Emerald Isle

The Tailteann Games

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle

The Irish Olympics!

A thousand years before the Olympic games were founded, the Tuatha De Dannan had arrived in Ireland and defeated the Fir Bolg, establishing their place on the Emerald Isle. The mighty queen Tailtiu had married Eochaid mac Eirc of the Fir Bolg, but he was killed during the invasion of Ireland by the Tuatha, so the leader of the invaders took her for his own wife.

This was Eochaidh Garbh, the father of the infamous hero Lugh Lámhfhada, the Ollamh Éireann or grand master of the arts and sciences, and so she became the foster mother of Lugh. She laboured long and hard for her new family – too hard in fact, for after she had cleared the plains of wood and stones so they could be planted she died of exhaustion!

She told them in her sickness
(Feeble she was but not speechless)
That they should hold funeral games to lament her –
Zealous the deed.

About the Calends of August she died,
On a Monday, on the Lugnasad of Lug;
Round her grave from that Monday forth
Is held the chief Fair of noble Erin.

White-sided Tailtiu uttered in her land a true prophecy,
That so long as every prince should accept her,
Erin should not be without perfect song.

In great grief at the loss of such a powerful queen, Lugh declared that games should be held in her honour at least every three years, although usually more often, and she was buried under the mounds at the place we today know as Telltown in County Meath.

The games became the greatest spectacle of the ancient world, renowned throughout all the lands for their grandeur and energy. For almost three thousand years they were held without pause or break in the tradition, until the coming of the Normans around 1171, when they were suppressed for some time. Fionn MacCumhaill himself was said to have joined them to find warriors for his Fianna, as well as Cú Chulainn and most of the ancient heroes of Ireland.

The Áenach Tailteann, or Tailteann festival, was convened by the High King and held from the July fortnight to Lughnasadh, sometimes spanning the whole month, being the most important event of the year. People would come from near and far, and the festival symbolised the High King's magnificence. The fertility festival of Carmun was held at the same time, once every three years.

The mound of Rathdhú, or the Black Rath, was ringed by a “low earthen rampart, on which, the country-people say, the spectators sat while games were celebrated on the circular green sward before their feet” and this would have been about eighty five meters across.

Each festival was in three parts – giving honour to the dead, the proclamation of laws, and the funerary games and festivities which followed. There was a universal truce throughout the games, with severe penalties for breaking it, and all blood feuds and vengeance-taking would be left aside.

The Druids chanted dark Guba songs and ceapógs, memorial songs for those who had died, joined by the friends and families of the fallen, for up to three days, after which the dead would be burnt on a single enormous funeral pyre until they were turned to ash.

After this began the official business of the land, and the Masters of Ireland, those most skilled in the sciences and arts, would convene with the bards and druids and tell the people of any new laws that had been decided upon. This was ended with the lighting of another enormous bonfire.

And then, last but far from least, began what most saw as the main event, the Cuiteach Fuait! These were games and shows that tested the skill and power of the people of Ireland.

Chariot and horse racing were the main events for a while, although jockeys and charioteers weren't held in high regard, and this part of the festival was held near to where the Curragh racetrack can be found today. As well as horse races of various sorts, hurling was important, although the teams could be as large as one hundred and fifty young lads to a side! There were also artificial lakes dug and water sports were held upon them.

As well as those events the games featured long jumps, high jumps, spear throwing, contests of strength, sword fighting, archery, swimming, rowing, wrestling, boxing, staged battles and slinging.

The old people of Ireland understood well that there was more to life than physical prowess of course, so there was storytelling, theatre, poetry competitions, music, singing, dancing and Fidcheall competitions, that is the ancient board game of Ireland. Goldsmiths, jewellers, weavers and armourers competed with their wares to win the favour of the nobility and royal house.

Marriages were arranged at the festival and work was prepared for the winter. A peculiarity of the Tailteann festival was that mass marriages were held, a sort of “trial marriage”, and if it didn't work out the couple could separate without a blemish on their reputation by walking away from one another on the separation hills. The old Brehon law texts attest to this practise, which was legal until the thirteenth century. As the tradition was described:

A number of young men went into the hollow to the north side of the wall, and an equal number of marriageable young women to the south side of the wall which was so high as to prevent them from seeing the men; one of the women put her hand thro’ the hole in the gate and a man took hold of it from the other side, being guided in his choice only by the appearance of the hand.

The two were thus joined hands by blind chance were obliged to live together for a year and a day, at the expiration of which time they appeared at the Rath of Telton and if they were not satisfied with each other they obtained a deed of separation, and were entitled to go to Laganeeny again to try their good fortune for the ensuing year.

The Annals of the Four Masters tell us that the Tailteann games were held almost every year for many centuries, even noting that one festival was missed in 873 AD, and that the last games before the Norman invasion were held by King Roderick O'Connor in 1168. The horse procession “extended in a continuous line from Tailtenn to Mullach-Ati” which is about ten kilometers.

A fair with gold, with silver, with games, with music of chariots,
With adornment of body and of soul by means of knowledge and eloquence.
 A fair without wounding or robbing of any man, without trouble, without dispute, without reaving,
Without challenge of property, without suing, without law-sessions, without evasion, without arrest.

The games were revived occasionally in the medieval period and the town known as Tailtiu was where the powerful Uí Néill dynasties assembled their armies.

When the Irish achieved partial independence from Britain in the 1920s, it was decided to restore the Tailteann games to their former glory, although many advised against the cost and trouble involved in doing so. The doubters were proven wrong however, and the games were a massive success!

A full quarter of a million spectators arrived in Dublin, almost overwhelming the city, and five thousand competitors from every nation arrived with them, more than visited the Paris Olympics that summer. There was every kind of competition, including air races and literary recitals, and overall it went down very well, so it was decided to hold the games every four years, like the Olympics.

Unfortunately a certain political party got into power in the early 1930s and they were bitterly determined to tear down the legacy of those who had come before them, so the games were cancelled and never revived.

Teltown can be found on the map below:

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