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
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."