The Tailteann Games, Part 2
Last week, we discussed the ancient tradition of the Tailteann Games—a precursor to the Olympics the Greeks would begin and the world would recreate centuries later—a celebratory and entertainment-driven festival held to honor the harvest and the harvest goddess Tailtiu, to gather the Irish people together in one place for political reasons like announcing new laws, and to compete in feats of athleticism and craft. The tradition was said to have lasted for at least a thousand years (cut short by the Norman Invasion,) with a small resurgence in medieval times, but had been long dead when the Celtic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century arrived. The Celtic Revival was a time of deep interest in ancient Ireland as a way to restore the identity of the Irish people, whose culture had long been repressed by British rule, and in 1924 this led to a brief, but notable, reforming of the Tailteann Games.
The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884 (and is still the largest athletic association in Ireland, concentrating on traditional Irish sports,) and after Ireland gained its independence in the early 1900s, the GAA began discussing the revival of the Tailteann Games. There was a hunger in the newly formed Irish Free State to reclaim their national identity, attract tourists after years of conflict, and honor their native culture as something distinguished to be celebrated. The Celtic Revival revived all thing ancient Ireland—language, dance, sport, and dress, among others—and the idea of reviving the Tailteann Games, particularly inspired by the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, began to gain momentum as the revolutionaries that would eventually gain Ireland its freedom began to stir.
In 1922, with the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed and the Provisional Irish Government in place, discussions and planning could begin in earnest. With a £10,000 grant from the government, and a promise that Dublin’s Croke Park (site of the death of 13 athletes who were attacked on Bloody Sunday) could be used for free for the duration of the games, things were ready to begin…until the Civil War of 1922 changed their plans. Finally, in 1924, things had settled down enough for the 32 sub-committees it took to organize the massive event to get things underway. Even with all their preparation, war-torn 1920s Ireland was unsure they could accommodate the interest they anticipated, but decided to go ahead and the first Tailteann Games of the modern era were held between the 2nd and 17th of August, 1924.
On the docket was anything the GAA has decided was in line with the national Irish identity—from original events like boxing and swimming, new events like gymnastics and chess, and particularly Irish events like hurling and camogie. Conspicuously absent from this list were sports the GAA has taken it upon themselves to ban anything thought to be particularly “English,” despite their longstanding foothold in Ireland: soccer, rugby, cricket, and hockey. Like the original Tailteann Games, athletics weren’t the only competitions held. There was, of course, dance competitions, as well as contests in writing and oratory, music, and a wide variety of arts and crafts, all celebrating the Irish identity. Given it was the 1920s and automobiles were still a bit of a novelty, the most well-attended events was reportedly the motor racing competition held in Dublin’s famed Phoenix Park.
Despite attempts to make the competition open only to the Irish or people of Irish descent, the popularity of the Paris Olympics the same year led to the government inviting athletes from a variety of countries to compete to induce people to attend. It worked! More than 20,000 people attended the opening ceremonies in Croke Park where a procession invoking ancient Ireland, complete with a Queen Tailtiu (a statue of who adorned the medals and trophies handed out) and her retinue all in their period-correct outfits. After the Free State President, William T. Cosgrave, opened the ceremonies, organizer J.J. Walsh addressed the crowd saying that he thought the festival would have, “satisfied [foreign visitors] that the people of Ireland were capable of one common great effort to re–establish this old nation once again on its feet,” and that “this island of ours is not a colony but the home of a race of a historical lineage unsurpassed elsewhere.”
This new version of the Tailteann Games was unfortunately short-lived, with only two more held: 1928 and 1932, both of which were considered unsuccessful. The 1936 games were planned, but in-fighting in both the government and multiple athletic associations coupled with the extravagant cost of the games (the previous two attempts had failed to recoup the spending they required) caused them to be shelved for good. Since then, multiple, smaller versions of the event have popped up that either concentrate on a specific event (like the cycling event known as the Rás that still occurs annually,) or a specific group of people (like the 1963 “Junior Tailteann Games.”) The term “Tailteann Games” is still used in common parlance in many parts of Ireland for annual inter-school championship sporting events. Fingers crossed we see a revival in our lifetimes!
This post is part of a series. Read our last history post, all about the ancient version of the games, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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