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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle
The ancient game of Fidchell, spoken of in legend
Woven through many Irish stories, myths and legends is the ancient game of Fidchell, which means “wisdom of the wood”. It's said that it was invented by none other than Lugh of the Tuatha De Dannan, and predates chess by many centuries.
Fidchell held a central role in the celebrations of Lugh, and at Samhain festivities as well, where it was consulted for prophetic hints about the year to come. No battles were allowed except those which took place on the Fidchell board. It was reserved for the nobility, the warriors, and the druids for a long time, and they were required to master it! Those skilled in Fidchell were held in great esteem as people of cunning mind and wit, adversaries to be respected.
Conchobar Mac Nessa, fabled king of Ulster and Cúchulainn's patron, spent a third of his days playing the game, with the rest of his time divided between drinking and watching games of hurling.
When one of his warriors, a man called Celtair, spilled blood on a Fidchell game being played between the king and Cúchulainn, it was seen as a grave violation of the hospitality laws and he was given three impossible tasks to restore his honour. He succeeded at two of them but died when the venomous blood of a fearsome spectral dog he was sent to kill splattered on him. Mind you, later Cú Chulainn threw a fidchell piece and killed one of Medb and Ailill’s messengers, in Fled Bricrenn!
Fidchell boards were often very ornate, richly carved and with gold and silver pieces, and even set with gemstones! In the cattle raid of Froech, friend of Queen Maeve, a board is described as being made of white gold, and the edges and corners were of gold, while the pieces were of gold and silver, and a candle of precious stone provided light, while the board itself was too heavy for a boy to lift, as is written in Amra Columcille. Fidchell boards were listed as part of the tribute demanded by kings.
It was said the game could play itself if it wanted, and there are even tales of enemies playing a game in the midst of battle, to see which side would win!
When Fionn Mac Cumhaill was hunting for his wayward wife Gráinne, he came very close to where herself and Diarmuid were hidden, and well he knew it, so he conceived a plan. Knowing how much Diarmuid loved Fidcheall, he challenged Oisín to a game, but when he spotted acorns dropping onto the places where Oisín should move his pieces next, the game was up! And so he dragged Diarmuid down from the tree where he had been hiding.
Even the lords of the otherworld loved a good game of Fidchell, as when Midir knew his former lover Etain had been reincarnated, and he goaded her husband, Eochaid the King of Tara into putting a kiss from her lips up as a wager. Eochaid lost that game and lost his wife too, when the kiss restored her memories of her former life!
“What is your name?” asked Eochaid.
“Not a famous one: Midir of Brí Leith.”
“What has brought you here?” Eochaid asked.
“The wish to play fidchell with you,” Midir replied.
“Indeed, I am good at fidchell,” answered Eochaid.
“Let's see,” said Midir.
from The Wooing of Etain in the Yellow Book of Lecan
And yet for all its importance to peoples of times past, we know little enough about the rules of Fidchell. The board was square and checked like a chess board – any circular versions you might see are a very modern invention with no basis in reality – and could have had anywhere from seven to nineteen or more squares on a side.
There was a central square for the High King in Tara, and the four corner squares represented the other four provinces of Ireland. The numbers of pieces could have been odd or even, and varied from place to place and time to time. The tale of Mac de Cherda and Cummaine Fota tells us how pieces were taken:
"Good," says Guaire, "Let's play fidchell."
"How are the men slain?" asks Cummaine.
"Not hard, a black pair of mine about one white man of yours on the same line, disputing the approach on the far side (?)"
"My conscience, indeed!" said Cummaine, "I cannot do the other thing, but I shall not slay your men, you will not slay my men."
For a whole day Guaire was pursuing him and he could not slay one of his men.
"That is champion-like, o cleric," said Guaire.
And we can learn more from the poem beginning Abair riom a Eire ogh, which used "brannaimh", or bran dubh, for fidchell.
"The centre of the plain of Fal is Tara's castle, delightful hill; out in the exact centre of the plain, like a mark on a parti-coloured brannumh board. Advance thither, it will be a profitable step: leap up on that square, which is fitting for the branan, the board is fittingly thine. I would draw thy attention, o white of tooth, to the noble squares proper for the branan (Tara, Cashel, Croghan, Naas, Oileach), let them be occupied by thee. A golden branan with his band art thou with thy four provincials; thou, O king of Bregia, on yonder square and a man on each side of thee."
There are other ancient games of this sort, such as the Tafl of the northerners and Bran Dubh, and it is likely that they found their roots in Fidchell – indeed Bran Dubh may be the same game under a different name! The name itself may also mean "sinew and wisdom", if Cormac, the Bishop of Cashel who died in 908 is to be believed.
“Three times fifty boys,” Fergus said “are always playing in Emain. Conchobar spends one third of his royal day watching the boys, one third playing fidchell, and a third drinking ale until he falls asleep.”
from the Tain Bo Cuailnge
Aillil and Medb played fidchell after that, and Froech began to play with one of his own people. Beautiful his fidchell set: the board was of white gold, and the edges and corners were of gold, while the pieces were of gold and silver, and a candle of precious stone provided light.
from The Cattle Raid of Froech
This he the king said then, that the fidchell-boards of Tara should be fetched to him Samildánach and he won all the stakes, so that then he made the Cró of Lugh.
from The Second Battle of Moy Tura, Harleian Ms 5280
"The old Irish were so greatly addicted to chess [meaning fidchell], that, amongst them, the possession of good estates hath been decided by it; and there are some estates at this very time, the property whereof doth still depend upon the issue of a game of chess. For example, the heirs of two certain noble Irish families, who we could name, (to say nothing of others) hold their lands upon this tenure, viz. that one of them shall encounter the other at chess, in this manner, that which ever of them should conquer, should seize and possess the estate of the other. Therefore, I have been told, they manage the affair prudently among themselves; once a year they meet by appointment to play at chess: one of them makes a move, and the other says, I will consider how to answer you next year. This being done a public notary commits to writing the situation of the game, by which method a game, which neither hath won, hath been, and will be continued for some hundreds of years."
Dr Thomas Hyde in the 17th century
An ancient Fidchell board was found in Ballinderry, marked on the map below:
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