Early Irish Sports Law and the Tailteann Games

In memory of my mother

The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is just around the corner, providing a good opportunity to reflect on the regulation of sports, plus the broader role of ‘funeral games’, in early Ireland. It is not generally known that Ireland once held its own version(s) of the Olympics and that these were briefly revived in the early years of the Irish Free State.

In this article, I firstly aim to set the sporting scene in early Ireland. I go on to consider a Brehon law tract (Mellbretha) on legal liability for different types of sporting injuries. There follows an overview of the so-called ‘Tailteann Games’ at Óenach Tailteann (‘the Fair of Tailtiu’). I then reflect on the fleeting revival of the Tailteann Games in the 20th century and their potential to be held again.

Sports in Early Ireland – Some Signals from the Literature

Much of what is known about sports in early Ireland reaches us via the ‘epic tales’. One of the better known epics, Táin Bó Cuailgne (‘the Cattleraid of Cooley’), includes youthful sporting achievements as part of the so-called ‘boyhood deeds’ (Macgnimrada). Such deeds are also represented as a rite of passage to more advanced ‘para-military’ activities [1].

In An Táin, Sétanta (Cú Chulainn) is depicted travelling to the royal site at Emhain Macha while playing with his toy shield, javelin, hurley and ball (scíath slissen, bunsach, lorg áne, líathráit). Later, he romps to victory against the odds in an early version of hurling (immán or áin líathróti). This seems to have involved two teams competing to puck a ball into a gap in a fence or hole in the ground. Cú Chulainn is also portrayed as having resisted every competitor combined in a game of wrestling (imthrascrad) [2].

Image 1: Depiction of Sétanta facing off against the Hound of Culann with his hurley and sliotar (Image Credit: Lessons from Mythology : Cu Chulainn’s mindset — 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu Dublin – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Fitness (10thplanetdublin.com))

Elsewhere, in the tale Immram Máel Duin (‘ The Voyage of Mael Duin’) for example, the hero also displays much sporting skill: ‘In his play he outwent all his comrades, both in throwing balls and running and leaping and putting stones and racing horses’ (ba forggaine for cách a cluiche, etir imarchor liathráite 7 rith 7 leim 7 cur line 7 imrim ech) [3].

Indeed, racing seems to have been a popular pastime. During the festival of Lugnasad, ‘swim racing’ of horses may have been customary [4]. A green or racecourse at the Curragh of Kildare, possibly known as the ‘Curragh of the Liffey’ (Cuirrech Lifé) in earlier times, is also alluded to in the sources [5]. Meanwhile, Cath Dédenach Maige Tuired (‘the Second Battle of Moytura’) attests to both horse and greyhound racing. Visitors arriving at an assembly in another territory were asked if they had hounds (coin) and steeds (eich) for races, because it was customary for visitors to challenge those at a territorial assembly to a friendly contest [6].

Board games were also prevalent in early Ireland. A chess-type game, fidchell (‘wood intelligence’), is described in various sources, including in Sanas Cormaic (‘Cormac’s Glossary’), which contains etymologies and explanations for numerous Irish words [7]. There it is confirmed that fidchell necessitates cíall and fáth (‘attention and judgment’). The fidchell pieces were likely made of wood, though more elaborate gold and silver pieces are also referenced in some sources [8]. And a 12th century chess piece found in a County Meath bog is made of ivory or polished bone with a lead core [9]. The playing of fidchell was a favoured pastime amongst the upper echelons of early Irish society.

Image 2: Clonard chess piece (Image Credit: J. O’Donovan, Book of Rights (Dublin 1847), Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Mellbretha – Sport Judgments

The short Brehon Law tract Mellbretha (‘Sport Judgments’) was rediscovered in the 1960s on a scrap of vellum used to bind a manuscript containing various short texts [10]. But Mellbretha’s existence had been known beforehand from cross-references in scribes’ commentaries in a different manuscript [11]. Mellbretha is peculiar in that it seems to be a relatively freestanding law tract, not forming part of the substantial Senchas Már (‘Great Tradition’) collection. It is not clear either whether Mellbretha slotted into another notable collection of law tracts, Bretha Nemed (‘judgments concerning privileged persons’). While difficult to date, it has been noted that some of Mellbretha is written in an ancient style and so may trace its roots to the ‘era of oral tradition’ [12].

The preface to Mellbretha sets the scene:

Locc don leabar-sa Temair, 7 aimsir dó aimser Cuinn Cétcathaig, 7 peursa do Bodhainn, 7 tucait a deunma imairac comriachtain in da macraide dia Samhna for lar muige Breg; 7 robendaigh Patraicc 7 roforlin in esbaid: ‘The place of this book was Tara, its time that of Conn Cétchathach, its author Bodainn [a mythological judge], and the reason for composing it the confrontation or encounter of the two teams of boys on the plain of Bregia on November-day; and [Saint] Patrick [subsequently] blessed (i.e. approved of it) and supplied what was lacking in it’ [13].

The plot then thickens:

Dia rogaib Fuaimnech ingen cuind cétcathaig cacht for rígraid Teamrach cen dig cin bíad cin cesta Éreann do gleod co roícdais a dalta[i] fria: ‘When Fuaimnech, daughter of Conn Cétchathach, had imprisoned the royal household of Tara without drink or food and without [power] to settle the problems of Ireland until she should be paid compensation for her fostersons’ [14] – those fostersons having been dishonoured, injured or killed during the above confrontation at Bregia. Bodainn (the mythological judge) is then called upon to resolve the dispute. His poetic judgment forms the backbone of Mellbretha:

‘Let us speak with the art of truth, what conscience imposes upon me: although they may excel in one branch of feats, from among the full complements of their manifold games, [they are] free of penalties save for sick-maintenance until a cry of danger supervenes’ [15].

Mellbretha specifies the extent of legal liability for injuries inflicted on participants and third parties during different types of sporting, and para-military, games. A few different criteria were used to determine liability, particularly the nature and inherent risk of the activity and the age of the participants. The first category of games, most likely played by younger children, were immune from legal liability. One example of a sport in this category was lúb liathróit (‘hurling match’). Others were snám (swimming), corthe críche (‘boundary pillar’ – a rounders-type game) and lém (jumping) [16].


Image 3: Extract from the 1957 Supreme Court judgment of Donaldson v. The Irish Motor Racing Club. The Court’s proportionate approach towards injuries incurred during sporting activities has certain parallels with Mellbretha


A second category of more para military-type activities (fianchluichi) were associated with adolescents, e.g. the fianna: ‘who seem to have lived for a period of their lives in a liminal status on the periphery of their societies, roving the forests and wilderness, raiding neighbouring tribes and apparently also forcibly taking provisions from their own, with some access to young women, their dress and appearance marked by animal totemism, etc.’ [17].

Injury caused during fianchluichi only gave rise to liability for ‘sick maintenance’ (othrus), i.e. ensuring the victim was nursed back to health (or otherwise paid a ‘nursing fee’) [18]. However this was subject to an ambiguous caveat: ‘until a cry of danger supervenes’. This may indicate that additional legal liability would arise if the activity went ahead despite someone (e.g. an onlooker) warning of a danger [19]. Or maybe sick maintenance could be avoided altogether if the injured person had been well warned of the danger in advance.

Activities falling into this second category included echréim – possibly horse riding or racing, or otherwise mounting a horse on the run, breaking an untrained horse or horse baiting. Other examples of fianchluichi were cor cloiche (‘weight or stone putting’) and díbircuid (‘pelting’, probably some form of target shooting) [20]. The third and final category in Mellbretha comprised so-called ‘guilty sports’ (colchluichi). Liability in these cases likely involved both sick maintenance and an additional fine payable by the perpetrator or their whole team [21].

The colchluichi category encompassed uathad fri hilar (‘few against many’). It is unclear what this involved but it might be hinted at in a separate source detailing an initiation into the troop of Finn mac Cumhaill: ‘No man was taken till in the ground a large hole had been made (such as to reach the fold of his belt) and he put into it with his shield and a forearm’s length of a hazel stick. Then must nine warriors, having nine spears, with a ten furrows’ width betwixt them and him, assail him and in concert let fly at him. If past that guard of his he were hurt then, he was not received into Fianship’ [22].

Another ‘guilty sport’ was bundsach i n-airecht (‘throwing a spear into an assembly’). This may have referred to injuries sustained by someone at a law assembly (airecht) from a wooden spear or dart thrown into, or from within, the crowd – though if the person throwing the projectile had gotten prior permission to engage in such activity at the airecht then their liability may have been limited [23].

Early Irish Olympics? Óenach Tailteann

Sports were central to an óenach (‘fair’) – so people attending an óenach may have occasionally suffered sports-related injuries giving rise to legal liability in accordance with Mellbretha. The óenach was a type of general public gathering. Here, ‘besides the exchange of goods and the holding of games, horse-racing, and various athletic competitions, the “public business” of the túath, including important lawsuits between different kindreds and the issue of special ordinances, was transacted’ [24]. Tradition also suggests the óenach was a marriage festival and temporary marriages contracted here could be dissolved by the next May Day without requiring the usual grounds for divorce [25].

Kings were obliged by the Brehon Laws to convene an óenach at regular intervals and these were likely held at ancient burial grounds [26]. One of the more notable fairs was Óenach Tailteann (‘the Fair of Tailtiu’), at modern day Teltown in County Meath, held in August during the festival of Lugnasad. It is possible the name of this place derived from an early Celtic term for ‘well-formed, beautiful’ [27]. Óenach Tailteann typically occurred in Uí Néill territory under the auspices of the King of Tara, usually the pre-eminent king in Ireland [28].

While assumed to have been an annual event, by the late 9th century Óenach Tailteann was falling into abeyance, with sporadic revivals out to the 12th century [29]. Some accounts suggest that the last noteworthy medieval Fair of Tailtiu was held in 1169 by Rory O’Connor, High King of Ireland. This apparently saw horse and chariot traffic extending over 6 miles from Tailtiu to Mullach-Aiti (‘Hill of Lloyd’) near Kells [30].

Image 4: Oliver Sheppard, An Banríoghan (Queen) Tailte, obverse, 1922, prize medal struck in silver and bronze. Image Credit: Arts and Crafts Sculpture – Sculpture Dublin

The ultimate origins of Óenach Tailteann, as with other provincial fairs, may have been rooted in ancient ‘funeral games’ (Cuiteach Fuait) held to honour past royalty and heroes [31]. Óenach Tailteann became associated with a goddess, Queen Tailté, foster-mother of the mythological Tuatha Dé Dannan King Lugad or Lugh, from whom the festival of Lugnasad is said to have derived its name, i.e. the ‘games of Lug’ [32].

According to one account, ‘the Tailteann Games’ included: running, long-jumping, high-jumping, hurling, wrestling, boxing, swimming, horse racing, spear or pole jumping and archery. There were also cultural contests, based around literature, poetry, music, dancing and story-telling [33]. Indeed, it has been argued that Óenach Tailteann ‘was one of the most central events in the calendar of pre-Christian Ireland. It encompassed many themes that would subsequently feature in the Olympic Games…’. [34].

Revival of the Tailteann Games

Though eclipsed during the periods of Anglo-Norman and English conquest from the 12th century, the tradition of Óenach Tailteann continued to reverberate. An examination of the site in 1836 ‘found among the people vivid traditions of the old customs…that games were carried on there “down to 30 years ago” — i. e. to 1806 —but that… there were quarrels and scenes of violence so that the magistrates at last put a stop to the meetings’ [35].

The notion of formally reviving the ‘Tailteann Games’ gathered momentum in the late 19th century in tandem with the broader nationalist and Gaelic Revival movement. The idea picked up further steam in the early 20th century under the first revolutionary Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann) in 1919 [36]. After the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the new Provisional Government began preparing for the Games, though this was interrupted by the Civil War.

The modern Tailteann Games were first staged in August 1924. While reinventing the ancient Games in many respects, the 1924 Games were held against a similar ‘funerary’ backdrop. The Civil War had not long ended, thus ‘[t]he games, while a celebration of Celtic culture and a newly-independent Ireland, were also a time of reflection, remembrance and a signal to move on past old hostilities’ [37]. Still, wounds were slow to heal and the revived Games would become associated with the ‘pro-treaty’ Government which had prevailed in the Civil War.

Image 5: Artistic depiction of part of the opening ceremony of the Tailteann Games, 1924 (Image Credit: The Tailteann Games by P. J. Lynch, 1920s | The Little Museum Collection (20thcenturydublin.com))

Ahead of an impressive opening ceremony in Croke Park, a Dublin sporting newspaper optimistically trumpeted:

This afternoon there will be inaugurated in Croke Park the greatest sporting carnival ever organised in Ireland and surpassing in its extent and scope even the modern Olympic Games…the hosting of our kin from across the seas must prove a stimulus to our racial spirit in every way…the new Aonach Tailteann may well be like the Aonach of old, a rallying and unifying event, instinct with the best characteristics of days of national glory and athletic renown [38].

The 1924 Tailteann Games were held between 2nd-17th August at various locations in and around Dublin. The sporting events included: athletics, jumping, weight throwing, swimming, cycling, rowing, boxing, rounders, yachting and motor boat racing, golf, tennis, gymnastics, wrestling, weight lifting, motor cycle and car racing, billiards, chess, Gaelic football, hurling, handball and camogie [39]. Crowds were especially drawn to the more ‘modern’ spectacles, with 40,000 attending a motor cycle event in the Phoenix Park in Dublin [40].

Competitive cultural events were also organised in Irish dancing, poetry, prose, drama, oratory and story-telling, music, painting and arts and crafts [41]. There was an ‘industrial pageant’ too, where Irish firms showcased their nationalism, as well as their use of modern industrial methods by displaying their products on the back of floats through the city centre [42].

The 1924 Games came hot on the heels of the Paris Olympics and so a number of prominent Olympic competitors were persuaded to take part in the Tailteann Games afterwards. Johnny Weismuller of later Tarzan film fame was one – he competed in swimming at Dublin Zoo pond [43]. But, in general, participants at the Tailteann Games were restricted to those of Irish birth and heritage. This effectively meant entrants were limited to Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, the US, Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand [44].

Overall, the 1924 Tailteann Games were deemed a success and a tourist boon. This was notwithstanding unseemly disputes regarding public financing of the Games, which swirled away in the background before, during and afterwards [45]. The modern Tailteann Games would be staged again in 1928 on similar lines to 1924 but turned out to be a lower key affair – although numbers attending the motor cycle event in Phoenix Park exceeded those in 1924 [46].

Image 6: Fireworks at the Tailteann Games, Croke Park, 15 August 1924 (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Staged a final time in 1932, the Tailteann Games became something of a damp squib. They were beset by a timing mishap, having been scheduled in July before the Olympic Games that year (meaning the competitive Irish athletes were not available) and in parallel to a Eucharistic Congress [47]. By this time too, a segment of the ‘anti-treaty’ movement was in Government. This saw a more tepid attitude to continuing the Games, justifiable on both financial grounds and that the Games had been a brainchild of their political enemies [48]. So the modern Tailteann Games, intended to help heal national rifts, ultimately fell foul of them.

Some concluding thoughts

Sports and games clearly occupied a central place in the social structure of early Ireland, so much so that Brehon jurists deemed it necessary to devise a specific framework (Mellbretha) to govern legal liability in this area. So here we find the ancient stirrings of Irish sports law, displaying some core features not too dissimilar to those found in ‘negligence’ principles today – particularly the notions of proportionality and social utility of sporting activities.

The ancient Tailteann Games were just one, albeit key, public expression of this Irish affinity for sports. The fleeting revival of the Games in the early 20th century should give pause for thought. It begs a question as to whether a 21st century renaissance of the Games is worth attempting. The conditions for this seem more favourable now than in the 1920s. In particular, Irish sporting infrastructure has substantially improved and the country has become more outward looking since then. Civil War divisions are now also much less acute than they once were.

After the ravages of a pandemic, what better moment to hold these ‘funeral games’ once again, while simultaneously striking an optimistic, confident cultural tone for the future?

This article may be cited as J. Biggins, ‘Early Irish Sports Law and the Tailteann Games‘, The Brehon Lawyer (July 2021)

Sources used for this article

Anne and William O’Sullivan, ‘A Legal Fragment’ (1968) 8 Celtica 140

Cathal Brennan, ‘The Tailteann Games, 1924-1936’, The Irish Story (23 February 2011): The Tailteann Games, 1924-1936 – The Irish Story

D.A. Binchy, Mellbretha (1968) 8 Celtica 144 (‘Binchy 1’)

D.A. Binchy, ‘The Fair of Tailtiu and the Feast of Tara’ (1958) 18 Ériu 113 (‘Binchy 2’)

Ellen Ettlinger, ‘The Association of Burials with Popular Assemblies, Fairs and Races in Ancient Ireland’ (1952) 6 Études Celtiques 30

Mike Cronin, ‘Projecting the Nation through Sport and Culture: Ireland, Aonach Tailteann and the
Irish Free State, 1924-32′ (2003) 38 Journal of Contemporary History 395

Nerys Patterson, Cattlelords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland (University of Notre Dame, 1994)

P. W. Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland (Vol. 2) (Dublin, 1913)

T. H. Nally, Aonac Tailteann or Tailteann Games: their Origin, History and Ancient Associations (Dublin, 1924)

William Sayers, ‘Games, Sport and Para-Military Exercise in Early Ireland’ (1992) 10 Aethlon 105


[1] Sayers, p. 106

[2] Sayers, pp. 106-107

[3] Sayers, p. 107

[4] Patterson, p. 144

[5] Joyce, p. 464

[6] Joyce, p. 463

[7] Joyce, p. 477

[8] Joyce, p. 478

[9] Joyce, p. 479

[10] O’Sullivan, p. 140

[11] Binchy 1, p. 144

[12] Binchy 1, p. 146

[13] Binchy 1, p. 144

[14] Binchy 1, p. 146

[15] Binchy 1, p. 149

[16] Binchy 1, p. 149

[17] Sayers, pp. 106-107

[18] Binchy 1, p. 153

[19] Sayers, pp. 118-119

[20] Sayers, p. 115-116

[21] Sayers, p. 116

[22] Sayers, p. 117 quoting Standish O’Grady, Muinter Finn, Silva Gadelica (London, 1892)

[23] Binchy 1, p. 154

[24] Binchy 2, p. 124

[25] Patterson, p. 145

[26] Binchy 2, p. 124

[27] Binchy 2, p. 124

[28] Binchy 2, p. 126

[29] Binchy 2, p. 120

[30] Joyce, p. 439

[31] Binchy 2, p. 124

[32] Joyce, p. 439

[33] Nally, p. 21

[34] Cronin, p. 398

[35] Ettlinger, p. 43

[36] Cronin, pp. 398-399

[37] Cronin, p. 400

[38] Cronin, p. 403

[39] Brennan

[40] Cronin, p. 406

[41] Brennan

[42] Cronin, p. 402

[43] Brennan

[44] Cronin, p. 404

[45] Cronin, p. 407

[46] Cronin, p. 409

[47] Cronin, p. 409

[48] Cronin, pp. 409-410