In Search of Lost Ogham Biographies

Six stone pillars, four of which are positioned upright and two left lying recumbent, are situated in a roughly circular arrangement in a fenced-off wooded area.

By Dr Nora White, OG(H)AM’s Irish Postdoctoral Researcher

Following the first recording of an ogham stone (at Emlagh East, Co. Kerry) by Edward Lhuyd in the early 1700s, the vast majority of Irish ogham stones were recognised and recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries, although an occasional new find does still occur. In many cases, these stones remain in the landscape where they were first discovered. Some, however, were moved to public institutions, primarily the National Museum of Ireland (before 1877 the Royal Irish Academy) and University College Cork. Others, especially those recognised and recorded in the 19th century, found their way into the private collections of local landowners. An example of this occurred when a storm at the end of the 18th century exposed what is probably an early ecclesiastical site (Cillvickillane/Cill Mhic Uíleáin), including a number of graves and seven ogham stones, in the townland of Ballinrannig in West Kerry. Lord Ventry removed six of these ogham stones in the mid-19th century; four to the grounds of his estate, Burnham House (now Coláiste Íde Boarding School – where they remain), between Dingle and Ventry, and two to the grounds of another estate house at Chute Hall near Tralee, where they still stand. Only one of the ogham stones (Ballinrannig VII) is still preserved on the original site.

Generally, adequate details of the original find location and context of relocated monuments were recorded and published by antiquarians, such as Richard Brash, John Windele, Charles Graves and Robert AS Macalister (the subject of our July blog post). However, in a number of cases ogham stones were moved from their original setting in the 18th or 19th century with only incomplete or inaccurate information recorded regarding their find location and archaeological context. In such cases, detective work is required!

One such example is an ogham stone, now in the National Museum of Ireland collection (Ballinvoher, Co. Kerry), first mentioned in 1894 by Graves and described by him as having been found in the townland of Ballinvoher. Unfortunately, he supplies no further information on the findspot and no townland of that name exists; it is in fact the name of a parish and so denotes a much wider geographical area. Graves notes other ogham stones found nearby, including two from Ballinvoher graveyard in the townland of Rathduff. We can reasonably assume from this that the stone originated somewhere near Ballinvoher graveyard, but the details of the precise location and archaeological context were sadly neglected in his account. Occasionally, when inaccurate or unclear information on the original location of an ogham stone was recorded in the past, it is possible to piece together the likely findspot. The following outlines the case of an ogham stone relocated to a private collection in the 19th century.

The 3rd Earl of Dunraven, Edwin Wyndham-Quin (1812–71), is well known as an authority on Irish medieval architecture. He was also a collector of Irish antiquities and during his lifetime amassed a collection of archaeological objects (the Dunraven collection), including a collection of five ogham stones from Co. Kerry, which remain today in the grounds of Adare Manor in Co. Limerick (Roaringwater Journal blog post on collection). Three of these are securely provenanced: they were originally found re-used as building material (along with 3 others now lost) in a souterrain in a rath in the townland of Rockfield Middle and had been reused again in the building of a cottage in the village of Laharan, from which they were ‘rescued’ and brought to Adare Manor (Macalister 1945, 241, nos 243-246; see an earlier blog post here on Recycled ogham stones). The fourth ogham stone at Adare Manor was recorded as discovered ‘by a grave-like enclosure beside an old pathway, about halfway up the south side of the mountain, and about four miles northward from Kilgarvan’ in the townland of Mangerton in Co. Kerry (Macalister 1945, 217, no. 222). The precise location remains unidentified.

Six stone pillars, four of which are positioned upright and two left lying recumbent, are situated in a roughly circular arrangement in a fenced-off wooded area.
Ogham stones (and a cross-inscribed stone) at Adare Manor (photo taken 2016). The fifth ogham stone (I-KER-096) is second from left. The stones have since been cleaned and straightened.

The fifth ogham stone (I-KER-096 = CIIC 225) was recorded as having been found in 1849 in a townland named ‘Gortamaccaree’ and removed by Lord Dunraven to his seat at Adare Manor in 1851 (Brash 1879, 198). However, no townland of that name exists. Macalister (1945, 219, no. 225) outlined in a footnote his attempts to identify the original location, which was visited by Windele: ‘I have endeavoured, with indifferent success, to follow on the six-inch Ordnance map a description of the route by which Windele reached this stone, as set forth in his notebook, R.I.A. 12 K 28, pp. 164 ff. His compass-bearings are quite untrustworthy. Brash must have derived the name “Gortmaccaree” [Brash actually has ‘Gortamaccaree’] from Windele, for it appears on the pages quoted: after a consideration of the topography I have come to the tentative conclusion that it is a mistake for Gortacreenteen, a townland which appears about the region indicated, on O.S. sheet 103’. There is no reason to support this guess, and, in fact additional information suggests an alternative identification.

Brash (1879, 198 and likely based on Windele’s account) describes the find site as ‘a Cilleen of about 35ft. in diameter, formed of three concentric circles of stones, and having a low and half demolished cairn in the centre, the inscribed stone being at the north side of the cairn’. There does not appear to be any monument in Macalister’s suggested townland of Gortacreenteen that would even roughly match that description. However, using the National Monuments Service’s Historic Environment Viewer to browse the monuments in the general area (between Kilgarvan and the Kerry/Cork county boundary to the south), a monument defined as a stone circle (diam. 10.5m) with a boulder burial at its centre caught my attention in Gurteen townland, a couple of kilometres to the north-northwest of Gortacreenteen (3D model of stone circle).

Although Brash/Windele describes the circular enclosure in which the ogham stone was found as ‘a Cilleen’ (unbaptised children’s burial ground), this may have been influenced by the fact that a number of ogham stones have been discovered at or near Killeens/Cillíní (e.g. Kilmannin, Co. Mayo and Ardcanaght, Co. Kerry). It is also possible that the interior of the stone circle was in fact used as a Killeen (as raths/ringforts sometimes are) and Windele was informed of this locally. Note that the stone circle’s diameter of 10.5m matches the diameter given in the findspot description of ‘about 35ft.’ Admittedly, the identified monument also appears to have just a single ring and not ‘three concentric circles of stones’ as in the early account. A concentric stone circle would be unusual in Ireland. Perhaps Brash/Windele misinterpreted the layout, which includes two stones arranged radially outside the circle. Perhaps the site was more overgrown than it now is, or perhaps, stones have been removed in the intervening centuries. The boulder burial at the centre may well be what was interpreted as the ‘low and half demolished cairn’.

This new suggestion is further supported when we look at historical references (see for the townland name (Gurteen), in 1613 we find ‘Nigurtiney’ (for Na Goirtíní ‘the little fields’) and ‘Gurtinnimaccree’ (242b Calendar of Patent Rolls of James I (1603–23), 1966), which looks like the same name as Windele’s ‘Gortmaccaree’. In addition to this, the placename ‘Gurteenmacree’ is listed in the tithe applotment books for this parish (Kilgarvan) for the year 1826. Therefore, it seems likely that the townland of Gurteen, and possibly more specifically the interior of the stone circle in this townland, is the findspot of the fifth ogham stone now located at Adare Manor.

A close up photo of one of one of the ogham stones showing a clear inscription as described in the text.
The fifth ogham stone (I-KER-096) in the Adare Manor collection (2016).

The ogham stone itself was described by Brash (1879, 198-199), who saw it at Adare Manor in 1868, as ‘a rough undressed pillar of clay-slate, 4ft. 1in. [1.2m] above ground, and 10in. [0.25m] by 9in. [0.22m] at the centre. The inscription is on a left angle, commencing at 7in [0.17m] from the ground line and finishing close to the top’. When visited in 2016, ground level was right at the beginning of the inscription. The inscription as read by Macalister is intact, apart from some damage to scores in places: NOARRA MAQI VORUDRAN. Brash’s reading is less accurate, for example he omits the second R of the first name. The first name is difficult to make sense of and should possibly be read differently. The three notches after the N could be read as a U (the OA reading is suggested by a gap between the second and third notches) or even perhaps as an original E, where one of the notches has eroded away. The latter would give NERRA, which as far as I am aware is not a personal name found in historical sources, although an important character with the name Nera occurs in early Irish literature (e.g. Echtra Nerai). The father’s name, VORUDRAN (also in ogham from Tinnahally, Co. Kerry), is the later attested name (e.g. AU 645) Furudrán (a compound of the preposition for ‘over, upon’ and odrán, diminutive of odor ‘dun colour’).

Sources and further Reading

Brash, Richard (1879): The Ogam Inscribed Monuments of the Gaedhil in the British Isles. London.

Cahill, Mary & White, Nora (2020): ‘A tale of two lost lunulae—one with its ogham story to tell’,   The Journal of Irish Archaeology, 29, 1–16. (on further aspects of the Dunraven Collection).

Graves, Charles (1893) ‘On an Ogam Monument, Recently Found in County Kerry’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1889-1901), 3, 374–379.

Great Britain. Commissioners on the Public Records of Ireland, & Irish Manuscripts Commission. (1966). Irish patent rolls of James I: Facsimile of the Irish Record Commission’s calendar prepared prior to 1830. Dublin: Stationery Off. for the Irish Manuscripts Commission.

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

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