Old Irish Script

Ogham Alphabet

Irish orthography has evolved over centuries.  The Irish were responsible for the present written format with spaces or symbols in use in the known world as the original Greek & Latin letters were written with continuous words.

Ogham alphabet was inscribed on several stones within Ireland also the British Isles.  It was an alphabet that appears on monumental inscriptions dated from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD within several manuscripts dating from the sixth to the ninth centuries.  Notable features included type of writing system: alphabet, number of letters: twenty-five which are grouped into five aicmí  (sing aicme = group, class)  Each aicme is named after its first letter.  Originally ogham consisted of twenty letters or four aicmí; the fifth acime, or ‘forfeda ’ was added for use within manuscripts. Writing surfaces included rocks, wood or manuscripts.  Direction of writing:  inscriptions around the edges of rocks  ran from bottom to top & left to right or left to right also  horizontally in manuscripts.  Letters were linked together by a solid line.  Style of writing : primitive & old Irish, Pictish, old Welsh also Latin.  All writing was Latin, archaic Irish or old Welsh between the fourth & sixth centuries AD.  The Viking invasions of the ninth & tenth centuries led to the destruction of several early manuscripts.  Gaelic script was known as ‘An Cló Gaelach ‘ in Irish.  It may also be known as Irish character, Irish type, Gaelic type, Celtic type or the uncial alphabet.  Notable features included type of writing system, numeracy, eighteen letters.  Direction of words: left to right in horizontal lines.  Consonants were indicated with a dot over them.  [i]

The Irish uncial alphabet originated in medieval manuscripts as an ‘insular ‘ variant of the Latin alphabet.  [ii]

One may peruse Latin letters on a memorial stone on Inchaguill Island at Lough Corrib in Co. Galway.  Inscription is ‘Lie Luguaedon Macci Menueh’  translates as ‘Stone of Luguaedon son of Menueh.’   [iii]

Ancient Manuscripts

The earliest old Irish passages may be transcripts discovered in the Cambrai Homily.  Extant manuscripts do not go back farther than the eight century.  Two works written by Saint Patrick: his Confessio (a brief autobiography intended to justify his activities to the church in Britain) &  Letter to Coroticus: condemned the raids & slavery within Ireland.   Written in Latin possibly during the fifth century: it is preserved in the Book of Armagh  dated 812.  The sixth -century Saint Colum Cille was alleged to have  written the psalter known as The Cathach  or Battle Book  of the Ó ’Donel’s held in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.  Lebor na hUidre  or Book of the Dun Cow  was transcribed circa 1100 with the Book of Leinster  dated approximately fifty years later: ‘ Ireland in fact, has the peculiar privilege of a history continuous from the earliest centuries of our era to the present days.  She has preserved in the infinite wealth of her literature a complete and faithful picture of the ancient civilization of the Celts.’   d’Arbois de Jubainville also stated: ‘It is the ancient Irish language that forms the connecting point between the neo-Celtic languages and the Gaulish of the inscribed stones, coins, and proper names preserved in Greek and Roman literature.’  The Four Masters  was one of the greatest manuscripts written.  Re. poetry the humorous Pangur Bán  was one of the oldest: it was possibly written in Reichenau Abbey circa 800. (Darmesteter M. from his English Studies)  [iv]

Importance of the native script was noticed by an Englishman John Denton who reported, (following a visit during the 1560’s) that ‘when it came to books being printed not in the Irish character theye will not in anny wise well allow of.’    Seaán Ó Cearnaigh was instrumental in overseeing the design &  cutting of the original Gaelic type used for printing the first books in Irish.  A 1571 broadsheet of a poem on Judgement Day  by fifteenth century poet Pilip ‘Bocht ’ O hUiginn was printed by Seaán Ó Cearnaigh. [v]

The 1951 Catechism  commissioned by Queen Elizabeth 1st Aibidil Gaoidheilge agus Caiticiosma  &  two hundred copies were published also printed by Ó Cearnaigh. [vi]


Ó Cearnaigh’s nephew William Kearney printed an initial incomplete draft of Daniel’s  New Testament  during 1590’s.  Fearganainm Ó ‘Domhnaill of Galway was recommended by Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond in a letter to the archbishop of Tuam that stated he was ‘very fit to communicate with the people in their mother tongue.’   He also took great pains in the translation & printing of the Common-Book  &  New Testament  in the Irish language.  Prior to the printing of New Testament  in 1595 Fearganainm & Uilliam Ó ‘Domhnaill sought assistance from Maoilin Og MacBruaideaha.  They praised Domhaill O hUiginn’s contribution in the opening pages of Tromn Nuadh  also stated that he had relied on him to proofread his work prior to its printing.   An English apprentice Uilliam Ó ‘Domhnaill was the leading Irish native figure who oversaw the translation into Irish of the Greek New Testament  Tiomna Nuadth  during 1602 & the English Book of Common Prayer or Leabhar na nUrrnaithe gComcoiteann during 1608.  He was also responsible for the printing of these publications.  John Franclon printed Tiomna Nuadhar d’Tighearna agus ar Slanaightheora Iosa Criost  during 1602, followed by Leabhar na nUrnaithe gComhchorleann  in 1608.  During 1609 he wrote to Lord Deputy Arthur Chichester that: ‘having translated the Booke, followed it to the presse with jealousy, & daily attendance to see it perfected, payned a woman in travel desirous to be delivered.’   Muirchcartach Ó ‘Cionga assisted William Bedell (Provost of Trinity College) to translate the Old Testament  during the 1630’s in the publication Plainleish.  [vii]


Insistent on communicating with foreign visitors to her court in their own language, the Queen circa 1560-1565 commissioned from Christopher Nugent a manuscript  Iryshe Latten-Englishe Primer.  That primer included an Irish alphabet as well as a glossary of words or phrases in Irish with translations in both Latin & English.  In the 1639 Catechism  printed by Thomas Stapleton was a Roman type alphabet that introduced simplified spelling i.e. suí for suidhe or uafás for uathbhás.  Three hundred years later standardization came into use.  The issue of the simplification of Irish spelling was limited to Roman or Gaelic type however it appeared controversial during the twentieth century. (Brendan Leen [viii]

During 1685 Ruaidhri O ‘Flailbhear’s semi-mythical history of Ireland Ogygia seu Remum Hibernicarum Chronlogia  & etc.  was translated to English by Rev. John Hely then published as Ogygia or a chronological account of Irish events, collected from very ancient documents faithfully compared with each other & supported by the genealogical & chronological aid of the sacred & profane writings of the globe.  [ix]


Origins of Irish character typography regress to the high standard of calligraphy achieved by the monastic scribes of the fifth century. Also to the two discrete styles; the half-uncial & the minuscule: that emerged from the scriptorium to subsequently exert a defining influence of Irish printing types designs.  The full, rotund form of the half-uncial was typically used in the transcription of Latin tracts, notably, in the earliest known manuscript The Catach also the majestic Book of Kells.   The last person to design a fount of type in the Irish character was Colm Ó ‘Lochlainn typographer & printer. (Brendan Leen [x]

Prior to the twentieth century Irish was usually written in Gaelic script.   Today this type is almost entirely restricted to decorative & or self-consciously traditional context.  The ‘dot’ above the letter is usually replaced by the following ‘h’ in the standard Roman alphabet.  Information re topic available at this link: https://en-academic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/667987

Additional Information

Leen Brendan Four Centuries of Printing 1707:  https://jesuslibraries.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/march-2015-book-of-the-month-an-teagasg-criosdaidhe-1707/

Pokorny Julius  A Historical reader of Old Irish, texts, paradigms, notes & a complete glossary  1923  (Hall ): https://www.worldcat.org/

The Dialogue of the Two Sages  now housed in Trinity College Library was written in the Irish Fenian dialect that provided the qualifications required to be a true ollamh:  https://www.sacred-texts.com/

List of texts provided at this site: https://celt.ucc.ie/irlpage.html

Celtic literature of texts may be viewed at this link: http://maryjones.us/ctexts/index_irish.html

Downloaded files by Elliott Lash may be obtained at this link: https://www.dias.ie/celt/celt-publications-2/celt-the-parsed-old-and-middle-irish-corpus-pomic/


[i] Irish Language, Alphabet & Pronunciation (https://omniglot.com/) [Assessed 4th November 2019]

[ii] Gaelic Type (https://en.wikipedia.org/) [Assessed 4th November 2019]

[iii] Inchagoill – Megalithic Ireland (http://www.megalithicireland.com/) [Assessed 6th November 2019]

[iv] Early Irish Literature (https:/en.wikipedia.org/) [Assessed 4th November 2019]

[v] History Ireland (https://www.historyireland.com/)  [Assessed 5th November 2019]

[vi] Gaelic Type (https://en.wikipedia.org/) [Assessed 5th November 2019]

[vii] History Ireland (https://www.historyireland.com/) [Assessed 5th November 2019]

[viii] Four Centuries of Printing in the Irish Character (https://web.archive.org/) [Assessed 8th January 2020]

[ix] 1793 in Ireland (https://en.wikipedia.org/) [Assessed 8th January 2020]

[x] Four Centuries of Printing in the Irish Character (https://web.archive.org/) [Assessed 8th January 2020]

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