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Stones that Speak

by Maria 

Posted: 27 July 2003
Word Count: 811
Summary: A piece about Ogham Stones - part of Celtic Culture in Ireland

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Stones that Speak…

When I was in college in Galway, many years ago, we studied Ogham stones
[pronounced "Oh-M"] as part of our Celtic Culture course and I've always been fascinated with Ogham stones ever since. I'm lucky to have been born and bred in the fair county of Kerry on the Dingle Peninsula where the vast majority of the 350 or so Ogham stones of Ireland are located.

Ogham writing is the earliest known form of written Irish. The Ogham characters consist of a series of lines and notches which are etched across a long stem-line on standing stones. The writing is based on the Roman Alphabet.

Some scholars assert that the Ogham tradition is pagan and that the spread of Christianity was the cause of its eventual abandonment. Some stones are said to act as grave-markers. It has also been suggested that some stones were set up to mark tribal boundaries and also that the stones are associated with pilgrimage. Many of the stones are on heights, with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, e.g. the ecclesiastical site of Manachan, to which I will refer to later. About one-third of the Irish Ogham stones occur at sites with some ecclesiastical associations and many are inscribed with crosses which may indicate a connection with the very earliest pre-Patrician church in Ireland.

The inscription on the stone usually consists of the name of the person commemorated followed by the name of his father which is introduced by the word MAQI [son of]. The inscription is read from the bottom up. One example of an Ogham inscription reads as follows:


which can be translated as "Ronan the priest, son of Comgan"

Ogham is difficult to read, but it has always been understood by scholars. Many of the names are unfamiliar and the words used are not in contemporary Irish, so must be read by linguists. Sometimes the inscription is broken or so severely weathered as to make the interpretation unsure.

In Early Christian times, priests, instead of ridding Ireland of paganism, "melted" Christianity with paganism which is why many ancient rituals live on to this day.

The ecclesiastical site of Manachan is situated in the village of Ballymoreragh, about a mile from where I grew up. There are quite a number of interesting monuments, including the Ogham stone, to be seen here. There was a souterrain "Poll na Sagart" [The Priest's Hole] which is now closed up. According to folk tales, which were handed down from generation to generation, priests and monks when in fear of their lives, would hide from British soldiers at "Poll na Sagart".

There is also an oratory and also several cross-inscribed stones in the graveyard. There is a Holy Well, The Well of Manachan, nearby and it is said that the Ogham stone marks the grave of St. Manachan.

Each Easter Sunday, my Grandfather would take the family across the fields to this holy site, collecting pebbles along the way. We would join other pilgrims at about three o'clock in the afternoon, at the Holy Well and so would begin our journey… a pilgrimage that dates back to pagan times. Around the Holy Well we would walk, finishing each "round" by throwing a pebble into the water. When we had circled the well nine times, we would kneel at the edge of the well and cover our faces with water. This shielded us from eye-infections for the rest of the year.

We then walked up the hill to the little oratory and to the Ogham stone, which is now protected by the Kerry County Council. We circled the Ogham stone and oratory five times, always praying, and when we were done, my Grandfather would put a few pennies in the ground near the stone - this was meant to bring good luck to the family. He would then climb onto the roof of the little oratory and sit on the "stone chair", a ritual which was meant to ward off back-pain. This "chair" was previously used as a look-out post by the monks who were always fearful of the British soldiers.

These customs have been resurrected in recent times and a Mass is said at St. Manachan's site at the break of dawn each Easter Sunday. A bonfire is lit and there are refreshments, including Irish whiskey! available to pilgrims, courtesy of the farmer whose land the Ogham stone is on! The "rounds" are still made and some people even leave a few cents at the Ogham stone for good luck.

I hope I've given the reader a sense of the culture in which Ireland is steeped and a better understanding of Ogham stones. There are Ogham stones in almost every parish in the Dingle Peninsula, each with its own unique story, be it pagan or Christian. It's pure magic!

Maria Ní Mhurchú

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Comments by other Members

Nell at 12:34 on 27 July 2003  Report this post
Hi Maria,

I read this with great interest, having spent childhood summers at my grandparent's farm in Ireland, and having also a life-long fascination for our pagan past and the remaining evidence of it. It's lovely to think that the old customs are still observed and haven't been expunged by Christianity - even though the motives for keeping them were those of a gradual turning from paganism rather than any wish to preserve them for their own sake. Well written and informative, thanks for posting this,

Best, Nell.

bluesky3d at 13:08 on 27 July 2003  Report this post
Thank you Maria,

I enjoyed reading your piece too, and especially interested in the reference to the rituals conducted around the Holy Well, and bathing eyes with its waters to promote health.

The word 'well', and keeping 'well' are of course synonymous.

It is also very well written, and has a nice mixture of recollection and fact. Have you written any more about the pagan past? Please do post it if you have, I am sure others would be very interested in reading it too.

Andrew :o)

Ellenna at 13:13 on 27 July 2003  Report this post
Standing stones are an abiding fascination for me..thank you Maria for sending such an interesting piece.


For anyone interested in our ancient sites..The Modern Antiquarian by Julian
Cope..is terrific and done in a very "undry" way..if that makes sense when it comes to stone..

Maria at 13:48 on 27 July 2003  Report this post
I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. I don't have anything else about our heritage written at the moment but am planning to do so in the future.

I must apolize for referring to British soldiers at this time. I'd forgotten that this is UK based and I hope I didn't cause offence to anyone. I was just stating history. Sorry.


Ellenna at 13:51 on 27 July 2003  Report this post
Not in the slightest Maria... we really cannot be so precious...

thanks again Maria .do keep writing and keep our celtic heritage alive.


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