Almost 4000 years ago the High King of Ireland, King Luaghaidh Lamhfada, founded An Aonach Tailteann. The festival was to honour and celebrate his deceased mother, Queen of Tailte, and as a tribute to the dead. On the 1st of August, kings, queens, and noblemen travelled from all over the country to watch the games where acclaimed athletes met in friendly competition. Said to be held in the townload of Tailteann, a large area near the Blackwater River in Co. Meath, it was combined with the festivities of traditional harvest time (Lughnasa) of Celtic celebration. All that remains there now to remind the visitor is a large mound known as Rathdhú or the Black Fort.
The traditional date for their foundation is 632 BC. The Annals of the Four Masters, note that the Oenach Tailten was held yearly for many centuries, even recording its omission in the year 873. According to D.A. Binchy The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara.” Ériu 18 (1958): 113-38,
“…so far as the earlier historical period is concerned, other references in the annals…make it quite clear that the Fair of Tailtiu, far from being an invention of the pseudo-historians, was an ancient institution intimately connected with the Tara monarchy. The only question at issue is whether it had at any time the ‘nation-wide’ constitutional functions…”
The last record of the games were in 1169, under the rule of High King Rory O’Connor, and then Ireland was invaded by the Normans and there is very little record of the games.
In the 1880s, 30 years after the An Gorta Mór, Michael Davitt suggested the idea of restarting the Tailteann games as a way to remind people of their culture and nationality which was crushed by the colonialism. Coming towards the early 20th century a lot more people seemed to embrace the idea of reviving the games and when Dáil Éireann was established in 1919 leading figures suggested that they should be revived and any necessary funds were to be met in order to insure the event could be held.
In the early days of the Free State J.J Walsh, Minister for Post and Telegraphs, was appointed director of the games alongside general secretary W. Hanrahan and the games were planned to take place all over Dublin in 1922. Walsh was born in 1880 to a Cork farming family, and became active in the nationalist movement, helping to found the Cork Irish Volunteers and fighting in the Easter Rising.
However, these plans never materialised as a Civil war broke out between pro-treaty and anti-treaty sides. The Civil War had done much damage and the games were postponed until 1924, a year after the war.
Many anti-treaty prisoners were still jailed in 1924 and Walsh feared that if the republicans didn’t come to the games they could prove to be a failure and asked for them to be released. But after countless meetings his requests were denied by the pro-treaty Free State. Still there were concerns that there would be too much people in Dublin and that it might provoke trouble. Walsh estimated that around 150,000 were to be expected to come to Dublin for the games and wrote letters to people all around the country looking for suitable accommodation including a personal canvas of private houses, Trinity College, Drumcondra village, Blackrock College, and St. Stephens green.
Specially commissioned medals for the 1924 Tailteann games
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Given £10,000 in state subsidies Walsh set about organizing an event for the whole world, open to “any of Irish birth or ancestry”. Billed as a “World Meeting of the Celtic Race,” on the 1st of August up to 250,000 visitors from all around the globe flocked into Dublin for the games. Although the games were originally intended for Irish athletes, over 5,000 athletes had come to participate leading to a bigger participation than the Olympics in Paris only weeks previously. Some of the most famous athletes in the world had come to join in on the games which included Athletics, Weight Throwing, Rowing, Swimming, Jumping, Cycling, Boxing, Rounders, Diving, Motor Boat Racing, Wrestling, Hurling, Irish Football, Camogie and many others only excluding rugby, hockey, soccer, and cricket since they were particularly English sports. Swimming events were held in Dublin Zoo and sailing events were organised from Dún Laoghaire.
Fireworks on the opening night of the Tailteann games
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Apart from sports there were also Dancing, Music, Poetry, Storytelling, Painting, Crafing and Chess ran in conjunction with the Irish Chess Union. There were also many performances and Céilies. The games were opened in Croke Park under the auspices of the GAA and they started just as they had started thousands of years before as young men dressed as warriors and wolfhounds flooded onto the pitch in front of the stadium of 20,000 people.
The 1924 Tailteann games were a full out success but the success did not last. The games of 1928 were considered a somewhat success and the 1932 games, an utter disappointment for all athletes were away at the Olympics which were held in California that year. Walsh made countless requests for the games to go on but despite his resolute determination, lack of funding, government hostility and disputes in the Irish athletics associations would eventually lead to the cancellation of the Games after 1932.
I love the idea of the Tailteann games and grew up hearing and reading stories about them an even though the games didn’t end well, the fact that we were able to unite and accomplish an event that big and successful, even after a civil war, is an amazing representation of a future as a United Ireland.
Tailteann Games, Aonach Tailteann. Athletes Games – Army Officers dressed in mythical outfits. Croke Park, August 1924. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)
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See this fascinating publication on the Tailteann Games written by TH Nally
Compiled by Alaanah Hogan
2006 documentary on the Tailteann Games ar TG4