The Ancient Tailteann Games

Published on October 28, 2018

It comes with a lot of names, Tailtin Fair, Áenach Tailteann, Aonach Tailteann, Assembly of Talti, Fair of Taltiu or Festival of Taltii; but when you hear the words Tailteann Games, you may have known of it as the annual schools inter-provincial championships organized by the Athletics Association of Ireland or simply Athletics Ireland, that started since 1963. However, the Tailteann Games is actually a historical event that goes a long way back in time, an ancient history. Let’s dive into the past, shall we?

It is still a subject of debate to exactly when the Tailteann Games was founded, some people would say it started around 1600 BC, but most modern folklore specialists claim that its origin could be traced as far back as 1829 BC. It was a festival that came before the Battle of Troy by centuries, and directly shaped and inspired the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece.

In the accounts of Leabhar Gabhála Éireann, usually known in English as The Book of Invasions or The Book of Conquests, the King Lugh Lamhfáda created the games as a celebration in honor of his late foster-mother, the goddess Tailtiu.

Queen Tailte Drawing

According to the book, Tailtiu was the daughter of the King of Spain. She became the wife of the High King of Ireland, Eochaid mac Eirc of Fir Bolg. Her husband named his capital Teltown after her which of today is a townland of County Meath, Ireland.

Following the death of the High King during the Tuatha Dé Danaan invasion, Eochaidh Garbh who is the leader of the invasion force, took her hand in marriage. And so she became the foster mother of the Gaelic god, Lugh Lámhfhada (Lugh of the Long Hand).

The queen and goddess Tailtiu is believed to have passed away because of exhaustion from tending and clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. After her death, Lugh decided to rest her remains on the plains of Meath and built a mount over her, near to the Hill of Tara, which is considered the ancient seat of Gaelic power.

To commemorate the death of his foster mother, the King Lugh declared that the first of August would mark the harvest festival of Lughnasa or Lugh’s Fair. The festival was to be celebrated as a funeral feast and an athletic competition event called the Áenach Tailteann. The sports event was held near to burial place of Queen Tailtiu at Teltown. The Tailteann Games are therefore originally created as funerary games and can be seen as a significant tradition to honor the dead. It also served a purpose for gathering people for entertainment and an affair for promulgating new laws.

The first three days of the Áenach Tailteann were spent paying tribute and remembering the importance of the deceased. Mourning chants called the Guba would be sung by guests and members of the high-ranking class in memory of the dead. A funeral pyre would then be created to burn the dead. On the fourth day after the religious ceremonies have concluded, the proclaiming of new laws would then be carried out by the Ollamh Érenn during a universal truce and was culminated by igniting another massive fire. The ceremony of rejoicing would begun through the Cuiteach Fuait consisting of the games that tested mental and physical skills.

This tournament included running in long jumps, high jumps, spear throwing, sword fighting, archery, chariot and horse racing, swimming, and rowing. Along with the sporting contests, Cuiteach Fuait also featured dancing, singing, and storytelling as well as crafts competition for goldsmiths, jewelers, armourers , and weavers.

Another tradition held during the fair was the Tailteann mass marriages. Couples would be allowed to wed and be married for a year to know if they were fit for each other, after which they could divorce by proceeding to the so called “separation hills” without leaving a mark on their reputation. The Tailteann marriages in Ireland were made legal up until the 13th century.

The Áenach Tailteann festival was staged every year and became very popular in the country, attended by hordes of famous and common Irish people, kings, athletes and warriors travelling from all over Ireland to spectate or take part. It was a seat of the high king to call for the games, and their magnificence and magnitude symbolized the king’s power.

The games went on for years up until 1169-1171 AD, when the land was invaded by the Anglo-Norman army. The High King lost his lordship over all the kingdoms of Ireland, including its traditions and festivities. It was in the 1920s when the sporting and cultural event was revived in the Irish Free State. It was, however, short-lived because of the Great Depression and Anglo-Irish trade war, taking place only in 1924, 1928, and 1932 in Croke Park, Dublin.

Tailteann games. Image: National Library of Ireland

Tailteann games. Image: National Library of Ireland

Hurdles in the Tailteann Games. Image: National Library of Ireland.

The  Irish Secondary Schools Athletic Association executed the revival of the games which started in 1963. The Tailteann Games of Ireland we know today is now under the jurisdiction of Athletics Ireland, organizing an annual national championships just like the old days.

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