Happy Birthday, R. A. S. Macalister !

Black and white photograph of R.A.S. Macalister - a man with a moustache, wearing a dark coat and tie.
R.A.S. Macalister
CC BY 3.0 Felicity Cobbing, Executive & Curator, Palestine Exploration Fund, 2 Hinde Mews, Marylebone Lane, London. (9th June 2015)

By Katherine Forsyth, OG(H)AM’s Scottish Principal Investigator

Inspired by our runological cousins, who celebrate International Day of Runology on 14 December each year, we have decided to declare a global day of celebration for our own dear script. Following some discussion as to which would make the most suitable day, we have settled upon the birthday of a true giant of ogham studies: Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister—born in Dublin on 8 July 1870.

In over forty publications, including his magnum opus the Corpus inscriptionum insularum Celticarum, R. A. S. Macalister did more than any other single scholar to record ogham inscriptions and make them available for study. Over the course of his life, he surely visited more ogham inscriptions than any other person at any time in history.

The Corpus

Macalister’s Corpus inscriptionum insularum Celticarum, (‘CIIC’), was commissioned by the Irish Manuscripts Commission and finally completed in 1945 when Macalister was 75. The first volume includes 520 inscriptions dating to the 7th century or earlier – the great majority of which are written in ogham. The second volume, which appeared in 1949, the year before his death, covered post-7th-century inscriptions, virtually all in the latin alphabet. Volume 1 draws heavily on his Studies in Irish Epigraphy of nearly a half-century earlier (3 vols, 1897-1907), and is based on Maclister’s personal examination of all known inscriptions in the ogham script (including portable objects). He sets them out, county by county, and barony by barony, giving standardized entries which economically convey the core factual information about each item’s location and discovery circumstances, previous publications, and details of size and geology and wear.

Macalister’s Corpus was the first systematic and comprehensive inventory of ogham inscriptions and has remained the ‘bible’ of ogham studies ever since. It has proved an influential model in the presentation of carved stone monuments.  The numbering system he devised has remained till now the standard way of identifying ogham pillars. He provides a reading of the inscription, noting any dubious portions and illustrates each one with a drawing he prepared himself from rubbings annotated in the field. These are usually of the stone with its inscription, sometimes of the inscription alone. Macalister grappled with the challenge of representing a three-dimensional object effectively on the page. He represented the inscriptions in an innovative way, flattening out the three-dimensional carving to depict it schematically in two dimensions. Macalister was aware of the shortcomings of his illustrations which, as he says in his Introduction, ‘are to be criticized as diagrams, and nothing more’, but he was right to claim that ‘in this way the inscription can be displayed to the reader in a form closer to the original than would be possible by any typographical makeshift’. He anticipates the important criticism that no attempt was made to reproduce these diagrams to a common scale due to the wide divergence in monument size, but it is regrettable that there was not more effort made to give a sense of differing scale and more indication of how the inscription was placed on the stone. This perhaps reflects the primacy given to the recovery of the text, typical of epigraphic scholarship throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, over broader questions of materiality, etc. which have been given more attention only comparatively recently.

There are occasional photographs, but these are rare. In his introduction, Macalister confesses that his ‘experience of photography as an aid to epigraphic work has not been encouraging’. This was particularly true for ogham because the inscriptions ‘lie upon two faces of the stone at once; one face may be in bright sunshine, the other in shadow, at the time of the photographer’s visit; and no one could undertake to come back repeatedly to a stone, in a remote situation, until he find favourable atmospheric conditions.’ From his comments in the Introduction to the Corpus we gain much insight into his process as a field epigrapher and the practical difficulties he faced over the decades. Armchair epigraphers have not been slow to criticise Macalister’s approach or pronouncements on individual stones (especially his willingness to reconstruct damaged or dubious passages). It is true that, as McManus points out, Macalister lacked the linguistic skills necessary for some of the tasks he set himself and failed to take due account of the work of contemporary philologists, which led him into errors and misconceptions. Still, we must view him in context – Macalister was a polymath of a type already rare in his age (and it is fair to say that not all linguists who have pronounced on ogham have had the archaeological skills to avoid errors and misconceptions either!). Macalister was first and foremost an archaeologist, and field-epigrapher. Those who have followed him into the field are usually more forgiving of his shortcomings. As McManus says: ‘To appreciate fully the enormity of Macalister’s achievement in producing his Corpus one has to have done a little field-work on the Ogams’.

Macalister’s views on ogham

In terms of his broader understanding of the ogham phenomenon, Macalister’s often disdainful attitude to the carvers of these inscriptions is jarring to modern readers, but not uncommon in epigraphic scholarship of that era. His notion that the inscribers were merely uneducated labourers implementing the designs of intellectual commissioners was fairly standard, even till recently, and reflects modern class relationships anachronistically projected onto the early Middle Ages (c.f. his endorsement of MacNeill’s suggestion that the doubling of letters was due to workmen demanding payment by the letter!). His erroneous conviction that the ogham alphabet was based on the Chalcidian variant of the ancient Greek alphabet led him to believe that the script must therefore have been very ancient and originated on the Continent. The complete lack of any physical evidence for this ‘pre-Irish’ phase of ogham led him to posit an initial, non-written stage of the system when it existed as a gestural alphabet among druids keen to communicate secretly in their struggles against Rome (with letters indicated by the positions of the fingers rather than carved strokes). Even at the time this scenario was far-fetched, though it profoundly coloured his ideas about the actual manifestations of the script in 5th-7th century Ireland.

Macalister’s ideas about ogham’s intrinsically cryptic and ‘pagan’ nature, the nature of druidic involvement in the script, and notions of Christian defacement/iconoclasm, are open to challenge but have cast a long shadow over popular (and indeed scholarly) understanding of ogham even to the present. His belief that the oghams of Scotland were not Celtic, and therefore should be treated separately (as he did in his 1940 contribution to Eoin MacNeill’s festschrift), led to the ghettoization of this substantial body of evidence (they are largely omitted from his Corpus) and thus a distorted understanding of the ogham phenomenon as a whole, especially its post-seventh century development. This is something we hope to address with the more holistic coverage of the OG(H)AM project. Macalister sat for a period on the Irish Manuscripts Commission, and, would thus, we hope, have welcomed our incorporation of manuscript ogham into the project.

In a sense, the aim of the OG(H)AM project is to render Macalister’s Corpus entirely redundant by providing a new fully comprehensive online catalogue of all ogham inscriptions, capturing far more information about each example, and incorporating a substantial number of oghams discovered since its publication. In doing so, however, we are acutely aware that our work would have been impossible without his own pioneering efforts: we are indeed standing on his shoulders. Technologies he could scarcely have dreamed of allow us to provide the ‘armchair epigraphers’ with direct access to 3D models of the stone which allow them to form their own judgements on the readings of inscriptions, not just take our, or Macalister’s, or anyone else’s word for it. We benefit, too, from a century of work on the development of the Irish language, and of improved archaeological understanding of carved stone monuments, and radical new understandings of late Iron Age and early Medieval Ireland and Britain, especially the nature of Roman influence and the process of conversion to Christianity, all of which profoundly shapes the way we view the origin and development of the ogham script.

We aim to revolutionize the study of ogham, as he did, in his day, by making the data available in a way which we hope will be as useful and enduring as Macalister’s Corpus was in its time. Even if our aim is to supersede him, we more than anyone, are aware of the debt we owe him. Thus, in a small gesture of homage, we seek to honour him by encouraging you to mark his birthday – 8 July – by celebrating the script which was the focus of his life’s work.

Happy International Day of Ogham!

Sources and further Reading

Brennan, Mary Lou (1973) ‘Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister 1871-1950: A bibliography of his published works’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 103 (1973), pp. 167-176. (omits 67 works on archaeology of the Near East, and Macalister 1940 on Pictish inscriptions)

Fagan, Brian (2004) ‘Macalister, Robert Alexander Stewart (1870–1950)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford UP). https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/57475

Macalister, R. A. S. (1940) ‘The inscriptions and language of the Picts’, in Féil-sgríbhinn Eóin Mhic Néill: Essays and studies presented to professor Eoin MacNeill on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, May 15th 1938, (ed.) John Ryan, (Dublin: Three Candles), pp. 184–226.

Macalister, R. A. S. (1945) Corpus inscriptionum insularum Celticarum (volume 1), Dublin

McManus, Damian (1996) ‘Preface’ to 1996 reprint of Corpus inscriptionum insularum Celticarum (Dublin, Four Courts), pages e-h.

O’Sullivan, Muiris (2012) ‘R. A. S. Macalister’, in Pathfinders to the past: the antiquarian road to Irish historical writing, 1640–1960 (eds) Próinséas Ní Chatháin & Siobhán Fitzpatrick with Howard Clarke, (Dublin: Four Courts), pp. 161–171.

Richardson, Hilary (2009) ‘Macalister, Robert Alexander Stewart’, in The Dictionary of Irish Biography: from the earliest times to the year 2002 (Cambridge UP). https://www.dib.ie/biography/macalister-robert-alexander-stewart-a5093

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