Thursday, August 18, 2011


The other day I took house guests to visit the early ecclesiastical site of Kilmalkedar, just over the hill from our house here in Kerry. There is a mid-12th century Romanesque church, roofless, but with some lovely interior and exterior detail. Other artifacts date back to the 6th century, including a standing stone with ogham script, a sundial that shows the canonical hours, and a large slab cross beautifully fashioned from Old Red Sandstone. I wrote about this site extensively in Honey From Stone.

My favorite thing at Kilmalkedar is a stone now standing inside the church, although predating the church by six centuries, that has two crosses inscribed on its front face and another on the reverse. Nothing special about that; in this corner of the world, stones inscribed with crosses are a dime a dozen. But along one edge of the stone, presumably at a later date, someone inscribed a Latin alphabet: a, b, c, d, etc. If there are other such "alphabet stones" in Ireland, I haven't heard of them.

The Latin alphabet was delayed coming to Ireland. The Irish had developed their own version of Latin letters, the ogham alphabet of slashes across a central line, well suited for stone inscriptions. Perhaps the Kilmalkedar alphabet stone was created as a teaching tool, as ogham gave way to the Latin symbols. I like to imagine young boys (girls?) tracing the letters with their fingers, discovering the miracle of written language.

Up, down and around, the fingertip guided by the groves in stone. Each letter an incantation -- a, b, c, d -- abracadabra. With five letters one can make the earth, with three the sky. And there, on the same edge of the stone, are the letters dni, a contraction of Domini. "In the beginning was the Word," wrote the evangelist John, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

And now, with the same symbols, I sit at my MacBook, evoking the child moving his finger across the chiselled icons -- a, b, c, d -- abracadabra, the magical incantation that opens doors -- that lets the mind transmute the world into poetry and science, as an alchemist transforms lead to gold.