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Ogham stones are an enigmatic reminder of ancient connections between Wales and Ireland.
Ogham is an early form of Irish writing that consists of a system of notches and horizontal or diagonal scores that were usually cut vertically onto the edge of a stone to represent the sounds of an early form of the Irish language. Ogham stones, found across Ireland and parts of western Britain, (predominantly Pembrokeshire), are inscribed with the names of prominent people, sometimes tribal affiliations or geographical areas. These inscriptions are the earliest recorded form of Irish and are a significant resource for historians, as well as linguists and archaeologists.
Though ogham stones originated in Ireland, a significant number of stones are recorded in Wales. The ogham stones of Wales are very similar but are often bilingual and depict writing in both ogham and Latin, whereas Latin is not used on any of the stones in Ireland. Also, ogham stones found in Wales, do not use certain additional letters of the ogham alphabet, which are commonly used on Irish ogham stones.
There are relatively few surviving ogham stones in our Ancient Connections project area of County Wexford, with just a handful of examples recorded at Portersgate, Cotts, Brandane, Saltee Island, Robbinstown and Killabeg.
The majority of Welsh ogham stones are located in Pembrokeshire. Four are located on the periphery of our project area; two at Brawdy and one each at Jordanston and St. Dogwells. Unfortunately, none of these stones were found in their original context. Most of them were being used as gate posts and were later moved again into churchyards.
It may seem unexpected that there are more ogham stones in Pembrokeshire than Wexford. This may be due to the fact that Wexford’s neighbouring county of Waterford – richly endowed with some 56 recorded ogham stones – was once the territory of the Déisi, an early medieval Irish tribe. In the 4th century AD, the Déisi settled in south west Wales, in the region then known as Dyfed (of which today’s Pembrokeshire forms the most westerly part), perhaps after having been invited there by the Romans to protect Wales from attack by other Irish tribes. Their sphere of influence (and perhaps their rule) eventually stretched all the way to Gwent in south east Wales.
But who were the Déisi? Their name might suggest the status of the tribe in Ireland, as it could signify a vassal or rent-paying tribe, a people who had no clear territory of their own. The reason for their status as a ‘landless’ people may be inferred from the quasi-historic tale known as The Expulsion of the Déisi. This text is thought to originate in the 8th century, though it only survives in manuscripts of a later date. This quasi-legendary account of their expulsion begins with Oengus, one of the princes of the Déisi, killing the son of Cormac, the High King of Ireland, in revenge for the rape of his niece. In the fight he also blinded Cormac in one eye, disqualifying him from the kingship. After a period of moving from region to region, the main part of the tribe eventually settled in Counties Tipperary and Waterford while a smaller branch — under the leadership of Echaid, a brother of Oengus — settled in Dyfed.
History is an ever shifting story and sifting history from the myths of these ancient times is almost impossible. We may never know why the Déisi settled in Dyfed, nor why, how or indeed if they ever left. Only the linear notches of Ogham and a few names and dedications in Latin are actually set in stone.
Ancient Connections, the shared stories of Pembrokeshire and Wexford by Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird, Tara Clarke, Dr. Conor Ryan, Angharad Wynne and Neil Jackman.