Irish Champions – ancient warriors, wolfhounds and rain at the Tailteann Games 1924
We heard hearty cheers coming across the water on Friday, when Ireland won the Olympic silver medal in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls Final. The cheers we heard were not coming from Rio, however (although there were plenty there), but from Lisheen, the tiny West Cork parish that’s just around the corner from us. That’s where Gary and Paul O’Donovan hail from. We think they have declared a public holiday there in honour of the two rowing brothers who, prior to this title, won gold at the European Championships in Brandenburg in Germany this year – the first Ireland rowing crew to become European Champions. This success set me looking at the records of Irish Olympic achievements over the years.
The Liffey Swim by Jack Butler Yeats, painted in 1923. Courtesy National Gallery of Ireland
Independent Ireland was represented at the Olympic Games from 1924 onwards. No Irish athletes won medals in 1924 but Jack Butler Yeats won a silver medal for the above painting and Oliver St John Gogarty won a bronze medal for literature in that year. Did you know that between 1912 and 1948 competitions in the arts were part of the Olympic Games? For a small nation Ireland has made its mark in the games: in Melbourne in 1956 Irish athletes and boxers won 5 medals between them – a gold, a silver and three bronze, and in London in 2012 boxers, athletes and a showjumper won 6 medals – a gold, a silver and four bronze. 1996 was a memorable year when, in Atlanta, Michelle Smith won 3 golds and a bronze for swimming.
An original cover from the 1924 programme for the Tailteann Games, an artist’s perception of the ancient games and (right) two medals struck for the Games
While researching this information I came across Tailteann Games. The word is pronounced ‘tell-tin’. The eleventh century Lebor Gabála Érenn (the Book of the Invasions of Ireland) states that the games were founded by Lugh Lámhfhada, Lugh of the Long Arm – the first High King of Ireland – as a mourning ceremony for the death of his foster-mother Tailtiu. Lugh buried Tailtiu underneath a mound in an area that took her name and was later called Teltown in County Meath, not far from the Hill of Tara. It’s perhaps significant that the games took place around the festival of Lughnasa – at the beginning of August. Accounts vary as to the historical periods in which the games were held: some say as early as 1800 BC, while a more generally accepted dating seems to be from the 6th to the 9th centuries AD: the festival died out after the Norman invasion but was later revived as the Tailten Fair, consisting of contests of strength and skill, horse races, religious celebrations, and a traditional time for couples to contract ‘trial’ marriages. These were allowed under Brehon Laws: couples could meet and live together for a year and a day – at the end of this time either party could end the marriage on the ‘Hills of Separation’.
Presumably these photographs are from the ‘Opening Ceremony’ of the 1924 Tailteann Games held in Croke Park
While the 1924 Olympics were being held in Paris (where Finola’s grandfather was a member of the Irish team) a revival of the Tailteann Games was held in Croke Park, Dublin. This ‘meeting of the Irish race’ or ‘Irish Olympiad’ had been announced by Éamon de Valera in Dáil Éireann in 1921 to celebrate the founding of the Irish Free State, but the event was delayed because of the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War. Organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), it was open to all people of Irish birth or ancestry. Participants came from England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, the USA, South Africa and Australia as well as Ireland.
Note the media presence at the 1924 Tailteann Games: newsreel cameras mounted on to motor vans
Tailteann Games were held again in 1928 and 1932. The name survives today as Rás Tailteann, which is an 8 day international cycling race around parts of Ireland. This race has run every year since it was founded in 1953 and has developed into a much sought after event by professional and amateur teams from many parts of the world: it is able to award qualifying points that are required for participation in Olympic Games and World Cycling Championships.