Paul Rouse: When Tarzan was a star of the Tailteann Games

'Tailteann' has a lore within the GAA that goes back to the very founding of the Association back in 1884.
Paul Rouse: When Tarzan was a star of the Tailteann Games

PRIDE OF A NATION: Ireland and America compete in hurling during the 1928 Tailteann Games at Croke Park. Earlier, in 1922 the Free State government gave the GAA £10,000 to renovate Croke Park to stage the opening and closing ceremonies of the games. Photo by Independent News And Media/Getty Images

This weekend the Tailteann Cup – the second-tier All-Ireland senior football competition – ends with a final between Cavan and Westmeath. It may not exactly be what the players grew up dreaming of, but the word has a lore within the GAA that goes back to the very founding of the Association back in 1884. Indeed, its history is an extraordinary one, tied to some of the greatest names in Irish history.

In this respect, it was a word that Michael Davitt (the founding leader of the Land League and patron of the GAA) used when he called for a “revival” of the Tailteann Games in the 1880s.

Davitt said that those Games would be “a national festival not only of athletics but also of music and poetry involving the Celtic Race throughout the world.” To help fund such a games, the GAA sent a team of hurlers, footballers and athletes to America in 1888.

The tour was a disaster: poor weather, poor organisation and other difficulties meant that the Invaders ran out of money. Maurice Davin, the leader of the Invasion and then President of the GAA, was forced to wire Michael Davitt asking him to bail them out to the tune of more than £450.

Worse than the loss of money, though, was the loss of men. More than 20 of the original touring party of 51 remained permanently in America and several more returned to Ireland only to tidy up their affairs before going to live and work in the United States.

The idea of reviving the Tailteann Games was then shelved by the GAA, even though it retained a certain currency among Irish-Ireland revivalists.

Indeed, the construction an All-Ireland festival of sport and culture was a perfect vehicle for the Irish-Ireland revivalists to give substance to the idea of what an independent Ireland might be like.

The establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 eventually provided the opportunity to hold a Tailteann Games. Indeed, one of the first decisions made by the new Free State government was to stage a Tailteann Games and, ultimately, to give the GAA £10,000 to renovate Croke Park to stage the opening and closing ceremonies.

JJ Walsh was the driving force behind the games. He is best remembered as the cabinet minister who established 2RN, the Irish state radio station that became RTÉ, and also as the man who had the red post boxes of the Empire painted green after the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Walsh had fought in the GPO in 1916 and later became a successful businessman. His greatest talent was considered to be his organisational skills. And he had first displayed those skills when he served as chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Cork.

At the Irish Race Congress in Paris in 1922, Walsh set out his vision for how sport was fundamental to the vision of what an independent Ireland would become. He saw sport as a means to help propel the nation – as the reports put it – “towards the great destiny to which we all feel Ireland is called.” More precisely, he saw the Tailteann Games as “a means of bringing to world notice the athletic prowess of the Irish race.” And the Tailteann Games duly proved to be a remarkable event.

When it was held in 1924 it was the biggest sporting event organized across the world in that year, bigger even than that year’s Paris Olympic Games.

It saw more than 5,000 competitors compete in a remarkable range of sporting events. There was 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 (shooting and golf and aeroplane racing being long-established sports of the Gael, of course).

The format of the Games saw an Irish team entered in each competition where it 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.

Understanding the need to sprinkle every major sporting event with stardust, the organisers wisely sprinkled some international stars through the competition – these stars did not have Irish heritage, but they added huge excitement to the competition.

Among these stars was the American Johnny Weismuller (who eventually became famous as the Tarzan actor) in swimming.

It is probably the single greatest piece of trivia in Irish sporting history that the swimming competition – which Tarzan won – was staged in the pond of the Zoo in the Phoenix Park.

All told, the staging of the Games was a remarkable achievement in the context of a new state (particularly one ripped apart by civil war); it brought immediate international recognition to the Irish Free State.

The message sent by staging a ‘revival’ in 1924 was intended to be a clear one. 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 colonization, the last record of the games was put at 1168 AD – just before the English invasion of 1169.

And now, in 1924, despite centuries of invasion and oppression (political, economic and cultural) the Irish had survived and so had their unique culture. The Irish nation, now reborn, could show to the world that it was free by staging a major sporting festival.

Unfortunately, pride in the achievement swelled a little too fiercely. The claim was also now made that the original Tailteann Games were not just old in Irish terms, but inspirational in global terms. It was said that the original Tailteann Games were actually the oldest known collective games in the world.

Perhaps the finest exposition of these views comes from T. H. Nally. If being lucky definitely plays a role in any writer’s life, then T.H. Nally must be one of the unluckiest writers in Irish literary history. His play ‘The Spancel of Death’ was due to be performed at The Abbey Theatre during Easter week, 1916.

Of course, rebellion in Dublin meant the play was never performed on the Abbey stage.

But in 1924, Nally published ‘The Aonach Tailteann and the Tailteann Games: their origin, history and development’. In it he wrote, that “the far-famed Olympic Games of ancient Greece drew their inspiration from the still much more ancient games in Ireland. Not merely the idea of the games, but the actual games themselves, their sequence at the festivities, the rules under which the various contests were held, and even the very bye-laws regulating the conduct of the people before, during and immediately after the celebrations were all borrowed en masse from those already in operation in this country.” 

It will come as no great surprise that there is no evidence that the Irish taught the Greeks to play.

When the new Tailteann Games were revived in 1924, the men who established the Irish Free State looked to modernity as well as to an imagined past.

Take, for example, the aeroplane races between pilots from the new Irish Free State Army Air Corps in 1924. This saw twelve planes taking part in six races, as well as an aerobatics display.

The longest race was held over 20 miles from the Phoenix Park with the Clondalkin chimney, the Hell Fire Club and the Wellington Monument as the turning points, with planes reaching up to 140mph.

Thrillingly, the Air Corps also staged a mock battle. A pile of timber had been rebuilt to resemble a fortress in a corner of the Phoenix 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.

Reviving that ancient Irish tradition of air-bombing timber castles would be a great way to celebrate the second-tier All-Ireland Championship.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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