Scratched Stone – Scratched Heads

stone scratches

Aultagh Ogham Stone

One thing always leads to another – that’s something you can be sure of when we are on our archaeological adventures. A case in point was a recent expedition to have a look at Ballynacarriga Castle (not far from Dunmanway, County Cork: 16th century – notable for having a Sheela-na-gig carving built high up into the outer masonry wall, and some unusual carved inscriptions on the internal stonework).

Ballynacarriga Castle (left) with its Sheela-na-gig (right)

Perhaps these various stone scribings turned our minds to the subject of Rock Art (easily done). Our excellent guide on that morning, Margaret Murphy of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, offered to show us an Ogham stone not too far away, in the townland of Aultagh. How could we refuse?

finding the stone

Assistance required in finding the stone!

Our goal was beside an ancient track in Aultagh Wood (Coil an Ailtaigh), approached from a private driveway. Margaret knew the owner who readily gave us permission to have a look. In fact, he provided sterling service after we had searched in vain for the elusive rock – opportunely arriving with a pole to clear the thick undergrowth, and soon revealing this modest boulder to our eager gaze.

stone discovered

Stone uncovered…

The stone lies close to a drainage ditch and has possibly arrived there from another location at some time in its history. In one area the surface of the rock has been damaged, affecting part of the scribings: it may be that it was once standing – now it is prone with carved marks clearly visible on the upper surface.

stone in context

The Aultagh Ogham Stone in context

The last time I wrote a post about ogham (here it is) I gave a very general overview of the subject. Ogham stones are concisely described by the Irish National Monuments Service as:

…upright monoliths or recumbent slabs, onto which ogham script has been incised. Ogham script consists of groups of 1-5 parallel lines and notches cut along the side or across the edge of a stone to represent the sounds of the Irish language. It is usually read up the left angle. The inscription gives a person’s name (usually male) and immediate antecedent/s or tribal ancestor. The stones may have functioned as memorials, grave markers or territorial markers and date from the late 4th to the early 8th century AD.
Fine examples of ogham stones in Ireland

Here’s the entry in the National Monuments Service records for our Aultagh stone:

Description: On a W-facing slope, in Aultagh Wood. Fallen stone (L 1.1m; 0.7m x 0.3m) with inscription on flat face. According to Macalister (1945, 75) ‘fashioned by an illiterate artificer, copying by rote from a wooden model cut for his guidance’ and reading UBEDABO ALTASI.

MacalisterThat’s quite a bald statement from Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister who was Professor of Celtic archaeology at University College Dublin from 1909 to 1943, during which time he compiled and edited the catalogue of all known ogham inscriptions from Britain and Ireland. Macalister’s theories on ogham are generally out of favour today (some commentators have claimed that his interpretations are gibberish) but he seems to accept the Aultagh stone as being within the early medieval ogham tradition. Yet it seems to me very different from many of the other stones we have seen: it is very sharply incised, obviously with a fine-tipped metal tool, whereas a majority of the traditional or ‘classic’ ogham stones are larger and more robustly carved.

Possible ogham stone at Maulinward, West Cork (left) and others from the Stone Corridor at UCC

When you begin to delve into modern literature on ogham you realise how very many varieties of examples there are, and also how many differing interpretations there are of how to ‘read’ the script. This was monumental writing, labour intensive and time consuming to undertake. For this reason it is generally supposed that ogham was ostensibly reserved for marking important graves or places, and that the inscriptions are all names.

Aultagh Inscribed completeAultagh Ogham Stone – ‘classic’, ‘scholastic’ – or ‘fake’?

There are suggestions that ogham inscriptions for more general – and less monumental – usage were once carved on wood, and might have been language primers for the bardic poets. Later inscriptions are sometimes termed ‘scholastic ogham’ deriving from the fact that the inscriptions are believed to have been inspired by manuscript sources, instead of being continuations of the original ‘monument’ tradition. Hallmarks of scholastic ogham are the median line and scribings being on the flat face of a stone (as at Aultagh) rather than on the edge. Ogham was occasionally used for notes in manuscripts down to the 16th century, and the burgeoning interest in all things antiquarian from the 18th century onwards led to  a popular ogham revival. A typical example, from the graveyard in Ahenny, Co Tipperary, has an English inscription dated 1802 and this in ogham: FA AN LIG SO NA LU ATA MARI NI DHIMUSA O MBALLI NA GCRANIBH, interpreted as ‘Under this stone lies Mary Dempsy from Ballycranna’. Macalister takes the view that this inscription, and others like it, were written “with much more zeal than discretion”, while some scholars have suggested that this more modern usage of the scribing should be termed ‘fake ogham’.

Aultagh Incised Stone

My own drawing of the Aultagh inscribed stone – traced from detailed photographs

You may like to have a go at translating the inscription at Aultagh for yourself. Firstly you will need to select your decipherer: a quick internet search will show that there are many, and also a whole lot of inconsistencies. But perhaps this is all part of the head-scratching: and also part of the whole fascination of a historical subject where many of the elements can only be guessed at…

ogham-alphabet

Gobnait

Right: Harry Clarke's St Gobnait

Right: Harry Clarke’s St Gobnait

  • With all the excitements of the hurricanes this week bringing down trees and taking out power and telephones, we almost forgot to celebrate Saint Gobnait’s Day.
  • Saint who?
  • Saint Gobnait – 11th February.
  • But what sort of a name is Gobnait?
  • It sounds like Gubbnet. Not an unusual girl’s name in Ireland: Finola went to school with one. She seemed happy enough with it.
  • But imagine calling a little baby Gobnait… What does it mean, anyway?
  • Er, not sure really: there’s a suggestion that it’s similar to Deborah. That means Honey Bee. Also there’s an Irish word Gabhan which means Blacksmith, and our Saint is supposed to be the patron of ironworkers.
  • So what’s the story of Saint Gobnait?
  • Um, there isn’t one. There’s no history or hagiography about her… But she is mentioned in the ‘Lives’ of St Abban and St Finbarr.
  • But no doubt you are going to tell me that there’s lots of folklore about her?
  • Exactly! This is Ireland after all. She’s celebrated in Ballyvourney, in the Gaeltacht area of Cork. She’s Cork’s local saint. However, she came from somewhere else – possibly Clare, maybe the Aran Islands. She was visited by an angel who told her to travel until she came upon nine white Deer, and that would be the place for her to settle.
  • Did she find the nine white Deer?
  • She did. But not until she had met three white Deer – in Clondrohid, and then six white Deer – in Ballymakeera, both in County Cork. But she carried on until she reached Ballyvourney; that’s where she met the nine white Deer and so founded her religious community there. It’s a site of pilgrimage today: there’s a church and a Gobnait’s Well which is dried up now, and which is said to be haunted by a white Stag. There is evidence that the well is still venerated today – rags and ribbons are tied to the trees and offerings are left there. Interestingly, excavations around the site in Ballyvourney revealed evidence of ancient ironworkings.
St Gobnait's Well

St Gobnait’s Well

  • So it looks as if Saint Gobnait was superimposed on some pre-Christian traditions?
  • Yes, very much like Saint Brigid.
  • Anything else which sets her apart?
  • Bees! She is always depicted with her Bees: she is supposed to have had great powers of healing and could even cure the plague with a medicine made from honey. Interestingly there are folk traditions that the soul leaves the body in the form of a Bee or a Butterfly. Bees could therefore be incarnations of our ancestors; perhaps that is why it’s important to ‘tell’ the Bees our family history – births, marriages and deaths. There were also once laws called Bech Bretha – Bee Judgments.
  • So what am I supposed to do on Saint Gobnait’s Day?
  • Think about Bees, ancestors, iron and healing… And do the ‘Rounds’ on Pattern Day. This involves going around the well or church either three times or three times three times, always clockwise. At Ballyvourney the pilgrims also touch the Sheela-na-gig as part of the turas (journey).
  • Sheela-na-gig?
  • That’s a statue of a female figure with prominent genitalia. There’s one carved on the wall of the church at Ballyvourney, which is supposed to be a representation of the Saint.
Sheela-na-gig and medieval statue

Sheela-na-gig and medieval statue

  • That certainly sounds pagan!
  • Possibly something to do with fertility. There are a lot of examples in Ireland and Britain, almost always associated with churches. Perhaps just a medieval joke – or something which has a meaning now lost to us.
  • So, is that everything that there is to know about Saint Gobnait?
  • No – at Ballyvourney the Parish priest looks after a 13th century carved wooden figure of the Saint, and this is brought out on her day and also on Whit Sunday. Some people supposedly still use a Tomhas Ghobnatan: a length of ribbon or thread which is measured against the carved figure and then used as a healing charm. There are other sites in Ireland dedicated to her: a shrine and well in Dunquin, and Tobar Ghobnait, another well in a ruined oratory at Kilgore on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry. Here is found a simple ancient stone bowl which is always full.
  • How active is the pilgrimage at Ballyvourney?
  • Very active: the church is always crowded on the day, and there are long queues waiting to measure their ribbons against the wooden statue after doing the ‘rounds’.
  • Well, thank you: I will take a trip up to Ballyvourney…
  • It’s worth going on a Sunday to hear the Mass sung in Irish. Sean O’Riada formed a choir  there which is still going strong today, now led by his son Peadar.

cludach-naomh-gobnait