How The People Held Great Conventions And Fairs And How They Amused Themselves

Public assemblies of several kinds and for various purposes were held all

through Ireland; they were considered very important, and were looked

forward to on the several occasions with great interest. Affairs of

various kinds, some affecting the whole kingdom, some the particular

province or district, were transacted at these meetings.

The laws were, when necessary, publicly recited to make the people

liar with them. There were councils or courts to consider and settle

such matters as the claims of individuals to certain privileges; acts of

tyranny by rich and powerful people on their weaker neighbours; disputes

about boundaries; levying fines; imposing taxes for the construction and

repair of roads; and such like. In fact the functions of these meetings of

more than a thousand years ago were in many respects like those of our

present county and district councils. In all the assemblies of whatever

kind there were markets for the sale and purchase of commodities.

Some meetings were established and convened chiefly for the transaction of

serious business: but even at these there were sports and pastimes: in

others the main object was the celebration of games: but advantage was

taken of the occasions to discuss and settle important affairs, as will be

described farther on.

The three great assemblies of Tara, Croghan, and Emain were not meetings

for the general mass of the people, but conventions of delegates who

represented the kingdoms and sub-kingdoms, i.e., the states in general

of all Ireland, and who sat and deliberated under the presidency of the

supreme monarch. The word Feis [faish] was generally applied to these

three meetings.

The Feis of Tara, according to the old tradition, was founded by Ollam

Fodla [Ollav-Fola], who was king of Ireland seven or eight centuries

before the Christian era. It was originally held every third year, at

Samain, i.e., 1st November. The provincial kings, the minor kings and

chiefs, and the most distinguished ollaves (doctors) of the learned

professions attended. According to some authorities it lasted for a week,

i.e., Samain day with three days before and three days after: but others

say a month.

Each provincial king had a separate house for himself and his retinue

during the time; and there was one house for their queens, with private

apartments for each, with her attendant ladies. There was still another

house called Relta na bh-filedh [Railtha-na-villa], the "Star of the

poets," for the accommodation of the ollaves, where these learned men held

their sittings. Every day the king of Ireland feasted the company in the

great Banqueting Hall, which was large enough for a goodly company: for

even in its present ruined state it is 759 feet long by 46 feet wide. The

results of the deliberations were written in the national record called

the Saltair of Tara. The conventions of Emain and Croghan were largely

concerned with industrial affairs (see page 137 above).

The Aenach or fair was an assembly of the people of every grade without

distinction: it was the most common kind of large public meeting, and its

main object was the celebration of games, athletic exercises, sports and

pastimes of all kinds. The most important of the Aenachs were those of

Tailltenn, Tlachtga, and Ushnagh. The Fair of Tailltenn, now Teltown on

the Blackwater, midway between Navan and Kells, was attended by people

from the whole of Ireland, as well as from Scotland, and was the most

celebrated of all for its athletic games and sports: corresponding

closely with the Olympic, Isthmian, and other games of Greece. It was held

yearly on the 1st August, and on the days preceding and following.

Marriages formed a special feature of this fair. All this is remembered in

tradition to the present day: and the people of the place point out the

spot where the marriages were performed, which they call 'Marriage

Hollow.' The remains of several immense forts are still to be seen at

Teltown, even larger than those at Tara, though not in such good


The meetings at Tlachtga and Ushnagh, which have already been mentioned,

seem originally to have been mainly pagan religious celebrations: but

there were also games, buying and selling, and conferences on local


At the Irish fairs, wherever held, all kinds of amusements were carried

on; for the people loved games, sports, and fun of every kind. In order to

make sure that there should be nothing to spoil sport, there was a very

strict law against brawls, quarrelling, or fighting. Anyone who struck a

blow or raised any disturbance was sure to be punished: and if it was a

very bad case, he was put to death. So if there were any grudges between

individuals, or families, or clans, they had to be repressed during these

meetings. The old Greeks had a law for their games exactly similar, which

they called the "Sacred Armistice."

An Irish fair in those times was a lively and picturesque sight. The

people were dressed in their best, and in great variety, for all, both men

and women, loved bright colours; and from head to foot every individual

wore articles of varied hues. Here you see a tall gentleman walking along

with a scarlet cloak flowing loosely over a short jacket of purple, with

perhaps a blue trousers and yellow headgear, while the next showed a

colour arrangement wholly different; and the women vied with the men in

variety of hues.

The people were bright and intelligent and much given to intellectual

entertainments and amusements. They loved music and singing, and took

delight in listening to poetry, history, and romantic stories; and

accordingly, among the entertainments and art performances was the

recitation of poems and tales of all the various kinds mentioned at p. 75

above, like the recitations of what were called Rhapsodists among the

Greeks. For all of these there were sure to be special audiences who

listened with delight to the fascinating lore of old times. Music always

formed a prominent part of the amusements: and there was no end of

harpers, timpanists, pipers, fiddlers, and whistle-players.

In another part of the fair the people gave themselves up to uproarious

fun, crowded round showmen, jugglers, and clowns with grotesque masks or

painted faces, making hideous distortions, all roaring out their rough

jests to the laughing crowd. There were also performers of horsemanship,

who delighted their audiences with feats of activity and skill on

horseback, such as we see in modern circuses.

In the open spaces round the fair-green there were chariot and horse

races, which were sure to draw great multitudes of spectators. Indeed some

fairs were held chiefly for races, like those at the Curragh of Kildare,

which was as celebrated as a racecourse twelve hundred years ago as it is


Special portions of the fair-green were set apart for another very

important function--buying and selling. There were markets for stock and

horses, for provisions and clothes; and there you might also see foreign

merchants from Continental countries, exhibiting their gold and silver

articles, their silks and satins, and many strange curiosities: all for

sale. Embroidering-women--all natives--showed off their beautiful

designs, and often kept doing their work in presence of the spectators. A

special space was assigned for cooking, which must have been on an

extensive scale to feed such multitudes.

At length the leaders gave the signal that the aenach was ended; and the

people quietly dispersed to their homes.

Hunting was one of the favourite amusements of the Irish. Some wild

animals were chased for sport, some for food, and some merely to extirpate

them as being noxious; but whatever might be the motive, the chase was

always keenly enjoyed. It is indeed quite refreshing to read in some of

the tales a description of a hunt and of the immense delight the people

took in the sport and all its joyous accompaniments. The hunters led the

chase chiefly on foot, with different breeds of hunting-dogs, according to

the animals to be chased. The principal kinds of game were deer, wild

pigs, badgers, otters, and wolves; and hares and foxes were hunted with

beagles for pure amusement. Pig-hunting was a favourite sport. Wolves were

hunted down with the great Irish wolf-dogs, some of which were as big as a

colt or an ass.

Wild animals were trapped as well as chased. There was an elaborate trap

for deer, a deep pitfall with a sharp spear at bottom pointing upwards,

all covered over and concealed by a brathlang or light covering of

brambles and sods. There was a special trap for each kind of animal--wolf,

wild-hog, otter, and so forth. Birds were caught with nets and cribs: and

indeed bird-catching was considered of such importance, that it was

regulated by a special section of the Brehon Laws called 'Bird-net laws.'

Fish were caught, as at present, with nets, with spears either single or

pronged, and with hook-and-line. Fishing-weirs on rivers were very common.

A man who had land adjoining a stream had the right to construct a weir

for his own use: but according to law, he could not dam the stream more

than one-third across, so that the fish might have freedom to pass up or

down to the weirs belonging to others.

Coursing was another amusement, as we find mentioned in our literature.

The dogs were pitted against each other; and it was usual to see

greyhounds, trained for this special purpose, exhibited for sale in

markets, like cows, horses, and sheep.

Hurling or goaling has been a favourite game among the Irish from the

earliest ages: played with a ball and a caman or hurley as at present.

In the latter part of the last century it declined somewhat in popularity;

but now there is a vigorous attempt to revive it. Our modern cricket and

hockey are only forms of the old game of caman.

In ancient Ireland chess-playing was a favourite pastime among the higher

classes. Everywhere in the Tales we read of kings and chiefs amusing

themselves with chess, and to be a good player was considered a necessary

accomplishment of every man of high position. In every chief's house there

was accordingly at least one set of chess appliances for the use of the

family and guests; namely, a chequered chess-board, with chessmen and a

bag to hold them, which was often made of woven brass wire.

From the most remote times in Ireland, kings kept fools, jesters, clowns,

and jugglers in their courts, for amusement, like kings of England and

other countries in much later times. In the Tales we constantly read of

such persons and their sayings and doings. They wore funny-looking

dresses; and they amused the people something in the same way as the court

fools and buffoons of later times--by broad impudent remarks, jests, half

witty, half absurd, and odd gestures and grimaces. King Conari's three

jesters were such surpassingly funny fellows that, as we are told in the

story of Da Derga, no man could refrain from laughing at them, even though

the dead body of his father or mother lay stretched out before him.

Professional gleemen--commonly called crossans--travelled from place to

place earning a livelihood by amusing the people like travelling showmen

of the present day.

There were hand-jugglers, who performed wonderful tricks of

slight-of-hand. King Conari's head juggler and his trick of throwing up

balls and other small articles, catching them one by one as they came

down, and throwing them up again, are well described in the old tale of Da

Derga:--"He had clasps of gold in his ears; and wore a speckled white

cloak. He had nine [short] swords, nine [small] silvery shields, and nine

balls of gold. [Taking up a certain number of them] he flung them up one

by one, and not one of them does he let fall to the ground, and there is

but one of them at any one time in his hand. Like the buzzing-whirl of

bees on a beautiful day was their motion in passing one another."