Maynooth University and the University of Glasgow, is aiming to harness digital tools from different fields, including linguistics, archaeology and manuscript studies, to develop a better understanding of the changing historical contexts and contemporary social value of ogam script. Part of this work will involve documenting examples of the writing system from manuscripts in the RIA library collections.

Ogam looks a little bit like a barcode: in its earliest form, the standard alphabet was made up of 20 characters, each consisting of one to five short parallel lines or notches, with the value of each character depending on its position relative to a baseline. When inscribed on stone monuments, ogam symbols were typically written in three dimensions across the edge of the stone and read vertically. This system was later adapted and expanded to suit the format of the manuscript page, however, where the total number of symbols was expanded and characters were usually arranged along a horizontal stemline.

The early development of writing in the Irish language was closely tied to Latin learning, and many of the first attestations of ogam in manuscripts occur within discussions concerning Latin and Irish grammar or foreign alphabets (for more on this, see the OG(H)AM project blog here). Perhaps inspired by their exploration of different languages and writing systems, some early Irish scribes jotted down short marginal notes or signed their names in ogam alongside the texts that they were copying. An example of this is found in one of the oldest manuscripts in the RIA collections, known as the Stowe Missal (RIA MS D ii 3). This early ninth-century Mass-book mainly consists of Latin texts, but also includes a tract on the Mass and three healing charms written in Old Irish. The first eleven folios of the manuscript contain excerpts from the Gospel of St John, at the end of which the scribe has written a colophon in Latin but signed his name in ogam

Fig.1: The scribal signature SONID/DINOS in Dublin, Royal Irish Academy MS D ii 3 (‘The Stowe Missal’, early 9th century).
On the background and contents of this manuscript, see this online talk by Lars Nooij and also his 2021 PhD thesis available here
Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

The ogam letters in this example, read left-to-right, spell out the name SONID. The meaning of this name is uncertain, however, as it is unattested elsewhere in early Irish sources; the reverse reading of DINOS has been suggested, but this sheds little additional light on the identity of the scribe. The Stowe Missal signature also lacks the so-called ‘feather marks’ that often appear at the end of the horizontal stemline used for manuscript ogam, although the evidence of other manuscripts indicates that this convention had already been adopted by some scribes by the ninth century.

The ‘Book of Ogam’ and cryptography in medieval Ireland

One of the most famous and visually impressive examples of manuscript ogam in the RIA collections is a text known as In Lebor Ogaim (‘The Book of Ogam’), preserved in the great fourteenth-century compendium of Irish learning known as the ‘Book of Ballymote’ (RIA MS 23 P 12). In Lebor Ogaim consists of over 100 different ‘alphabets’, most of which are variations of the standard ogam alphabet or other kinds of cryptic devices. The tract is immediately followed in the Book of Ballymote by the text known as Auraicept na nÉces, a primer of the Irish language that is heavily indebted to Latin grammatical teaching and includes ogam symbols alongside alphabet tables for Latin, Greek and Hebrew:

Fig.2-3: Ogam ‘alphabets’ from In Lebor Ogaim, followed by the beginning of Auraicept na nÉces
(‘The Scholars’ Primer’), the earliest grammar of the Irish language (RIA MS 23 P 12, fol. 170v).
Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

Some of the variant versions of the ogam alphabet found in In Lebor Ogaim allude to legendary Irish figures or aspects of wider literary tradition. For example, the diagram to the far left at the bottom of fol. 170r in the Book of Ballymote (above left and enlarged in the image below) illustrates a variety of the script called Traigsruth Ferchertne (‘Ferchertne’s Foot-stream?’), perhaps alluding to the acclaimed chief poet of Ulster who appears in literary sources from around the ninth century. The middle diagram is named Fege Find (‘Finn’s Ridge-pole [Ogam]’), most likely referring to the famous Irish warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill, while the diagram to the right is named Rothogam Roigni Roscadhaigh (‘Wheel-ogam of Roigne Roscadach’), possibly an allusion to a figure skilled in poetry or rhetorical speech (roscad). In these varieties of the script, the ogam symbols are arranged in a wheel or on the lines of concentric circles or squares:

Fig.4: Three variants of ogam from In Lebor Ogaim (RIA MS 23 P 12, fol. 170r). l-r: Traigsruth Ferchertne ‘Ferchertne’s foot-stream(?)’,
Fege Find ‘Finn’s ridge-pole [ogam]’, and Rothogam Roigni Roscadhaigh ‘Wheel-ogam of Roigne Roscadach’.
Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen

Many of the alphabets found in In Lebor Ogaim do not occur outside of this source, and it is not always clear what practical use they might have had. It is probable, however, that they point to a broader interest in cryptography that can be traced to much earlier ideas about the exclusivity of literate knowledge. Thus in the preface to the tract, it is claimed that the ogam script was invented by Ogma, ‘a man well skilled in speech and poetry’, who designed it ‘as a proof of his ingenuity’ so that the speech ‘should belong to the learned apart, to the exclusion of rustics and herdsmen.’

In some cases, the use of ogam script seems to have offered momentary amusement or distraction for a scribe tasked with copying learned (and perhaps rather tedious or technical) material. An example of this is found in RIA MS 24 B 3, an early-sixteenth-century compilation of medical learning written by the North Connacht scribe Conla Mac an Leagha, who appears to have been a practising surgeon in the service of the Mac Diarmada lords in Magh Luirg (modern Boyle and Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon). When copying an Irish translation of standard Latin teaching on uroscopy (the diagnosis of illness through examination of urine), Conla lent an additional Irish flavour to his work by occasionally switching from Roman to ogam script:

Fig. 5: RIA MS 24 B 3, p. 31 (early 16th century): a fragment of a treatise on the contents of urine written in
Roman and ogam script by the medical scribe Conla Mac an Leagha.
Image courtesy of Irish Script on Screen.

Manuscript ogam in the modern period

Ogam script, or variants of it, continued to be used in Irish manuscripts well into the modern period. Numerous examples of the writing system are found in handwritten books of Irish-language prose and poetry produced during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of them associated with members of the prolific Ó Longáin family of scribes. Thus in RIA MS 493 (23 C 18), a miscellaneous collection of Irish lore, Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837) signed his name three times at the bottom of a page containing a list of Arabic and Roman numerals:

Fig.6: RIA MS 493 (23 C 18), p. 124. .

The first signature in the above image is in traditional ogam script, while the second is in so-called ‘ogam coll’, a cipher in conventional script in which vowels (which would be represented by one to five strokes in traditional ogam) are instead written with one to five cs. This code appears to derive from one of the variants of ogam referred to in In Lebor Ogaim as coll ar guta (‘C for a vowel’). The third signature is in so-called ‘ogam consaine’, another cipher in conventional script whereby vowels and diphthongs are replaced by certain combinations of consonants. In accordance with a key to this latter cipher given on the preceding page of the manuscript, the ‘í’ in Mícheál’s forename is represented by the letters NG, while the diphthong EA is replaced by the doubled consonant MM.

Although both the ‘ogam coll’ and ‘ogam consaine’ ciphers use conventional Roman script rather than the traditional strokes and notches of so-called ‘ogam craobh’, illustrations of these three varieties of ogam are commonly found together in later manuscripts. For example, one section of RIA MS 622 (23 K 34), a collection of genealogies written in the nineteenth century by an unknown scribe, provides keys to ‘ogam craobh’, ‘ogam coll’ and ‘ogam consaine’ along with didactic poems in Irish on the use of each variety and introductory notes in English. The scribe then copied out the Pater Noster and Ave Maria in ‘ogam coll’, followed by the formula for general confession in ‘ogam consaine’:

Fig.7: RIA MS 622 (23 K 34), p. 105: a didactic poem on ‘ogam consaine’ and
a key to that cipher, followed by the Pater Noster and beginning of the Ave Maria in ‘ogam coll’.

On the page immediately following these passages are notes on various alphabets, along with a copy of a sentence in traditional ogam script by one Seán Ó Conaire, probably the Fr. Seán Ó Conaire who was a priest of the diocese of Cloyne and died in 1773:

Fig.8: RIA MS 622 (23 K 34), p. 107: Copy of a signature in ‘ogam craobh’ by Fr. Seán Ó Conaire,
a priest of the diocese of Cloyne who died in 1773, followed by notes on various alphabets.

The Royal Irish Academy is also home to a large collection of manuscripts written by the Cork antiquarian John Windele (1801–1865), who had a particular interest in ogam. Windele is known to have travelled throughout Munster to seek out monuments with ogam inscriptions and to have even kept several ogam stones in his garden, referring to them as his ‘megalithic library’. One of Windele’s notebooks is now RIA MS 655 (24 M 35), which contains both sketches of stone inscriptions and various ogam alphabets derived from In Lebor Ogaim:

Fig.9 (left): RIA MS 655 (24 M 35), fol. 3v: ‘Wheel-ogam’ from one of John Windele’s notebooks.
Fig. 10 (right): RIA MS 655 (24 M 35), fol. 12r: Ogam inscriptions from one of John Windele’s notebooks.

Windele’s notebooks offer valuable insight into the activities of nineteenth-century Irish scholars and antiquarians who sought to preserve and decode ogam inscriptions on stone monuments across the island and further afield. It is clear, however, that ogam also had an enduring appeal that extended well beyond this archaeological record. The medieval and modern manuscript evidence for ogam offers a window into the development of ideas about languages, alphabets and cryptography in Ireland over a span of some 1,000 years. The manuscript collections of the Royal Irish Academy form a crucial part of this larger puzzle – much of which is yet to be fully deciphered.

Further reading:

  • George Calder (ed.), Auraicept na nÉces. The Scholars’ Primer (Edinburgh, 1917)
  • Damian McManus, A Guide to Ogam (Maynooth, 1997)
  • Pádraig Ó Macháin and Sorcha Nic Lochlainn (eds), Leabhar na Longánach. The Ó Longáin Family and their Manuscripts (Cork, 2018)
  • Erich Poppe, ‘Writing Systems and Cultural Identity: Ogam in Medieval and Early Modern Ireland’, Language & History 61:1–2 (2018), 23–38

Deborah Hayden, Department of Early Irish, Maynooth University.