Ogham Poem Documentation
 An Ogham Poem
(pronounced OH-am  or OH-yam)

By Melinda Sherbring (Éowyn Amberdrake)
Feb 2003
I am a scribe, and a scribe should know the alphabet.  The ogham is an Irish alphabet used in the British Isles in the early to mid part of the first millennium. So I decided to teach myself the names of the letters of the ogham, their meanings, and their shapes by writing a poem using an Irish poetic form (or close). 
What is Ogham?
Let us start with the Mirriam –Webster Online Dictionary definition: 

Main Entry:	ogham
Variant(s):	or ogam /'ä-g&m, 'O-; 'O(-&)m/
Function:	noun
Etymology:	Irish ogham, from Middle Irish ogom, ogum
Date:	1729
: the alphabetic system of 5th and 6th century Irish in which an alphabet of 20 letters is represented by notches for vowels and lines for consonants and which is known principally from inscriptions cut on the edges of rough standing tombstones
- ogham·ic /ä-'gä-mik, O-; 'O-(&-)mik/ adjective
- ogham·ist /'ä-g&-mist, 'O-; 'O-(&-)mist/ noun 

R.A.S. Macalister’s 1940s works, primarily The Archaeology of Ireland (1949, 328 – 43), discusses the theory that the Ogam alphabet was invented by druids who had learnt the Chalcidic version of the Greek alphabet in the 6th and 5th c. BCE, probably in northern Italy. It was apparently a series of hand signals based on the use of the five fingers. [1]  However, the first physical evidence of ogham that survives is chiseled on the stone monoliths in the British Isles.  They are found in Ireland, Wales, Man, and Pictland. These appear to be carved no earlier than about 400 CE, and seem to have stopped being done after the 600s. 
The letters are formed by carving lines on either side of, or through, a stem line.  On a stone pillar, this stem line is one of the vertical edges, and thus is not itself carved into place.  The inscription starts at the base and reads upwards.  When written on the page, the stem line is often drawn horizontally, in which case one starts at the left and reads to the right. 
Our earliest non-monumental knowledge of the ogham is from the Book of Ballymote, compiled from many older mss. about the year 1391. [2]  It contains treatises on the Jewish peoples, St. Patrick and his household, Cormac’s instructions to a king, surveys of Ireland, sagas of Finn and Brian Boru, the Book of Rights, and, more importantly for this topic, treatises on meter, the profession of a poet, ogham writing, and language. [3]
The ogham treatise in the Book of Ballymote tells us that this alphabet is arranged in groups of five letters each.  It also includes an additional five letters that appear to have been added to the alphabet after the use of ogham on monuments died out. It credits the invention of this alphabet to Ogma, god of eloquence.  It names the ogham letters in several systems (that is, they apparently do not have only a single name). The most common system calls them by the names of trees and plants, and this verse uses those names. There were also phrases, and the second group may also be equivalenced to the first five numbers. 
Irish Verse Form
One of the poetic forms used by the Irish filid (poets) is the system of Dán Díreach or “strict verse.” There are requirements for a specific number of syllables per line, rhyming according to a set pattern, with alliteration and mandatory additional ornaments.  More information on these can be found at the Gilbride and O’Brien websites listed at the end of this paper.  It is too complex to explain fully here. 
The verse form I used has been simplified from these strict verse conventions; call this a “loose verse” version.  Like one of the strict verse forms, this poem uses binding rhymes based on the accented final syllables (even when followed by an unstressed syllable), and the last word of the stanza rhymes with the first word. I admit that some of the rhymes are not exact, however.
There is as much alliteration as I could pack into the lines, with additional occasional ornaments of internal rhymes, assonance and consonance. There are four stresses per line, usually with two unstressed syllables between them, but sometimes only one or even none.  The historical Irish verse forms had much stricter syllable requirements.  I found no mention of puns as an element of Irish verse, but I couldn’t resist putting them in; it must be the herald in me coming out.
The Ogham Verse
Reading the Verse
The first line tells the shape of the letters in that verse. It assumes that the letters would be written across a vertical corner or line.  Modern ogham typefaces assume a horizontal line, and read from left to right.  This means that the letters where the rows are written to the right of the vertical line will be printed in such a typeface with the rows below the horizontal one.
 The order given is from a single line to five lines.  That is, the first letter in the verse is a single line in the given orientation, and the last one in the verse is written as five lines in that orientation.
The name of the letter has been printed in bold face type, and the plant that is the translation of that name is printed in italics. These verses are easier to speak aloud if you assume that the first stress of each line is on the first word, and that the bold-faced term will also be stressed.  The italicized word might not be. 
Understanding the Verse
This is a nonsense verse to help memorize the look of the letters, their names, and their meanings.  Where I could add information about the plant in the line, I did, though it is misleading in a couple spots, which will be pointed out here.
Birch bark is indeed pale (some species have white bark). Rowans are known for red berries that were used to lure birds into bowshot range. Alder is said to be water resistant, and was used frequently for both boats and pilings. Bogs are not, however, too soggy for willows.  Willows like to be next to streams and some species are quite comfortable in bogs. Ash of course was used for arrows. 
The hawthorn shrub is not notably hefty or hearty, but the oak is known to grow very tall. Whether tinne is actually holly or the holly oak, both have sharp spines on their leaves. Witch hazel, source of a popular astringent liquid, is a new-world plant, so this line does not refer to the same plant as the letter name. And apples, of course, do grow in sunny orchards.
Vine likely does refer to a grape vine, and ivy is an evergreen plant.  Reeds are grasses that live in marshes and when the wind blows in autumn, the dry stems rattle together. Why all the other thorny plants would scorn the black-thorn, I don’t know, but the words rhymed.  The last line is a tautology that puns on the “old person” meaning of “elder.” 
“Spot it with Ailm” echoes a phrase often associated with trees in modern times: “spotted owl;” which is a very modern memory aid. Ailm is the first vowel in the list, so the line is true.  I also liked that “fir is”, “first”, and “furze” are almost homonyms, so I fit them all in. Furze actually has bright yellow flowers, not golden ones. This European native is a naturalized weed in parts of California.  Heather bowers may shelter grouse, but not people, because it is a low bush.  The New World’s quaking aspen is a poplar, and its leaves shake, but mirth has nothing to do with it.  The poem ends with another pun. 
[1] Summarized from Swift, p. 50.
[2] CELT gives its full citation as: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 536 (alias 23 P 12 alias Book of Ballymote, 14th-15th century, vellum. R. Atkinson (ed), Book of Ballymote [facsimile] (Dublin 1887).
[3] From the Ballymote website, which credits the information to James McDonagh's History of Ballymote and the Parish of Emlaghfad.
Web Sites
CELT: The online resource for Irish history, literature and politics. http://www.ucc.ie/celt/ © 1997-2003 Corpus of Electronic Texts (UCC). This site is publishing an SHTML marked up copy of important texts existing in Ireland, in the original language. Some are translated also.  Accessed Feb 12, 2003.  
Clark, Curtis. Celtic Ogham. http://www.csupomona.edu/~jcclark/ogham/  © 1997-2001. There is much interesting stuff about the trees and plants at this site, including a geographic distribution of them across Europe during the first millennium. Accessed Feb 12, 2003.
Everson, Michael. Every Ogham thing on the Web. http://www.evertype.com/standards/og/ogmharc.html  This site will lead you to a wealth of resources, including photos of ogham used on stones, and the typeface standards for ogham. Accessed Feb 12, 2003.
Merriam-Webster Online. http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/netdict?ogham . Accessed Feb 12, 2003.
Parish of Ballymote. The Book of Ballymote. ©1998 http://homepage.tinet.ie/~jhiggins/book.html Accessed Feb 12, 2003.
Gilbride’s Strict Verse. http://homepages.nildram.co.uk/~fealcen/gilbride.htm. Accessed Feb 12, 2003.  This is a practical description of the Irish verse form. 
O’Brien, Maureen S. Medieval Irish Poetry. © 2000.  http://www.dnaco.net/~mobrien/irishptr/drchpoem/index.html Accessed Feb 12, 2003.
O Boyle, Seán. Ogam: The Poets’ Secret. Dublin: Gilbert Dalton. 1980. 
Swift, Catherine. “Irish Monumental Sculpture: the Dating Evidence Provided by Linguistic Forms”, pp. 49 –60 of Pattern and Purpose in Insular Art : Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Insular Art Held at the National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff 1998. edited by Nancy Edwards, et al. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 2001.