Kells, Co. Meath
In present-day Ireland country people have many occasions for meeting. But in the old days before modern communications had transformed the pattern of rural life, no other concourse of the year could compare in attractions and number with the assembly which celebrated the end of summer and the beginning of harvest. It was given a special gaiety [because it] was enjoyed most by the young, vigorous and high-spirited, by those for whom life seemed about to offer its most fruitful joys.
Maire MacNeil, The Festival of Lughnasa, 19621
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For many generations, perhaps beginning in the 6th century CE, Teltown was known for the goddess-inspired celebration of a harvest festival, a time when feats of strength and mock battles would mark the start of the season of plenty. Teltown (Tailteann) encompasses a large area at a bend of the River Blackwater in Co. Meath. As long ago as 539 CE, the beginning of August would see the area crowded with raucous celebrations, athletic games, and the gritty commerce of the traditional harvest-time (Lughnasa) fair. But all this is no longer to be seen.
What remains to remind the visitor of this oenach (festival) is but one large mound, known as Rathdhú (Rath Dubh, the Black Fort), a circular earthwork some 85 m (280 ft) in diameter at the top of its level platform, which rises up nearly 4 m (13 ft) above the plain. Another mound, obscured in its overgrown foliage, is Rath Airthir (the Eastern Fort), with its three ramparts around 30 m (98 ft) in diameter.2 Recently a natural rock outcrop at Teltown was discovered to have rock art from the second millennium BCE, suggesting that ritual activity at the site began some 2000 years before Tailteann began its role as a center of the Celtic harvest celebration.3
Although the Yellow Book of Lecan proclaims that there were fifty hillocks in Tailteann, and other early-medieval sources names eight raths here, these are now long since ploughed into the fields, as are the two artificial lakes, noted by John O’Donovan during the Ordnance Survey in 1836. Some of these features may be seen in the surveyor’s map in the gallery at the bottom of the page.4 Aerial photography has also revealed a prehistoric roadway, also in the gallery, which may have been used for ritual processions. At one time the mound of Rathdhú was surrounded by a “low earthen rampart, on which, the country-people say, the spectators sat while games were celebrated on the circular green sward before their feet.”5 But this is mostly gone now, obliterated by the plough many years ago, a fate that would not befall the nearby Knockauns ceremonial mounds until 1997 (see below). Both the main Tailteann mound of Rathdhú and the remains of the Knockauns may be explored in the two different virtual-reality panoramas on this page.
From the top of Rathdhú, one can see the passage tombs of Loughcrew, crowning distant Slieve na Calliagh (the Hill of the Witch). This Neolithic cemetery may have in some way inspired those who created the Tailteann site. Some antiquarian writers preferred to think of the Loughcrew megalithic necropolis as the site of the Tailteann games, dedicated to the god Lug.6 John O’Donovan, however, felt that the local Irish speakers knew best:
It happens that the Irish Language is still spoken in the neighbourhood which enables me to put it on record that the place which the English speaking people call Teltown is invariably called Taillteann by the Irish, which, joined with the traditions connected with the Rath…perfectly identifies it with the Olympic Games of Looee [Lugh].7
The legends of Teltown have been carried on by the generations of local storytellers who followed O’Donovan’s mid-nineteenth century informants. When we first visited the area in 1979 we spoke with Matty O’Brien, whose family farm includes the Rathdhú site. He pointed out the “fairy bushes” growing along the rampart. These may be seen in a photo in the gallery.8 In the video feature to the right, Mr. O’Brien explains how folklore was passed down: “There was nothing else to be talked of, only of long ago, tale of long ago.”9 More from Matty O’Brien may be heard in his stories of the nearby Ardnamagh Fairy Fort.
The Teltown Mound, Rathdhú
Although it is possible that Rathdhú could have been a royal inauguration site, similar to Rathcroghan in Co. Roscommon,10 in tradition it was known as a pagan cemetery, whose name was derived from its first burial, that of the goddess Tailtiu. She was the daughter of the King of Spain, and the wife of the last Fir Bolg High King of Ireland. She survived the Tuatha Dé Danaan invasion, although her husband did not. She then wed the victorious leader of the invasion force, Eochaidh Garbh, and became the foster mother of the deity Lugh Lámhfhada (Lugh of the Long Hand).11
According to the Book of Invasions, Tailtiu died of exhaustion clearing the plains of Ireland to make the land available for farming. Her foster son Lugh Lámhfhada then proclaimed that the first of August would mark the festival of Lughnasa (“Lugh’s Fair”), in honor of his foster mother. It was to be celebrated at Teltown as a funeral feast and sporting competition called the Oenach Tailten.12
A long poem written to commemorate the revival of the festival in 1007 explains the fair’s origin in verse:
She told them in her sickness
(Feeble she was but not speechless)
That they should hold funeral games to lament her –
Zealous the deed.
About the Calends of August she died,
On a Monday, on the Lugnasad of Lug;
Round her grave from that Monday forth
Is held the chief Fair of noble Erin.
White-sided Tailtiu uttered in her land a true prophecy,
That so long as every prince should accept her,
Erin should not be without perfect song.13
The ancient records of Ireland, as recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, note that the Oenach Tailten was held yearly for many centuries, even recording its omission in the year 873. They state that the last official event was presided over by King Roderick O’Connor in 1168, when the mounted procession “extended in a continuous line from Tailtenn to Mullach-Ati…” said to be nearly 10 km (6 mi).14
A fair with gold, with silver, with games, with music of chariots,
With adornment of body and of soul by means of knowledge and eloquence.
A fair without wounding or robbing of any man, without trouble, without dispute, without reaving,
Without challenge of property, without suing, without law-sessions, without evasion, without arrest.15
Máire MacNeil, the author of The Festival of Lughnasa, notes that the stories of Lugh and Tailtiu that explain the origins of Oenach Tailten must be interpreted carefully. These tales do not, she reminds us, derive purely from local tradition. Rather they have been maintained by many generations of “creative and selective minds,” and have acquired the gloss of different literary schools, each with its own pride of literary composition.
We are, therefore, rather at the mercy of these standards and of the ingenuity of the schoolmen in dealing with what were to them the raw materials of history. We cannot be at all sure that Tailtiu…is not a figment of their imagination conjured up from a place-name.16
Whether or not there is any direct connection to a proto-historical character upon whom the goddess Tailtiu may have been based, there is clear precedent for the re-use of ancient funerary monuments for pilgrimages and for tribal assemblies. One researcher found 22 prehistoric sites in Ireland where fairs, assemblies, and athletic competitions were associated with legendary ancient burials.17 As another writer expressed it:
Now it is clear why the foot races had been held there year by year from the Bronze Age down to our own time. The old chief delighted in manhood when in life, so in death his spirit was honoured by the enactment of manly sports as the seasons revolved.18
The Teltown Fair was reputed to include Olympic-like competitions, “feats of strength and agility in wrestling, boxing, running, and suchlike manly sports,”19 including horse races, and staged battles. There were also, perhaps in the artificial lakes noted by John O’Donovan, aquatic competitions.
In time, the Oenach Tailten lost the sanction of the goddess and lost its way. The Annals recorded its final gasp in its classical form, in 1168, about the time of the Norman invasion of the country.20 In the centuries afterwards it slowly degenerated into the sad spectacle John O’Donovan described in 1836:
About thirty years ago the Meathians carried the Nassa of Looee to such a pitch of violence after they had introduced Potten [whiskey] instead of Metheglin [mead], that the Clergy, the Magistrates and all those who consulted for the welfare of the people, thought it advisable to abolish the Sports of Tailteann, and thus put a stop to Olympic Games which had continued to amuse the people for a period of more than 2,000 years! What a pity that they were not able to let them continue by re-introducing Metheglin instead of Whisky!21
The fair at Tailteann continued nearby until about the beginning of the nineteenth century, although in a much-diminished local format, reverting to a rural celebration of Lughnasa, the start of the harvest.22
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the Oenach Tailten were the so-called “Teltown Marriages.” These may have been associated with the twin mounds of earth known as the Cnocans (“Knockauns,” “Small Hills,” pronounced “Crockans”) located in a field across the road from Rathdhú. These earthworks consisted of two parallel banks, around 92 m (100 yds) in length, with an intervening ditch. According to O’Donovan, this ceremony was performed at a place close to the Knockauns known as Lag an Aonaich or “Leganeeny” (the Hollow of the Fair). This place is marked in O’Donovan’s map of the site, found in the gallery. A modern photograph taken at this location may also be found in our gallery.
Some accounts, first reported by John O’Donovan, explained how young people would join hands together through a hole in a wooden gate. They would then be permitted to legally live together as a couple for a year and a day. Afterwards, if their Teltown Marriage didn’t prove successful, they could go their separate ways. This they would do quite literally, it was said, by standing back-to-back on the top of Rathdhú, and then walking in opposite directions. O’Donovan described the tradition:
A number of young men went into the hollow to the north side of the wall, and an equal number of marriageable young women to the south side of the wall which was so high as to prevent them from seeing the men; one of the women put her hand thro’ the hole in the gate and a man took hold of it from the other side, being guided in his choice only by the appearance of the hand. The two were thus joined hands by blind chance were obliged to live together for a year and a day, at the expiration of which time they appeared at the Rath of Telton and if they were not satisfied with each other they obtained a deed of separation, and were entitled to go to Laganeeny again to try their good fortune for the ensuing year.23
Tragically, a new landowner’s bulldozer nearly obliterated the Knockauns, which may have been standing in the field near the Teltown Mound since the Bronze Age. In 1997, in what was described by Archaeologist George Eagan as “a tragedy for Irish heritage,”24 the earthworks were partly knocked down for a residential garden. In what may only be called a “monumental blunder,” the publican who bought the property made all the proper enquiries before commencing the work; but she was given all the wrong answers about the archaeological significance of the site.
After the damage was done, the National Monuments Service belatedly commissioned a partial excavation and a geophysical survey at the site. There was even an academic meeting called the “Teltown Conference” held the next year. While our own 1998 visit to the Knockauns missed the opportunity to record the monument intact, we did photograph the archaeological fieldwork in progress, now visible within our virtual-reality panorama of the site, above right.25
The Modern Oenach Tailten
In 1924 a new patriotic frenzy, tied in with the recently concluded Irish War of Independence, envisioned the Tailteann Games as a glorious symbol of Ireland’s storied past, and prompted a modern revival of the event by the Gaelic Athletic Association and others. These events, never completely a commercial success, were held at Croke Park in Dublin every four years from 1924 until 1932, with the games open to “any of Irish birth or ancestry.” Billed as a “World Meeting of the Celtic Race,” competitions including everything from sailing and motor yacht events to chess. The first modern Oenach Tailten, in 1924, began with a spectacular parade, led by a pair of “Celtic warriors” accompanied by wolfhounds on leashes. Although his Celtic credentials may have been dubious, Hollywood’s Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, competed in the swimming events, which were held in the pond at Dublin Zoo.26 See the photograph of the fireworks display from the 1924 event, above left.
In 1964 the Willwood Group of companies sponsored another revival of the Tailteann Games. These games began with the lighting of a torch at Teltown, which was then carried the 40 km (25 miles) to Croke Park in Dublin by a relay of runners. Our storyteller of Teltown Farm, Matty O’Brien, would light the torch in a ceremony at Rathdhú, and then board a helicopter for Croke Park, where the assembled crowds welcomed its arrival. But in 2012, a brief mention of Oenach Tailten at the dedication of the games of the Scurlogstown Olympiad, part of the Trim Haymaking Festival, was all that remained of the modern Tailteann Games. This may not, however, signify the end of a cultural practice that has been a part of the local landscape for some 2,000 years. The Oenach Tailten may again, someday in the future, bring crowds of cheering Irishmen into the fields of Co. Meath near the banks of the River Blackwater.27
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Teltown (Tailteann), Co. Meath
Nearest Town: Kells
Latitude: 53° 42′ 40.68″ N
Longitude: 6° 47′ 13.38″ W