Just like the other gallery, it was closed. Yet I felt compelled to come back the next day.
I sensed something more than the colourful window display was enticing me. But what?
The Bastion Gallery is named for the street it sits on, a reminder that Athlone was once fortified. Its owner, Katie McCay, grew up in the building and played in the empty storefront as a child. Her gallery has been offering the wares of Irish designers and makers since 1990.
The tiny shop is filled to the rafters with interesting, beautiful things! It takes time to explore it. Michael Jackson needed two hours.
But the moment I saw the Ogham Treasure, I knew why I was there.
The silver pendants, designed and made by Katie McCay herself, carry words in an ancient secret alphabet: the Ogham (pronounced OH-am). The one above is inscribed with grá, which means love in Gaelic.
Ogham Treasure pendants come in two styles. The ones that are simply characters might bring fish skeletons to mind. This one spells beannacht (blessing).
The ones with words carved into silver ingots resemble the stone monuments on which the ancient Ogham was inscribed.
Most of the surviving monuments carry names or other marks of ownership. Ogham Treasure holds words like happiness, friend, blessing, health.
It took me two days to choose my pendant. I wanted them all! Ultimately, I decided on sonas (happiness) to symbolize how I felt about being in Ireland.
Isabell, the lovely young woman who works in the shop, who told me she moved to Athlone from her native Germany because she fell in love with the River Shannon, showed me how to read the words: from the bottom up.
Katie McCay became interested in ancient Irish metalworking when she studied Celtic archaeology at the National University in Galway. After graduating, she returned to Athlone and opened her shop. She has been making Ogham Treasure since 2012.
I’ve become completely fascinated with the ancient Irish Ogham.
The 20-letter alphabet may be as old as the first century BC. Inspired, perhaps, by Runic script, it was probably created to write secret messages.
The White Goddess author Robert Graves believed the Ogham encoded beliefs about moon goddess worship. According to The Celtic Journey blog, Graves also proposed the letters formed a calendar of tree magic, with each letter/tree corresponding to a Celtic month.
Neopagans use the Ogham as a divination tool: the symbols are carved or written on sticks and thrown onto the ground. Witcherman Rick Carr has created a deck of cards for the purpose, and his website offers suggestions for interpreting the symbols.
The connection between trees and language resonates with me, living as I do in a forest. Moya McGinley’s idea of planting a native ogham woodland makes me want to do the same. Many of the ogham trees already grow on our property.
For fun, I wrote a word-ogham poem about my sonas treasure:
Sail (SAHL), sustenance of bees,
Onn (UHN), wounder of horses,
Nin (NEE-uhn), maker of peace.
Ailm (AHL-m), the beginning of an answer is also
Sail (SAHL), where honey begins.
But wait—if the word is meant to be read from the bottom up, the poem is reversed, and it goes like this:
Sail, where honey begins,
the beginning of an answer is also
a maker of peace,
wounder of horses,
sustenance of bees.
Either way, just like Ireland does, sonas spells happiness to me!
Many thanks to Katie McCay for the beautiful introduction to the Ogham, and for a keepsake of Ireland I will always treasure.