When Ireland’s Tailteann Games eclipsed the Olympics

What difference does a century make in the life of a nation? asks Paul Rouse
When Ireland’s Tailteann Games eclipsed the Olympics

If Ireland gets chosen as the country to stage the 2023 World Cup, there will be an opportunity to gauge how far the people of this island have travelled in terms of their capacity to organise major sporting events.

Almost 100 years previously — back in 1924 — the biggest sporting event organised across the world in that year was staged in Ireland. This event — the Tailteann Games — was bigger even than that year’s Paris Olympic Games.

Against the backdrop of a War of Independence, partition and a nasty little civil war — and indeed partly because the legitimacy of the new state was so contested — the government of the Irish Free State held an extraordinary sporting and cultural festival in Dublin in 1924.

The Tailteann Games saw more than 5,000 competitors compete in a remarkable range of sporting events.

According to nationalist legend, the Tailteann Games had been first established in 632 BC beside the Hill of Tara. In a decisive demonstration of the negative cultural impact of colonisation, the last record of the games was put at 1168 AD — just before the ‘English invasion’ of 1169.

The message sent by staging a ‘revival’ in 1924 was a clear one: despite centuries of invasion and oppression (political, economic, and cultural) the Irish had survived and so had their culture. The Irish nation, now reborn, would show to the world that it was free and would do so by staging a major sporting festival.

It had initially been planned to stage the games in 1922, but there was no prospect of this happening with the ongoing civil war.

The war ended in May 1923 and the government — despite some of its members believing it incredibly stupid to even attempt it — decided to stage the Tailteann Games in the summer of 1924.

The Games would consist of a full athletics programme, all the games of the GAA, as well as swimming, golf, tennis, horse racing, boxing, billiards, and the modern spectacles of car and aeroplane races. There was no soccer and no rugby and no hockey, however. The contortions of the Gaelic mind meant that these sports were not considered Irish enough — which is an outstanding mental leap, given some of the other sports that were included.

There was also a series of cultural events based around literature, poetry, music, dancing, and storytelling — indeed so many cultural competitions were held, that some wags deemed it an achievement not to win a medal of some description.

The President of the Irish Free State, WT Cosgrave, was clear in his motivation for staging the Games, despite the perilous financial position of the new state: “The purpose of the promoters of the Tailteann Games is to give a new impulse to this necessary and valuable form of national life, and to remind the Irish people, as Thomas Davis sought to remind them, that there is more, much more, in the life of a nation than politics and economics.” And so it was that despite the fears of attacks from anti-Treaty dissidents, the Tailteann Games were set for August 1924.

From mid-July, Dublin was buzzing with anticipation. Military bands played open-air concerts; drama and opera filled the nights; the presence of the great Irish tenor, Count John McCormack, added to the excitement. Overall an atmosphere of carnival prevailed as hotels and railways made elaborate arrangements to cope with the expected influx of 150,000 visitors over the events.

The streets of Dublin were decorated with banners, posters, decorative lights; trees were planted in small green tubs, and flower baskets were hung from lampposts.

The GAA was provided with £10,000 to refurbish Croke Park for the opening and closing ceremonies.

For the 16 days of the competition, The New York Times and The Times of London ran daily reports on the festival, while Pathé newsreels of the sporting events played in cinemas all over the world.

It was the high-profile sporting events that enthralled the public. An Irish team was entered and competed against teams drawn from states all around the world to which Irish people had emigrated. Competitors were supposed to be of Irish birth or have an Irish heritage, and the other teams who took part represented Wales, England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Each country had a local organising committee charged with raising money and awareness and recruiting the team.

In a late twist to the tale, the organisers wisely sprinkled some international stars through the competition — these stars did not have Irish heritage, but they added huge lustre to the competition.

In all, 23 medal winners from the Paris Olympics came and competed at the Aonach, including Richmond Eve (the high diver), Harold Osborne (the American athletics all-rounder) and Andrew Charleton (swimmer).

Among these stars was the American Johnny Weismuller (later the famous Tarzan actor) in swimming — the fact the swimming competition was staged in the pond of the Phoenix Park zoo is probably the most delicious story to emerge from the Games.

It was not ‘traditional’ Irish sports, but modern mechanised sports — motorcycle, speedboat, and aeroplane races — that became the biggest single events in terms of spectator numbers, wooing people fascinated by the speed and danger on view.

The Games were held in the Phoenix Park. More than 40,000 spectators came to motorcycling held on 4.5 mile circuit in the Phoenix Park, starting at the Wellington Monument. Big favourites with the crowds were the northern competitors, JW Shaw of Belfast, J Craig of Ballymena and the great Stanley Woods.

A novel feature was an air-race between pilots from the new Irish Free State Army Air Corps. This saw 12 machines taking part in six events, including an aerobatics display. The longest race was held over 20 miles from the Park with the Clondalkin chimney, the Hell Fire Club and the Wellington Monument as the turning points. Planes reached up to 140mph, though the day was clouded by a minor crash when an Avro plane was caught in a gust of wind when landing and was thrown across the grass into another plane, smashing the propeller and damaging a wing.

Thrillingly, the Air Corps also staged a mock battle. A pile of timber was rebuilt to resemble a fortress in a corner of the Park; it was to be defended by several fighters and anti-aircraft guns from two bombers attempting to land mock bombs on it made from plaster of Paris. The ammunition for the defenders was made to ensure a loud crackling sound as it exploded.

The crowds, especially those who travelled from rural areas to Dublin, were fascinated by the speed and danger offered by such mechanical events, sports which suggested American and European glamour and hi-tech invention rather than Irish parochialism.

There was criticism, too, however. The Irish Worker newspaper criticised the extravagance of staging the Games “while the streets of Dublin and other cities of this glorious Free State are walked by men dazed by hunger and deprivation”. Dublin’s municipal workers took advantage of the Games to go on strike for better pay.

By the end of the Games, an estimated 250,000 people had attended events across the 15 days. Large crowds turned up to the athletics, cycling, and Gaelic games matches at Croke Park. The golf competition for men was held at Dollymount and the ladies at Hermitage; the tennis competition was held at the Fitzwilliam Club, Wilton Place; the clay bird shooting took place at the Leopardstown racecourse; the bowling competition took place at Kenilworth Bowling Green. Finally, there were three chess tournaments, the most important of which was won by Lord Dunsany; the myth was still being peddled that the Irish invented chess.

The broad view was the Games were such an outstanding success, that they should — like the Olympic Games — be held every four years. And they were held again in 1928 and 1932, with diminishing degrees of success.

When the 1932 election saw Fianna Fáil form a government, there was no prospect of the Tailteann Games surviving. They were too closely identified with Cumann na nGaedheal and the bitterness of post-Civil War politics.

The death of the Games was a slow one — but showed how well the politicians of independent Ireland learned from the men who ran the British Empire. After the 1932 Games, Éamon de Valera established an inter-departmental committee to examine the future possibilities of staging a Tailteann Games. Eight years later, the inevitable result was the Games were no more, strangled to death by a committee.

Nonetheless, the 1924 staging of the Tailteann Games was a remarkable achievement. It brought the Irish Free State to international attention and stands as testimony to the role that sport can play in building allegiances, and promoting national pride and identity in a new state.

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