The Scythian King Fénius Farsaid lived at the time of the building of the Tower of Babel – some stories suggest that he had a hand in its construction. He gathered around him a group of scholars and methodically researched the new languages which were being spoken by the dispersed builders of the tower. Their work produced four languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin and – the most sophisticated – Ogham.
Thus was the story that the bards of old related to explain the carvings on Ogham Stones (sometimes spelled Ogam but always pronounced oh-am) which are found in northern Europe, the greatest number being in the South West of Ireland.
King Fénius named each of the letters of the Ogham alphabet after his best scholars – 25 in all. The ‘letters’ are in fact simple lines inscribed on stone, either on opposite sides of a vertical line or on each side of a sharp corner of stone – the position and angle of each line defining the letter. Words are read starting at the bottom, going up the left side of the line or corner and coming down on the other side, and are generally thought to represent names, suggesting that the inscribed stones are memorials.
If you subscribe to the King Fénius theory of Ogham Stones (and why wouldn’t you?) you might wonder why historians place them in the early medieval period (4th to 9th centuries) and associate them with Christianity. Many of them appear to have been inscribed on older standing stones, including the gigantic megalith at Ballycrovane, overlooking Kenmare Bay and 5.3 metres tall.
Ogham is not a forgotten language: it is a saleable item of Irishness. But, consider – quite apart from the many examples of Ogham stones which remain in the wild there are those which are kept in captivity. Take a look in the Stone Corridor at University College Cork – there is a remarkable collection there, a collection that raises questions in my mind: why have the stones been removed from their original siting? Is that an archaeologically sound thing to do – to take them from their historic context and chain them up so unnaturally in a long, dark and urban corridor? If it’s time to give the Elgin Marbles back to Athens then it’s certainly got to be appropriate to redistribute the Ogham stones (and the other inscribed stones and Rock Art that are in the Corridor) back to their natural habitats – in the wilds of West Cork…