Colmán Stanley recounts the history of the long forgotten Tailteann Games
‘As originally established away back in the nebulous mists that envelops the outer edges of chronological history – almost two thousand years before the birth of Christ – the Tailteann Games were primarily instituted as a tribute in honour of the Illustrious dead’.
These are the words used by T.H Nally, in 1922, to describe the ancient Óenach Tailten – Ireland’s oldest known sporting festival.
Nally claims that the Games began as a tribute to the dead Queen of Táilte, in the time of the Firbolgs and Dé Danann. It was, he wrote, a festival that preceded the Battle of Troy by 700 years, and directly influenced the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece. Even the legendary Fionn McCool was known to have frequented the Games on numerous occasions, to recruit men for his famous legion, the Fianna Éireann. Of course these ‘facts’ of Nally’s, taken from the Book of Invasions (now widely dismissed by historians as mere legend), are not true. Ironically, he even admits that many of Fionn’s other exploits are clearly false and exaggerated, while remaining adamant that the heroes’ attendances at the fair did occur.
Looking back now, it does seem baffling as to how a serious writer could publish these stories as truth, but his narrative can be seen as a product of its time. He was writing from the point of view of a nation, the Free State, in its infancy. It was a nation intent on forging its own national identity. It was a country that wanted to show that ‘despite centuries of invasion and oppression (political, economic, and cultural) the Irish had survived and so had their culture’. While the intentions of Nally to preserve this culture are good, the origin of the Games is much different to his fictitious account.
Although it is unclear during what period the Óenach Tailten first began, the festival had been in progress since at least the 6th century onwards. Convened by the King of Tara, and held in the Teltown area of County Meath, it is assumed by historians that the festival originated as funerary games, similar to the Ancient Greek Olympics, which are thought to have begun in 776 BC.
Sporting wise, chariot racing was the main feature of these games, and in other óenachai around the country. There is documented evidence of Óenach Colmáin, held in the Liffey plain in modern Co. Kildare, and it details some of the aspects of the racing which would have been common at all óenachai. Jockeys known as monaig, and charioteers, known as araid, held a particularly low status within society, and were owned by the people ‘who kept them’. Óenach Colmáin was held in the area where the Curragh racetrack resides, and can been seen as a spiritual ancestor to the modern races held there. Looking at the vast flat plains of the Curragh, one can nearly picture the scenes of racing there in ancient times, and feel a connection between Éire in its past and in its present. Musical performances, literary recitals, and matchmaking are among the other festivities associated with the ancient Irish óenach.
It is thought that the Norman invasion brought an end to the óenach, until J.J. Walsh revived the idea, in the early days of the Free State. Walsh, who was Minister for Post and Telegraphs, hoped that a revival of the Games would help with nation building and to bring cultural independence to the newly formed Free State. Initially planned for August 1922, these plans were shelved until 1924, due to the outbreak of civil war.
Given £10,000 from the government, Walsh and the games’ committee, set about organising an event to show the world that Ireland was capable of hosting a large international event, and that order had been restored to the country. The subsequent success of the Games was a monumental achievement, and they have a captivating uniqueness within modern Irish history, which has probably not received the historical remembrance it deserves.
The 1924 Games were attended by 250,000 spectators, and included 5,000 competitors, greater numbers than the Paris Olympics of the same summer. The event was seen worldwide through the coverage of renowned outlets such as Pathé, the Times, and the New York Times. Although the Games were billed as an occasion for athletes with Irish heritage, this rule was bent to allow bigger names to compete, and to attract larger crowds. Some of the biggest stars in athletics competed, including Olympic high jump and decathlon gold medallist Harold Osborn, and triple Olympic gold medallist, and the world record holder in the 100 metres freestyle, Johnny Weissmuller. Weissmuller would achieve most of his fame later in his life when he starred as the lead role in the Tarzan films of the 1930’s and 40’s. In total, 23 medalists from the Paris Olympics competed at the 1924 Tailteann Games.
Croke Park was the centrepiece of the festival, and was refurbished in time for the opening ceremony. The athletics aspect was modelled on the Olympic Games, with Gaelic games and a diverse range of sports also featuring. These included swimming, which was held in the lake in the Phoenix Park, golf, tennis, and most fascinatingly, motorcycling, motorboating, and aeroplane racing. The GAA’s rule banning cricket, regular football, and rugby, also applied at the Games.
Other cultural festivities such as literary recitals, musical performances, and staged performances, also featured prominently at the Games, with W.B. Yeats tasked with attracting some of the most prominent artists of the time.
The festival lasted 16 days, during which there was a ‘carnival’ atmosphere throughout Dublin City, and with this public recognition, and the triumph of the overall organisation of what was the largest sporting event staged in the world that year, a decision was made to host the Tailteann Games every four years.
Despite a lack of funding and opposition from members of the government, Walsh successfully raised funds privately, and a second successful event was hosted in the summer of 1928. Again, with the Olympics being staged in Europe in the same year (Amsterdam), a host of athletes competed in both games. The star of Tailteann was Ireland’s own Olympic hero, and hammer throw gold medallist, Dr. Pat O’Callaghan. The number of female participants across a wide range of sports was another positive aspect of these Games, and again an area in which it trumped the Olympics.
The Tailteann Games were again staged in 1932, but with a stark decrease in its success and stature. With the Olympics being held in Los Angeles, there were no major athletes attracted to compete, and the festival of that year was Irish only and more parochial in its nature. Despite Walsh’s passion for continuing the Games, the 1932 edition proved to be the last. De Valera and the Fianna Fáil administration had no ambitions to preserve the festival, and were content with allowing its memory and support to slowly decompose. De Valera saw the Games as part of a culture which was constructed by the Cumann na nGaedheal administration, whose legacy he was intent on tearing down. The festivals image-building qualities were not needed either, after De Valera had achieved what he wanted in that regard, with the enormous success of the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.
The memory of the festival perhaps lives on most notably by sharing its name with the Rás Tailteann, and Meath’s current GAA stadium Páirc Tailteann, but it is disappointing that a festival with such a rich history is not remembered more widely in today’s culture. The legend surrounding the ancient Óenach is fascinating, but the scale of the success of the modern Games is also noteworthy. The achievement, by a fledgling nation, of hosting a successful international event, so soon after two debilitating wars, is an accomplishment which should be celebrated and cherished.