Return to Articles

COELBREN Y BEIRDD AND OGHAM: THE WELSH EPIGRAPHIC FRINGE

by Mark Newbrook

The online series Art Unlocked presents a range of art galleries with brief surveys of their holdings. On 30/3/22 I watched one such presentation featuring the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth; the presenter was Morfudd Bevan. Bevan delivered a fine concise account of the art on display. Specifically, there was some reference to modern artwork inspired by claims regarding the supposedly medieval quasi-runic script Coelbren y Beirdd ('the Bardic Alphabet').

Nigel Pennick, Alan Wilson & Baram Blackett, Jim Michael and others have developed non-mainstream, often mystical notions involving scripts formerly or allegedly used to write Celtic languages - including Coelbren y Beirdd. It is claimed that Coelbren was employed by bards to communicate secret messages (using a wooden frame with sticks representing letter-strokes) in medieval times when writing in Welsh was suppressed. Jim Michael goes so far as to 'find' links between Coelbren and American 'inscriptions' as identified by Barry Fell and other 'epigraphists', suggesting for example that that the 'inscription' on one of the stone tablets from Bat Creek (Tennessee) is in Coelbren. But in fact Coelbren was evidently devised - as were many 'traditional' features of contemporary Welsh culture - by the C18-19 Welsh antiquarian and mystic Edward Williams ('Iolo Morganwg') as the supposed alphabetic system of the ancient Druids (parallel with the genuinely medieval Ogam/Ogham script of Ireland; see below), and was promoted after 1840 by his son, Taliesin Williams (note 1). It consists of twenty main letters and twenty others used to represent long vowels and the 'mutated' consonants characteristic of Welsh (and of Celtic generally). (For more on all this, with references, see Chapter 4 of my 2013 book Strange Linguistics.)

In Q&A on the Art Unlocked talk, I asked a reasonable question: 'Are there not major issues surrounding the authenticity of Coelbren y Beirdd and other notions associated with Iolo Morganwg? (Note the comments of Ronald Hutton in particular.)'. This was the only Q&A question not answered; the facilitator skipped over it. Did the facilitator (presumably mainly an art expert) simply not know enough to dare to respond? Or was my question deemed too controversial or somehow anti-Welsh? (Shades of e.g. Ethiopians regarding any challenge to Ayele Bekerie's extreme notions about Ethiopic script as 'anti-Ethiopian' or even as racist!) I repeated my question in a message to the website, pointing out that I am myself partly Welsh, know some Welsh, obviously (from my comment) know something about the linguistics of Welsh, and admire Welsh culture - but on this occasion was blatantly ignored! I asked for comment. Perhaps predictably, I had no reply. Cancelled again! It seems that in some circles it is not now 'politically-correct' to challenge nationalistically or ethnically motivated nonsense! 'Hindering diversity', perhaps, something of which Mary Lefkowitz was accused (by her academic faculty!) when she objected to Afrocentrist misrepresentations of history.

More recently I happened upon an online presentation entitled 'Why Irish stones in Britain? Ogham stone translated using the Coelbren cipher and Welsh words' (note 2). This is produced by the father & son team John and Adam Griffiths. They focus upon stones found in the English West Country, written in the roman alphabet with Ogham inscriptions along the edges; most of these are standardly interpreted as associated with the substantial early-medieval Irish diaspora population in the area (not widely known of among non-specialists). As usual the duo dismiss mainstream ideas without having achieved the required depth of understanding. By way of historical background, they (and their followers) cite Wilson & Blackett and other writers who propose highly non-mainstream accounts of Eurasian history.

Griffiths & Griffiths ask: 'If Ogham stones are supposed to be written in Irish - then how come they translate using Welsh?' But the stones 'translate using Welsh' only on the basis of highly tendentious interpretations of the roman texts and the duo's idea that Coelbren provides a cipher enabling the reading of the Ogham texts on such stones - and of the inscriptions on some coins standardly thought to be Irish - as Welsh.

The analysis involving Coelbren is not properly articulated in the material which I have seen. The duo issue vague comments such as 'a runic … or a Coelbren-like accent to the letters' and proclaim unsupported speculative analyses and translations in Welsh terms of text in both scripts. They link all this with their position that there was a much more extensive Welsh presence in Ireland than is generally believed, and far less Irish settlement in Britain. Nationally motivated, again? But given the highly dubious status of Coelbren itself they would need to work much harder on that front!

The Griffiths pair receive online plaudits from fellow enthusiasts, some of whom unreasonably belittle mainstream thought on these matters. There are also some bizarre comments such as: 'Maybe Ogham isn't Irish or Welsh but the language of the first inhabitants of both islands, the offspring of Japeth that formed the Indo Aryan or Indo European peoples'. Firstly: Ogham is not itself a language! Secondly: reliance on the genealogies in Genesis simply will not do in this kind of context. Thirdly: both Irish and Welsh are Celtic languages and therefore are themselves Indo-European. Fourthly: Indo-European is only a linguistic term and not an ethnic one. (So who were these 'first inhabitants'?)

Notes

  1. On this, see especially Ronald Hutton, Blood And Mistletoe: The History Of The Druids In Britain (Yale University Press, 2009).
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbgHyGmlc0Y

Home/ Articles/ /Coelbren y Beirdd and Ogham: The Welsh epigraphic fring