Written by Dr. Michael Christopher Keane
Although originally a Kerryman I have been living for over 40 years in Farran, Co Cork which is about 10 miles west of Cork city. Farran parish has been one of the great sites of Ogham stones in Ireland. While a few of the stones remain in their original location, many were removed around 100-150 years ago and are now to be found either in the British Museum in London or in University College Cork (UCC). The following is a brief outline of the story of the Farran Ogham stones, including the continuing controversies over the years surrounding the removal of the majority of them from their original location.
Irish Ogham Stones
The inscriptions on Ireland’s historic Ogham stones represent the earliest source of Irish written communication. The historic origin of the ancient Ogham script remains the subject of speculation, with the word Ogham believed to trace back to Ogma, the god of eloquence of the Tuatha de Danann in ancient Irish mythology.
Short marks were made in groups of between one and five notches, strokes or diagonal lines, usually on the edge of the stone. Each group signifies a sound in Old Irish. The letters/sounds which were carved are based on the Latin alphabet which we still use today. The inscriptions can signify a single name, or a phrase such as ‘X son of Y of the family of Z’, but sometimes a little more detail is added. The inscriptions can date from the end of the 4th up to the early 8th century AD.
Ogham stones are almost uniquely Irish, although they have also been found in small numbers in Wales, Devon and Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Of the total of around 330 Ogham stones found in Ireland, the great majority have been found in the South or South West, with Cork, Kerry and Waterford accounting for around 260 of the total. Within County Cork two townlands in the parish of Farran, Roovesmore and Knockshanwee, have been a leading source. These findings are a clear indication that ancient Irish peoples, who were well disposed towards learning and written communication, were in residence in this region close to the southern banks of the River Lee in far distant times.
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The Ogham Stones of Roovesmore, Farran, County Cork
While some of the Roovesmore Ogham stones remain in their original place of origin, (Fig 1a and 1b), three of the finest stones were removed around the year 1860 by a Col. Lane Fox, a British Army officer who was interested in the history of Ogham stones. The stones were taken by Lane Fox to the British Museum in London where they have been on display ever since. He also published a detailed account of the stones in the journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute, London in 1867.
Fig 1a and Ib: Ogham stones in Roovesmore, Farran, Co Cork
The removal of the stones was typical of the activities of colonial Britain through the centuries when large numbers of artifacts of historic interest or value were taken, often illegally, from the many foreign British outposts for display back in the UK.
In his published article, Lane Fox describes how he found the stones in a fairy fort at a Roovesmore farm where they formed part of a souterrain or crypt in the middle of the fort. When Lane Fox, ‘in the interests of archaeology’, decided to move the stones, he found great difficulty in employing local workers. This arose due to the deeply held beliefs at the time that fairy forts should not be tampered with. However, in the end he managed to have the stones removed, with the whole operation being quite a task as the largest stone was around a ton and a half in weight, with the other stones being around a ton each.
An image of one of the stones on display in the British museum shows that it is impressively mounted on a stone plinth (Fig 2a). The inscription on the plinth (Fig 2b) reads as follows: OGHAM INSCRIPTION Presented by Lt Col A Lane Fox Roovesmore Fort Aglish Co Cork. (Aglish is the old parish name for Farran). While the Ogham inscription on the stones was a challenge for Lane Fox who wasn’t familiar with the Irish language, with assistance the script was translated into familiar lettering. Quoting an example from his published article, the script on one stone was translated as MAQIFALAMNI on one side and MAQIERCIAS on the other side. This was then interpreted as gaeilge as Mac Ui or son of Falami and son of Ercias. While there is no knowledge of who Falami and Ercias were, one suspects that they were important people at the time. It is generally accepted that the positioning of the stones represented the boundary of an ancestor’s territory, as well as marking ancestral burial places.
Figure 2a: Roovesmore Ogham Stone in the British Museum & Figure 2b: The plinth and inscription of the Roovesmore Ogham Stone in the British Museum
Recovering the Ogham Stones from the British Museum
There is now a growing worldwide campaign in support of the return of historic artifacts to their original homeland rather than allowing them to remain in the possession of British and other colonists from earlier times. Such objects continue to have deep significance for the peoples from whose communities the objects were taken by fair or, very frequently, foul means.
For the local community this raises the interesting challenge as to whether there should now be a campaign for the return of the Roovesmore stones. Of course, if the British Museum were to agree to their return, some practical problems would immediately arise. Where should the stones be placed if they were to be returned? How would the practical task of transporting from London three large stones, each weighing one to one and a half tons, be achieved? However, if the British Museum were to relent, one can be confident that solutions would be found and the historic Roovesmore stones, following their 160 plus years holiday in London, would once again settle back into their rightful home in Farran.
The Ogham Stones of Knockshanawee, Farran, County Cork
In October 1913 Bertram Windle, the UCC President, who was also Professor of Archaeology, had six Ogham stones removed from their original location in Knockshanawee and transferred into the college in Cork city. During the period of his presidency of UCC from 1904 to 1919, Professor Windle had decided to assemble a collection of significant historic artefacts for the college. In furthering that objective he made two visits to the Knockshanawee site in mid-October 1913 and, on the second visit, he had the Ogham stones removed and carted into UCC. The Knockshanovee stones, which are among an overall collection of 27 in UCC, are characterised by Ogham inscriptions similar to those of Roovesmore, Fig 3. A detailed study of the Knockshanawee stones published in 2004 revealed some direct links between them so that, for example, two of the stones refer to MACILUGUNI or son of Luguni.
Fig 3 Ogham stones on display, University College, Cork
The controversial removal of the Ogham Stones by Windle to University College Cork
The Knockshanawee Ogham stones had first been investigated in detail in September 1910 by two local amateur archaeologists, Cremin and Murphy. The stones were acting as lintels and uprights in a souterrain or crypt, the chamber of which measured nine feet square by seven feet high. Being aware of the significance of what they had found, Cremin and Murphy contacted a leading Cork archaeologist, Dr Philip Lee, whom they then accompanied to the souterrain to conduct a more in-depth investigation. Soon after the visit Lee published a detailed article on the findings.[iii]
The removal of the Knockshanawee stones by Windle in 1913 almost immediately raised a storm of controversy and recrimination.[iv] The story featured at length in both the local and national press, with some of the leading personages in society at the time being drawn into the saga on both sides of the argument. Those publicly denouncing his actions included William O’Brien, arguably the leading force in Cork politics at the time, as well as spokespersons for Sinn Fein and the local Gaelic League. Comments about the removal of the stones in newspaper articles became increasingly heated, with Windle’s action in removing the stones from their original site being referred to as ‘an appalling act of vandalism’, ‘an unpardonable outrage’ etc. Windle’s defenders included some leading archaeologists and historians in Ireland and Great Britain including Celtic scholars such as Douglas Hyde, later to become Ireland’s first President, and Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill had just become Chief-of-Staff of the Irish Volunteers and was later to give the countermanding order to call off the Easter Rising in 1916. Being a Professor of Early Irish History himself, MacNeill made the case that, by displaying the stones in the University, everyone interested in the earliest expression of Irish writing and the national language could have ready access to the stones. However, the preponderance of senior academics in Windle’s defence inevitably resulted in comments referring to the ‘arrogance and elitism of University people’.
There is no doubt but that the Knockshanawee stones controversy was just one element of the much wider political disputes which were raging at the time. Windle himself was both of English origin and a staunch supporter of John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party, being a personal friend of Redmond’s brother Willy who was killed in the Battle of Messines in June 1917. Relations in Cork in 1913 between the Redmondites, the supporters of William O’Brien, the O’Brienites, and the then smaller but rapidly emerging Sinn Fein were very tense. Despite his well in-intentioned action in making the stones widely available to the public, Windle was perhaps in the nature of a pawn in the wider political context. In the months that followed the Knockshanawee stones controversy gradually died down, being undoubtedly overtaken by vastly more serious events, the commencement of World War 1 and John Redmond’s call on the Volunteers to take part, the Easter Rising of 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War, all of which helped to place the Knockshanawee Ogham stones controversy in its proper context. Windle himself became increasingly disillusioned with developments in Ireland and left for Canada in 1919 to further his academic career in that country. However, he has left a legacy of the fine display of Ogham stones, including the Knockshanawee examples, which remain on public display in UCC to the present time.
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[i] Lane Fox, Lt Col. Augustus; Roovesmore Fort and stones inscribed with Oghams in the parish of Aglish, County Cork, The Archaeological Journal, Royal Archaeological Institute, 1867 (republished 2013)
[iiMcManus Damien; The Ogham stones at University College Cork, Cork University Press, 2004
[iii] Lee Philip; Notes on the Ogham chamber in Knockshanwee, Journal of the Cork Archaeological Society, Vol XVII, 1911
[iv] Keogh Dermot, Keogh Ann; Bertram Windle, the Honan Bequest and the Modernisation of University College Cork, Cork University Press, 2010
About the Author: Dr. Michael Christopher Keane graduated with Ph D in Economics from Trinity College Dublin. He has recently retired as Senior Lecturer/Head of Department, University College, Cork, Ireland where he has worked since 1981. His primary area of research and teaching interest has involved aspects of the economic and social development of rural Ireland with particular emphasis on land ownership and use as well as agricultural and food industry development. His recent writings in the areas of Irish local history and genealogy represent an extension to this earlier work as it also relates primarily to key aspects of change in rural Ireland through the centuries. See below details of Dr. Keane's publications.
The Crosbies of Cork, Kerry, Laois and Leinster’, along with ‘From Laois to Kerry’ and ‘The Earls of Castlehaven’, are available in local bookshops, online at www.omahonys.ie, and www.kennys.ie, also directly from the author firstname.lastname@example.org