The Aonach Tailteann Games

County Meath
County Meath was the site of the original Irish games. Image by Design Pics/Irish Image Collection/Getty Images

When Lammas, or Lughnasadh, rolls around at the beginning of August, it’s often a time for local festivals, country fairs, and harvest events. Believe it or not, this isn’t a new tradition at all. The Aonach Tailteann was a fair held by the High Kings of Ireland in County Meath, and some early historians believe it originated during prehistoric times. Also spelled Óenach Tailteann, this fair was a combination of the political assembly, marketplace, and games of skill and strength.

Origins and History of the Aonach Tailteann

According to the Irish Book of Invasions, the hero and god Lugh himself organized the first of these fairs, in his aspect as Lugh Lámhfhada (Lugh of the long arm). He held the gathering as a tribute to his late foster mother, Tailtiu, and it took place during the last half of July, so that it would culminate in a giant feast and celebration on Lughnasadh, August 1.

Irish playwright Thomas H. Nally says in his 1922 book The Aonac Tailteann and the Tailteann Games that this was, essentially, the Irish version of the Olympic Games. Nally goes as far as to say that the Irish games are older, and served as inspiration for the Greek events later. He says, “...not merely the idea of the games, but the actual games themselves, their sequence at the festivities, the rules under which the various contests were held, and even the very bye-laws regulating the conduct of the people before, during and immediately after the celebrations, were all borrowed en masse from those already in operations in [Ireland].”

Historians differ in opinions as to when the first Aonach Tailteann was held. Some sources put it back as far as 1900 b.c.e., others as recently as 622 b.c.e. What is generally agreed upon, however, is that the last Aonach Tailteann took place around the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland, around 1170 c.e.

This final assembly was hosted by Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Roderick, or Rory O’Connor), the last High King of Ireland.

The Threefold Purpose of the Aonach Tailteann

The Aonach Tailteann was more than just a bunch of strapping young men competing in feats of strength. This was also a huge gathering in which political alliances were forged and strengthened. The kings used the Aonach Tailteann as a period in which new laws were established, older ones were modified, and everyone was advised as to what these mandates actually were. Noblemen would take this information from the High King back to their own lands, spread the word, and thus everyone was following the same set of rules. Kings might use this assembly as a time to ask fealty of their men, and oathtaking was likely a regular component of the gathering.

In addition to political matters, there were the games themselves. According to legend, the early games included jumping and running competitions, wrestling and boxing, skilled events such as swordfighting and horse racing, and even singing and dancing showdowns.

Cúán úa Lothcháin, an 11th century Irish poet, wrote a verse celebrating the return of the games in 1006 c.e., after a hiatus of nearly eight decades.

He wrote:

A Fair with gold and silver,
With games, with music of chariots,
With adornment of body and 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.

A Fair without sin, without fraud,
Without reproach, without insult,
Without contention, without seizure,
Without theft, without redemption.

No man going into the seats of the women,
nor woman into the seats of the men, shining fair,
But each in due order by rank,
In his place in the high Fair.

 Finally, the Aonach Tailteann was a time to honor the dead. Funeral celebrations were held for the recently deceased, depending on the level of their social status, and songs were sung in their memory.

Priests performed elaborate rituals, and funeral pyres were burnt.

Revival and Renewed Interest

During the 1920s and 1930s, there was a bit of a revival of the Tailteann games, as part of a move towards Irish nationalism. According to Cathal Brennan at The Irish Story, this was about more than just sport – it was politics in action. Brennan explains, “Sport was an important aspect of Irish nationalism in the early 20th century. The Gaelic Athletic Association… promoted a separate Irish identity and tried to foster this, not only by promoting indigenous sports such as Hurling and Gaelic football, but also by banning ‘English’, or ‘Garrison Games’, such as soccer, rugby and cricket… Sinn Féin embraced the idea of reviving the Aonach Tailteann and when the revolutionary republican parliament Dáil Éireann was established in 1919 the momentum for the games grew.”

After the 1930s, interest waned for a few decades, and there were no more Aonach Tailteann games held in Ireland. However, in recent years, the Irish Athletics Association has held an annual track and field competition in the spirit of the ancient games that continues today.

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Wigington, Patti. "The Aonach Tailteann Games." ThoughtCo, Jul. 10, 2016, Wigington, Patti. (2016, July 10). The Aonach Tailteann Games. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "The Aonach Tailteann Games." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 14, 2017).