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The Old Irish period is taken to have lasted from 700 to 900. This is a period of written remains. Primarily the Old Irish documents consist of glosses, such as those of the Epistles of Paul in the Codex Paulinus at Würzburg which date from the mid 8th century and those of Milan from the early 9th century (Thurneysen 1946: 4-11).

However, before these documents there are attestations of what is called Primitive Irish in a non-Latin alphabet called Ogam which was chiefly used for inscriptions to be found in the south of Ireland and to a much lesser extent in the rest of the country and in Wales. There are a few hundred of these inscriptions which date mainly from the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Between these and the Old Irish glosses there is a gap of almost three centuries in which the language would appear to have changed quite radically, at least going on the representation of it in Ogam and in the earliest written documents, granting that the Ogam inscriptions were in all probability in a codified literary norm used by a very small literate section of the community and removed from the spoken language of the time.

Ogam (400-600)

Ogam is a form of writing in which letters are represented by horizontal or slanted notches on stone. Other materials such as wood and bone may have been used for short texts. There are two spellings for this word: Ogam and Ogham, both are found in the relevant literature and refer to the same kind of pre-Old Irish.


Ogam alphabet

Ogam inscriptions are found chiefly in the south and south-west of Ireland, a few in south-west Wales and one or two remains in north-east Scotland (McManus 1991). The period to which Ogam belongs is known as Primitive Old Irish. The majority of inscriptions which attest this period stem from the 5th and 6th centuries and consist of personal names in the genitive, usually meaning ‘in memory of’ or ‘dedicated to’.

Even at this early stage there was a tendency to weaken consonants in intervocalic position, a prominent feature of later Irish. At first this was a low-level phonetic phenomena without any consequences for the grammar of the language because the inherited inflections remained intact. Later one can see that the forms of words were steadily reduced with contractions and simplification of consonant clusters as can be seen in the following table of chronological developments (from left to right).



seanbhean ‘old woman’



iníon ‘daughter’



mac /kk/ > /k/ ‘son’


Ogam stone at Jerpoint Abbey, Co. Kilkenny


McManus, Damian 1991. A guide to Ogam. Maynooth Monographs, Vol. 4 Maynooth: An Sagart.

Thurneysen, Rudolf 1946. A Grammar of Old Irish. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.