Friday 30 September 2016

Flashback: Ireland's answer to the Olympic Games

Published 22/08/2016 | 12:43

Tailteann Games, Aonach Tailteann. Athletes Games - Army Officers dressed in mythical outfits. Croke Park, August 1924. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)
Tailteann Games, Aonach Tailteann. Athletes Games - Army Officers dressed in mythical outfits. Croke Park, August 1924. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

We may be in the midst of Rio 2016, but this week in 1924 we were enthralled in our own version of the Olympics - the Tailteann Games.

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Although the date of the first Tailteann Games is not known they are thought to predate the Olympics, taking place sometime between the 6th to 9th centuries. It's believed the first Games were held in honour of Queen Tailté and were a mourning ritual that incorporated games. The Norman invasion of Ireland and subsequent quashing of Gaelic tradition meant that the Games disappeared from Irish life for the next few centuries.

Tailteann Games. Ireland v U.S.A. Hurling. 1924. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)
Tailteann Games. Ireland v U.S.A. Hurling. 1924. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

Fast forward to 1924, to a country still reeling from civil war and seeking some form of unity. The revival of the Tailteann Games was spearheaded by members of the newly formed Irish Free State who hoped this reawakening of ancient custom would promote national identity, instil pride in Irish culture and celebrate the sportsmanship of the country, while hopefully drawing in large numbers of tourists.

The Games were open to Irish citizens and members of the Irish diaspora with competitors coming from far flung destinations like Australia, South Africa and the United States. There was a diverse list of sports including athletics, tennis, billiards, yachting, wrestling, chess, camogie, handball and hurling. Other competitive events were included like Irish dancing, poetry reading, drama and storytelling, conducted in both Irish and English.

Tailteann Games. American Athletes. 1924. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)
Tailteann Games. American Athletes. 1924. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

The Opening Ceremony in Croke Park was a pretty spectacular event as the stadium filled with 20,000 eager attendees. The procession that passed through was led by ‘Queen Tailte’ flanked by noblemen and a pack of Irish wolf hounds. The spectacle was heightened by the fact that those partaking in the ceremony were dressed as ancient Gaelic warriors clutching long sharp spears. President Cosgrave opened the Games while WB Yeats, who was Chairman of one of the committees, addressed the crowds at that evening’s banquet in the Metropole Hotel.

The Phoenix Park also hosted some sports including swimming which saw athletes competing in the pond at Dublin Zoo. Cars zipped around the Park for the motor racing competition with thousands of spectators watching on.

W.B. Yeats with Mr. J.J. Walsh, the Director of the Aonach Tailteann at the opening of the 1924 Tailteann Games. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)
W.B. Yeats with Mr. J.J. Walsh, the Director of the Aonach Tailteann at the opening of the 1924 Tailteann Games. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

The 1924 Games were held from August 2 until August 17 which conveniently coincided with the end of the Olympics in Paris. This meant certain international athletes were persuaded to make their way to the Emerald Isle, with thousands of fans following in their wake. The Games were held again in 1928 and 1932 but did not manage the same success as the 1924 Games.

The 1932 Eucharistic Congress had already brought over a million pilgrims to Dublin, and the Olympics were held in Los Angeles that year, meaning international athletes would not be making the trip to Ireland. Despite not succeeding in becoming a permanent fixture on the nation’s sporting calendar the Games certainly brought some international attention, and much needed tourism, to Ireland.

Tailteann Games Swimmers. 1924. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)
Tailteann Games Swimmers. 1924. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

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