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A game long gone

QUOITS is the name of a game that is now almost completely forgotten. We played it in primary school and for a few years afterwards. It was a simple game. To begin, you got two concrete blocks and put them down about 25 yards apart. Then you went down to the river and got stones that were oval shaped and chiselled them until they had a flat bottom.

These were the "quoits". They fitted nicely in your hand. Every man got two. You tossed for first throw. You threw your two and then your opponent threw his two. The quoit nearest the jack, the concrete block, got two points. The next nearest got one point. Some unknown genius made the game more interesting by giving five points for any quoit that leaned on the jack and 10 points for any quoit that lodged on top. Twenty-one was the winning number and so a game could be over in a few minutes. In some schools the man throwing second was allowed to try to bring down the fives and the 10.

In our pure school this wasn't allowed. We believed that a man who got a five or a 10 should be given credit for his skill. This game probably came with the British Army or with Irish soldiers serving abroad. Thus also came some songs and some tunes.

Quoits is still played but with a different name. It is popular in Co Laois. There they play with horseshoes and the game is called "meggers". It was popular too in the Old West long ago. You will find a description of the game played with horseshoes in a famous short story by John Steinbeck.

"Rings" was a very popular indoor game in Ireland until the coming of television. Then darts swept away rings and many other indoor games. It became a worldwide game. So much so that you couldn't determine who was world champion until a flamboyant young Londoner won so many tournaments and in such style that you thought of him as the world Number One. His name was Eric Bristow but he was equally well-known as the Crafty Cockney. He was the sport's first ambassador because whenever he played, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Other world champions have come and gone from various nations but we have yet to produce one. When he wins the world title, he may not be greeted by a crowd at the airport. Nor will he ride into town on an open-top bus, but it will be good to have a champion and all the pubs will celebrate.

The game is played in every town in Britain and Ireland and Holland and the European mainland. And in the little islands scattered around the South Sea. It can be played by anyone, no matter what gender. It is a great game to watch, especially on the big screen. Its Wembley is the Alexandra Palace. Its rules are simple, much more so than those of snooker. And that is one of the reasons why we love it. It is a game that demands great skill and a fair amount of intelligence but the onlookers need only to be concerned with addition and subtraction and multiplication.

One thing is almost certain: it will never supersede card games among the old generation in Ireland. There are card players who are barely able to read or write but who can recall games that were played years ago.

My uncle, Gerry Nolan, was a very good example. And those same people have a fair idea of what cards are coming up after a shuffle because they can remember cards that had come together in previous deals. This is what makes a player great. We small boys liked to play occasionally, too.

We could never acquire the expertise of our elders but we did our best. We preferred poker with very small stakes. Money was scarce in those days. So much so that our elders seldom played for no more than a penny a hand. I will be amazed if 45 and 31 aren't still part of our culture.


They were especially popular in the idle times in the country when most of the work had been done and you could afford to stay in bed for a while in the morning.

There are all kinds of stories attached to this. We are told that on Saturday nights, a cock might come down from the loft and stand on the table and crow three times, reminding the card players they should go home to be in time for Mass on Sunday. I heard it so often that in time I was inclined to believe it but, as the cock is a symbol of Paganism, it was all the more unlikely.

We young lads loved to see ourselves as playing in some mining town in the Old West. Before a game began we would place our colt .38s on the table and say: "Hombre, deal those cards not from the bottom, but from the top."

We loved the story of the man who came to a mining town and was so addicted that he joined a poker school. On the following evening he was told by a friendly barman: "Don't you know that the school you played in last night is bent?" The newcomer said: "I know but it's the only school in town."

It is doubtful if darts will ever give way to some new game that isn't yet invented. My only worry is that the Government will forbid the playing of darts because, like smoking, darts gives too much pleasure.

Fogra: Ian O'Riordan launched his new book of the story of Gerard Hartmann, the famous physical therapist and triathlete, titled Born To Perform: How Sport Has Shaped My Life