Ogham in the British Museum

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

Christmas came a little early last month when we were welcomed behind the scenes at the British Museum to record ogham-inscribed objects in its collection. Two are on public display and so some early starts were required to complete photography before the doors opened (it takes about two hours to do each one). The others are safely in storage, though two are so large they are housed with Egyptian artefacts—which made for some interesting working conditions! Unfortunately, two had been blocked in by larger objects and moving staff were away installing an exhibition, so we’ll have to return at a later date to record those.1 

In addition to the five stones we recorded, we also managed to record a unique piece of portabilia, the ogham-inscribed amber bead from Ennis, Co. Clare (I-CLA-003, CIIC 53, Acc. No. 1888,0719.119). See this month’s Og(h)am of the Month. Another piece of ogham-inscribed metalwork in the British Museum’s collection is a fragment of a silver penanular brooch, chopped into hacksilver, and found in the Vale of York hoard (E-WYK-001, Acc. no. 2009,8023.4). It is on display in York Museum and we hope to feature it in a future blog. 

Ennis bead, illuminated from below.

The British Museum owns five Irish ogham stones, all from East Muskerry in Co. Cork, and we were able to record four of them on this visit. The slim pillar from Mount Rivers, parish of Achadh Bolg | Aghabullogue, has had a checkered life (I-COR-074, CIIC 123). It was found in 1842 by Michael Lyons following the demolition of a flour mill (An Muillean Rua | Mullenroe) on the site of a possible ringfort (rath).2 A second pillar found together with it was erected locally and is now covered in lichen and graffiti. Mr Lyons, however, intended to sell this pillar to John Windele, the well-known Cork antiquarian and ogham collector, and so removed it to his own house where he buried it under a pile of sand. Some thieves attempted to steal it but were apprehended. A ‘violent quarrel’ broke out which led to the stone being fractured and the upper portion sadly lost. R. A. S. Macalister commented that this was ‘an instructive fable, as illustrating the dangers of trying to make short cuts to scientific discovery by way of commerce’ (1945, 120). Indeed.  

The lower part of the Mount Rivers stone was purchased by subscription for the Royal Cork Institution, which closed in 1885, before eventually finding its way to the British Museum in 1905 (Acc. no. 1905,0314.1). The surviving text is totally clear. It reads: MAQIBRI[-] up the left, and CELIALACA[-] up the right. Sadly, the ends of both lines are missing. We are used to MAQI ‘son of’ in ogham inscriptions. What is unusual about this text is the use of the word CELI (céile) to express the relationship between the two people mentioned, Mac-Bri[-] and Alaca[-].  This is one of seven examples of CELI extant. The word means either a client (someone in receipt of a fief from a lord), or a companion (fellow, neighbour, husband), but it’s not clear whether the meaning was ‘originally one of inferiority or one of equality’ (eDil).  

The remaining three are all from a souterrain at the ringfort at An Rú Mór (Roovesmore) (I-COR-076, -077, -078, CIIC 124-6), about 8 or 9 miles south on the opposite side of the river Lee. All three are carved from strikingly red rock and each stand over 2m tall. One is on display in the museum’s Great Court where it serves as a meeting point for tour groups—though it seldom attracts much attention from them (hard to believe, I know!). It reads: TOBIR MUCOI SOGINI | VEDACU[NA] ‘of Topar (?‘well’) of the Sogain (‘favourably-descended’) kingroup’; ‘of Fíadchú (‘wild dog’)’.3 The first part reads up the left side and across the top, the second part down the right. It is not a continuous text—there is a substantial gap between the two—and it seems possible that the layout is to emphasise VEDACUNA and have it end level with the starting point of TOBIR. So, was Fiadchú son of Topar? Or is it commemorating a member of the Sogain descended from Fiachú? The Sogain were a population group originally from east Galway but who are found spread to other parts of Ireland. They may or not be connected to the Corcu Sogain who are referred to in the genealogical material as a sept of the Benntraige of Co. Cork (Bantry). It was Thomas O’Rahilly who first pointed out the link between that group and this ogham.4 If they were newly in the area, is that why they felt the need to mention the kin-group?  

Detail of Roovesmore I showing redness of stone.

The tallest of the three pillars, standing at 2.44m, commemorates: MAQI-ERCIAS | MAQI VALAMNI, ‘of Mac-Ercae (‘son (i.e. devotee) of the Speckled one’), ‘of Follaman (‘ruler’)’.5 The two names are arranged up-up the left and right sides respectively. The most straightforward way to read them is ‘of Mac-Ercae (son) of Follaman’. It is curious that the genealogy of Coireall mac Curnain (saint of Cluain Caoin Choirill | Clonkeenkerrill, Co. Galway), lists his grandfather’s great-grandfather as ‘mac Earcca mac Tipraide mac Sogain’, ‘Mac-Ercae son of Topar son of Sogan.6 Sogan has been remembered as a man rather than kin-group/territory. Could this be a garbled recollection of the historical family commemorated at Rooves More with their kingroup mentioned because they are not in their place of origin? 

The third pillar mentions a different kin-group the first letter(s) of which are damaged. It reads: ANAVLAMATTIAS MUCOI [.]OELURI AVI AKERAS ‘of Anblamath (‘good mistake’) of the [-] kingroup, descendant of Aicher (‘(sharp) point’)’. It is interesting that Anblamath is identified by two different levels of kin-groups but not in relation to a father.7 Again, I wonder if this reflects his being at a distance from his paternal lands? Of course, these pillars were found in a secondary location and we don’t know how far they would have been brought, but it is still noteworthy that they mention three kin-groups between them. 

It is a curious story how these three stones ended up in the British Museum.8 They were presented in 1866 by Colonel Augustus Lane-Fox, who went on to become General Pitt-Rivers, Britain and Ireland’s first ever Inspector of Ancient Monuments. At the time, Lane-Fox was 38 and stationed as Assistant Quartermaster to the British Army in Ireland. He was beginning to take great interest in archaeological remains and in one of his first excursions in scientific archaeology, he began exploring the remains of a ringfort at Roovesmore. There he discovered an underground chamber, i.e. a souterrain, and there he found these three stones as a second layer of its roof, laid longitudinally on top of the underlying transverse layer. The inscriptions were largely obscured and it was thus clear to Lane-Fox that they related to an earlier phase of use. He felt the chamber was on the point of collapse and resolved to have them removed. As he said: 

“This circumstance, coupled with the impossibility of reading the oghams as they were then placed, seemed to make it desirable, in the interests of archaeology, that the stones should be removed before they were lost in the impending ruin of the building. In so doing, I received every assistance from the owner of the property, who had long desired to remove the rath as an impediment to his farm. But if was not without much persuasion that I induced any of the labourers to work in the place, owing to the superstitious dread the natives have of meddling with these localities.”9

As Lane Fox explained: 

“It is generally believed that any interference with these raths will be attended with dire calamities from the vengeance of the fairies who inhabit them; and, as these evils are not confined to the perpetrator of the outrage, but extend to the neighbourhood in which it takes place, it not unfrequently happens that some event may occur which is construed into a fulfilment of such belief. As an instance of this credulity I may mention that, on one occasion, I was supposed to have caused the death of a calf in an adjoining farm, by creeping into one of these crypts.”

Lane Fox attributes the preservation of ‘great quantities’ of such antiquities to these beliefs and says that the locals had left these remains well alone and were not aware of the ogham. Their concern over what he was planning, however, drove them to appeal to the parish priest, who was the landowner’s brother, ‘to prevent my working there’. As he makes clear he saw this as ‘no idle story got up for the purpose of extorting money, but a genuine belief on the part of the neighbours.’  
Despite this sympathy, the interests of the local elite and the mores of scientific ‘modernity’ prevailed and the stones were removed. As he says, ‘It will be seen, therefore, that in removing the stones I had other matters to contend with besides the mere mechanical difficulty of raising them out of the ground, which was not inconsiderable, the largest weighing about a ton and a half, the other two about 6 cwt. and a ton, respectively. I at last succeeded, however in getting them conveyed to Cork, and ultimately to London, where they have been deposited in the British Museum.’

Recording Roovesmore III in the early light. 

There have been calls for the repatriation of these stones to Ireland,10 but it would be wrong to paint this as a simple black and white, English versus Irish picture. Class is an important factor to bear in mind—the landowner was in favour, and Lane Fox was himself a member of the Royal Cork Institution. They thought they were doing the right thing. There would have been many among the middle-classes who supported their action of depositing the pillars with the pre-eminent museum of the ‘British Isles’. As Lane Fox notes: ‘the Cork Steam Company, viewing them as monuments of general interest, very liberally offered to take them to London free of costs.’ It is a shame that only one of the pillars is now on display, but we have to ask, where would they be more likely to be displayed in Ireland? 

There is one last ogham to be mentioned, currently on display next to the Sutton Hoo treasure in the Medieval and Late Antique galleries. Carved on a pillar of granite, it was found in 1861 reused as a footbridge over a stream at the farm of Fardel, near Ivybridge in Devon (E-DEV-001) and the farm-owner, Captain Pode, presented it to the British Museum (Acc. No. 1861,0209.1). As is quite common in Western Britain, it is a bi-version inscription but more unusually it has been used at least twice. On the front is the Latin text reading downwards: FANONI MAQVI RINI, ‘of Fanonus son of Rinus’. It’s worth pointing out that the inscription is unique in not translating the middle word into Latin, although it is spelled according to Latin conventions (i.e. with a V following the Q). On the reverse, in slightly later writing is a second Latin text, also reading downwards: SAGRANVI ‘of Sagranuus’. The ogham is up-up the two edges of the front, so we would imagine it goes with the former text. The reading, however, is not FANONI MAQI RINI but SVAQQUCI MAQI QICI. Close but no cigar. Scholars have suggested some confusion by the carver leading to the substitution of strokes to the left rather than right of the stem-line. Macalister rejected this theory preferring to see three distinct phases of use, but Patrick Sims-Williams has given new life to the ‘mistake’ theory, by highlighting the substitution of SV- for F- in the earliest Latin loanwords into Irish. A name formed from the same root occurs in a Latin inscription from Pembrokeshire (CIIC 455) FANNUCI and both are a Latin borrowing ultimately from Fannius. Sims-Williams goes on to propose that the carver has indeed confused the orientation of the H- and B-aicme letters:  SVA[NN]UCI MAQI [R]I[N]I.11 His explanation seems convincing but throws open some serious questions about levels of ogham literacy both of the carver, and the audiences who tolerated this ‘mistake’. There are parallels, however. Nora White points out to me the example of Airghleann (Arraglen) (I-KER-012, CIIC 114): MAN SOMOGAQQ for MAQ COMOGANN. 

The form of the Latin letters suggests a date in the second half of the sixth century for the ogham, which is in fairly ‘chunky’ lettering with generously spaced strokes evenly spread with no extra space between letters (unless of the same aicme). Both lines start level and though the first name is shorter, it is emphasised, occupying more of the arris, turning the corner and finishing on the upper surface. SAGRANVI on the reverse has a distinctive form of the letter R (in contrast to the standard capital R on the front) and an N with a horizontal cross-stroke (in contrast to the oblique stroke of the capital on the front). It is thus anticipating the distinctive ‘Insular’ letter forms which are later seen in manuscripts and is likely to be a little later, towards the end of the sixth century or early in the seventh century.12 We hope to be able to visit its findspot later in the year. 


  1. I-COR-055 Deelish, Co. Cork (CIIC 106, Acc. No. 1884,0609.1) and W-BRE-006 Pentre Poeth, Trecastle, or the Llywel Stone (CIIC 489, Acc. No. 1878,1102.1, Reg. No. M&LA78.11-2.1). ↩︎
  2. See Macalister 1945, 120, for information. ↩︎
  3. Not quite ‘[Stone] of Vedac, [son] of Rob of the Sogain’ which is what it says on the Museum’s label. ↩︎
  4. 1946, 465 n.3. ↩︎
  5. See Sabine Ziegler 1994 Die Sprache der altirischen Ogam-Inschriften, Göttingen, for the following explanations. ↩︎
  6. Ó Riain CGSH §388. ↩︎
  7. See McManus (1991, 118-9) for why AVI (> Uí) should be understood in the ogham period to refer to a remote (or mythological) ancestor rather than a ‘grandson’. ↩︎
  8. Accession numbers 1866,0511.1-3. ↩︎
  9. ‘Roovesmore fort and stones inscribed with oghams, in the parish of Aglish, County Cork,’ Archaeological Journal 24, 1867, 129-39. ↩︎
  10. Marc O’ Sullivan, Arts Editor, Irish Examiner, Monday, 4 November 2013: ‘Stolen moments in British Museum’. ↩︎
  11. Patrick Sims-Williams 2003, The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: Phonology and Chronology, c.400-1200, Philological Society 37, Oxford, 66-68. See also Charles Thomas 1994, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, Cardiff, 267. ↩︎
  12. Carlo Tedeschi 2005, Congeries Lapidum. Iscrizioni Britanniche del secoli V-VII. Pisa, 269-70. ↩︎

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