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Irish in America Before Columbus

  A petroglyph in Wyoming County, West Virginia, testifies to the presence of Irish monks in America between the 6th and the 8th centuries. The petroglyph was translated from Ogam Script in 1972 with two clear results. Firstly, the translation revealed a Christian message linking Christmas to the Winter Solstice. Secondly, it indicated that the sun would shine through a notch onto the text on Christmas morning.When tested, this proved to be true.
By Ida Jane Gallagher and Barry Fell  
  Ida Jane Gallagher tells the story...

Icicles clung to the overhanging rocks when Tony Shields, Ida Jane Gallagher, H.P. Meadows and Bradley Toler met at the Wyoming County Petroglyph before sunrise on December 22, 1982. A light coering of snow brightened the clear morning. Shields watched impatiently as shadows moved down the tree trunks on the mountain above the rock shelter and the horizon lightened. At last, the first glimpse of the sun broke over the mountain ridge at 9.05 A.M.

Gallagher began photographing a spectacular sunburst, not realizing until the film was processed that the rising sun looked like a six-pointed Christmas Star. Shields made compass readings and kept an eye on thte petroglyph tp see where the sun's direct rays would strike it.

"Look! Look It's (the sun's rays) hitting the panel," he called. A glimmer of pale sunlight struck the sun symbol on the left side of the petroglyph, and the rising sun soon bathed the entire panel in warm sunlight. Shields immediatly noticed that the sunlight was funneling through a three-sided notch formed by the rock overhang, the upper left-hand wall of the shelter and a rock shelf that jutted out above the small petroglyph on the lower left wall. A shadow cast by the left wall of the shelter fell to the left of the sun symbol and its adjacent markings. As the group watched, the shadow inched from left to right. Before their eyes, light dawned on West Virginia history.

"That proves it," Shields said pointing to the wall notch. He was the first to realize that Dr. Fell's decipherment never mentioned the horizon. It specified only that a ray of sun would graze the notch on the left side. The ancient scribe was referring to the shelter wall notch!

This most remarkable turn of events served as a reminder that things do not always happen as expected. The group continued to watch as the solar phenomenon demonstrated physical proof of Dr. Fell's decipherment.

How appropriate it is that this ancient testament to Christ's birth was carved in the West Virginia hills where mountain folks have deep religious roots.

Early Christians connected Christ's birth with the winter solstice. The Gospels do not specify the day of Nativity. However, in the fourth century A.D. the church fathers set December 25 as the date in order to incorporate the pagan winter festivals of rebirth in the Christian tradition.

Irish monks possibly reached Norths America by the sixth century A.D.. St. Patrick Christianized the Irish between 432 and 461. By this time the Gealic people had established a class of learned men, who found a natural place in the Christian establishment. A century after St. Patrick's arrival, Irish monks and scholars began evangelizing abroad. St. Brendan, an Irish monk, supposedly made a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from Ireland to Newfoundland on the eartern coast of Canada in the sixth century. In modern times Timothy Severin set out to duplicate St. Brendan's voyage in a leather-hulled sailing boat, built to sixth century.

It seems possible that the scribes who cut the West Virginia inscriptions may have been Irish missionaries in the wake of Brendan's voyage, for these inscriptions are Christian.

Barry Fell explains the details...

The rock-cut inscriptions which are the subject of this article are located at archaeological sites in Wyoming and Boone Counties, West Virginia. They appear to date from the 6th-8th centuries A.D., and they are written in Old Irish language, employing an alphabet called Ogam, found also on ancient rock-cut inscriptions in Ireland. The inscriptions are accompanied by short annotations in ancient Libyan alphabetic script. The Libyan script is used to render two languages in the annotations 1) the ancient Libyan tongue itself, and 2) an Algonquian dialect of the northeastern group, perhaps allied to Shawnee. In this report I deal only with the Old Irish texts, as these are the most detailed.

The Ogam alphabet is illustrated in Figure A.

Most of our knowledge of Ogam comes from a Dublin manuscript, known as the Ogam Tract, composed by an unidentified monk in the 14th century. It describes some 94 varieties of Ogam and other alphabets known to the scribe, but the writer indicates that he knew of some 150 varieties of ancient Irish alphabets. Archaeological research shows that Ogam was widely used in many parts of the ancient world. It also occurs on Celtic coins issued in Gaul in the second century before Christ, some hundreds of years before the earliest known Irish Ogam inscriptions.

The scribe relates the mythical account of the origin of Ogam. He tells us that the first Ogam message ever written was the work of a magician named Ogmios, and that it was a warning sent to Lug informing him of a plot to abduct his wife. On line 11 of folio page 309 of the Ogam Tract, the scribe reproduces the supposed warning message sent to Lug. It consists of the Ogam letters "S-N". This is the earliest literary reference to the Ogam Consaine (consonantal Ogam), for the letters "S-N" are the consonants of the Old Irish word "siona" meaning "warning". The passage in the Tract is marked by the arrow and the word is shown enlarged below the Tract.

Although the scribe evidently was familiar with Ogam Consaine, he did not give it that name, or any name at all. It was left for the 18th century Irish poet Eoghan Ruadh Ua Suilleabhain (1748-84) to coin the name. "Consonantal Ogam", and he did so in drawing attention to old, undeciphered, rock-cut inscriptions in Ireland, whose meaning remained a mystery; for scholars of the day, unable to deal with a written script from which the vowels were omitted, could make no sense of the markings.

The ancient Ogam Consaine inscriptions of Ireland are found mainly in that country's northern section, and there are others of similar type in parts of Scotland. An example is the line of Ogam slashes visible on the capstone of the Bronze Age cromlech (grave monument) at Castlederg, in County Tyrone. In southern Ireland, especially Counties Cork and Kerry, the Ogam inscriptions are fully provided with the vowel points, and these have therefore been deciphered long since. The West Virginian Ogam inscriptions seem to have an affinity with those of northern Ireland.

Irish monastic records state that during the reign of Pope Pelagius (555-561), an Irish ecclesiastic named St. Brendan (Brennain) made two voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, discovering a land far to the west, identified by some historians as North America. It is known that Brendan founded the famous monastery of Clonfert in County Galway in the year 561, by which date his last voyage had been completed. It seems possible that the scribes who cut the West Virginia inscriptions may have been Irish missionaries in the wake of Brendan's voyage, for these inscriptions are Christian. This is evident even before they are deciphered, because the early Christian symbols of piety, such as the various Chi-Rho monograms (of the name of Christ) and the Dextera Dei ("Right hand of God"), appear at the sites together with the Ogam texts.

The Chi-Rho comprises a symbol formed from the two Greek letters that stand first in the name "Christ", Ch (resembling an X) and R (resembling a P). These letters are written separately at the site in Boone County, which is called the Horse Creek Petroglyph. At the Wyoming County Petroglyph, one of the Chi-Rho signs is a combination of the two letters and closely matches a version used on the Byzantine coins of the Emperor Justinian I (527-565). A different version of the Chi-Rho is the labarum (scepter) type, so-called because it formed the upper part of the labarum scepter of the Byzantine emperors. The labarum Chi-Rho appears on coins of Gratian (367-375), and there is a matching version at the Wyoming County site, while a later version found on coins issued by the Anglo-Saxon Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury (805-833).

Peculiarly Irish is the symbol called by scholars "The Incarnation Initial", of which a simplified version is seen in the Lindisfarne Gospels (A.D. 700). It consists of a large Chi, always introduced by the scribes at the beginning of the 18th verse of the first chapter of Matthew, where the evangelist writes, "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise".

The Wyoming County inscription relates the birth of Christ, and then, after stating that the child was born to Mary, the scribe inserts an Ogam version of the Incarnation initial. He has inserted some Ogam strokes into the Chi, to make the word "G-ia-N (gaine), meaning "Incarnation". When I first attempted to find the meaning of this sign, I read the Ogam letters in the sequence Ia-n-g (ionga) meaning "notch". As a word for notch, "cab", occurs earlier in the inscription, referring to a notch that the sun will shine through on Christmas morning, this seemed a likely decipherment. But I believe the correct interpretation is that the whole symbol is an Ogam version of the Incarnation Initial.

On a rock face adjacent to the Dextera Dei ("Right hand of God") site occur two lines of script not yet deciphered. In the upper line occurs the well known symbol, I H C +, used by the Western Church as a monogram of the name of Jesus. The letters are the first three Greek letters, IES, in the name "Iesos" (Jesus).

Another pious symbol used by the early Christians is the Dextera Dei, or Right Hand of God. There is an example carved on the 10th century Irish cross of Muiredach, at Monasterboice. On page 347 of my book, Saga America, attention is drawn to the occurrence of this symbol at American archaeological sites. I have suggested that it implies contacts with Europe around the 19th century, when the symbol was a popular feature in coinage designs. whether the West Virginian examples should be dated to the 10th century is at present uncertain, but my belief is that its presence supports the idea of continuing Irish contacts over a period of several centuries in the latter part of the first millennium.

The West Virginia Ogam texts are the longest Ogam inscriptions recorded anywhere in the world. They exhibit the grammar and vocabulary of Old Irish in a manner previously inknown in such early rock-cut inscriptions in any Celtic language. The protection of these sites is of paramount importance.
Ida Jane Gallagher is a freelance writer who has been researching and writing about ancient American history since 1977.

Dr. Barry Fell is an emeritus professor at Harvard University. He wrote America B.C., which American Booksellers Association presented to the White House in 1977 as one of the best 250 books published between 1973 and 1977 in the United States.

Our thanks to Aaveen Kerrisk for sending on the magazine Wonderful West Virginia, March 1983. Number 1, Volume 47, where this article was first printed.
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