Ogham characters in Amhrán na Mara ‘Song of the Sea’; Guest blog by Dr Sabine Ziegler

We are grateful to Dr Sabine Ziegler for contributing a guest blog this month. She is the author of an indispensable introduction to and dictionary of the Irish ogham inscriptions (Ziegler 1994). She is now working at the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften in München, Germany. Sabine writes:

Song of the Sea is a 2014 animated Irish fantasy film and the second instalment in Tomm Moore’s ‘Irish Folklore Trilogy’ (see The Secret of Kells, 2009, and Wolfwalkers, 2020), produced by Cartoon Saloon. It was awarded several prizes, among others the European Film Award 2015 in the category Best Animated Film.

Ben, a 10-year-old Irish boy, blames his mute sister Saoirse for the (supposed) death of their mother who disappeared after giving birth to Saoirse. He doesn’t know that Saoirse is, like their mother, a selkie – a creature capable of shapeshifting between human and seal forms. After some intricacies Ben and Saoirse go to a town where they meet faeries who invite them to their cave. The faeries have some modern traffic signs and bollards standing around in their cave, which they have obviously taken with them from the human world – their cave is located underneath a traffic refuge!

The faeries know about Saoirse’s magic powers and ask her to help them return to Tír na nÓg. However, they are attacked by Macha’s owls, turning the Faeries into stone. The siblings flee the spot and take a country bus, and run into Ben’s dog (named ‘dog’) who had followed them. However, Saoirse is growing ill, as she doesn’t have her seal coat and is away from the ocean, and if she doesn’t get the seal coat back, she will die.

They come to a well which Saoirse dives into. Ben follows her and in the well he meets the Great Seanachaí. In the meantime, Saoirse was kidnapped by Macha. The Great Seanachaí gives Ben one of his hairs that will lead him to Macha. As he follows the hair, it shows him that their mother was forced to return to the ocean on the night of Saoirse’s birth, leaving her husband and children behind. Since Ben found the truth, the walls of hair open, showing him a way out and to the house where Saoirse is detained. Ben manages to rescue Saoirse and, being home again, he finds Saoirse’s coat so that she can put it on. She gets her voice back and eventually sings the Song of the Sea. The song causes Saoirse’s health to be fully restored, along with the faeries and all other spirits whom Macha had turned to stone, and opens the way to Tír na nÓg.

This is a very tender and somewhat melancholic film drawn with great love for details. The film refers to many Irish tales and myths, and therefore it is not really surprising that ogham characters show up (I have to apologize for the poor quality of the pictures – I took the pictures from my TV).

There are three ogham stones in the cave of the faeries:

A screenshot of the film where four characters stand on a circular stone, surrounded by three standing stones with ogham inscriptions and cup and ring marks.
The three ogham inscriptions are isolated for easier legibility.

Actually, they rather look like a combination of old-fashioned antennas and ogham characters sending out some kind of waves. The transcription – depending on the direction of reading – shows issom (from below) or mocci (from top) on the left stone, gul (from below) or dug (from top) in the middle, and dups (from below) or cpul (from top) on the right stone, all aligned with the stemline. Ogham characters are usually either ‘standing on’, ‘hanging from’ or ‘crossing’ the stemline; the parallel character in the right inscription can be interpreted as a p. The g on the middle inscription seems to have a stroke underneath which doesn’t mean anything (as far as I know). As cpul would be difficult to pronounce, this could indicate that we have to read the inscriptions from below. As far as I can see these characters don’t mean anything and seem to be used for creating an ‘Irish flavor’ only.

In the well of the Great Seanachaí, ogham characters show up in the background:

A character pulls on something; in the glowing, blue background, two ogham inscriptions are visible, surrounding a human figure grasping something and surrounded by symbols.

The right inscription is cut and shows only heq (from above) or neb (from below), the left inscription reads (from left to right): tomm – aha! This COULD be the first name of the director! But is it intentional or coincidence? Can we assign a reasonable interpretation to one inscription only?

Maybe the faeries know the answer…

[PS: The picturebook of the film does not have any oghams. (Nora White)]

Further reading:

Tomm Moore and Will Collins, Amhrán na Mara, Kilkenny: Cartoon Saloon 2014.

Sabine Ziegler, Die Sprache der altirischen Ogam-Inschriften [= Historische Sprachforschung Ergänzungsheft 36], Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1994.

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