The Great Conventions and Fairs

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Sculpture on Window, Cathedral Church, Glendalough

CHAPTER XXV.

PUBLIC ASSEMBLIES, SPORTS, AND PASTIMES

SECTION 1. The Great Conventions and Fairs.

Letter P
urposes and Uses.—Public assemblies of different kinds, held periodically, for various purposes and with several designations, formed a marked and important feature of social life in ancient Ireland.

Important affairs of various kinds, national or local, were transacted at these meetings. The laws were publicly promulgated or rehearsed to make the people familiar with them. There were councils or courts to consider divers local matters —questions affecting the rights, privileges, and customary usages of the people of the district or province—acts of tyranny or infringement of rights by powerful persons on their weaker neighbours—disputes about property—the levying of fines—the imposition of taxes for the construction or repair of roads—the means of defence to meet a threatened invasion, and so forth. These several functions were discharged by persons specially qualified. In all the fairs there were markets for the sale and purchase of commodities, whether produced at home or imported.

Most of the great meetings, by whatever name known, had their origin in Funeral Games. Tara, Tailltenn, Tlachtga, Ushnagh, Croghan, Emain Macha, and other less prominent meeting-places, are well known as ancient pagan cemeteries, in all of which many illustrious semi-historical personages were interred: and many sepulchral monuments remain in them to this day.

Some meetings were established and convened chiefly for the transaction of serious business: but even at these there were sports in abundance: 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 word Fés or Féis [faish], which literally means a feast or celebration, cognate with Latin festum and English feast, was generally applied to the three great meetings of Tara, Croghan, and Emain. These 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, who sat and deliberated under the presidency of the supreme monarch.

The Féis of Tara, according to the old tradition, was founded by Ollam Fodla [Ollav-Fóla], who was king of Ireland seven or eight centuiies before the Christian era. It was originally held, or intended to be held, every third year, at Samain, 1st November.

The provincial kings, the minor kings and chiefs, and the most distinguished representatives of the learned professions—the ollaves of history, law, poetry, medicine, &c.—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 it lasted for 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 Rélta na bh-filedh [Railtha-na-villa], the 'star of the poets,' for the accommodation of the poets and ollaves of all the professions, where also these learned men held their sittings. Every day the king of Ireland feasted the company in the great banqueting-hall—or, as it was called, the Tech Midchuarta or 'mead-circling 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 by properly qualified ollaves in the national record called the Saltair of Tara. The conventions of Emain and Croghan were largely concerned with industrial affairs, as already stated (p. 455).

The dál [dawl] was a meeting convened for some special purpose commonly connected with the tribe or district: a folkmote. A mórdál (mór, 'great') was a great, or chief, or very important assembly. This last term is often applied to such assemblies as those of Tara, Tailltenn, and Ushnagh.

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 of 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 preservation.

The meetings at Tlachtga and Ushnagh, which have already been mentioned, seem to have been mainly pagan religious celebrations: but games, buying and selling, and conferences on local affairs, were carried on there as at the other assemblies. One of the most noted of all the fairs was Aenach Colmain on the Curragh of Kildare, which is noticed at page 509, below, in connexion with races. The memory of one important fair is preserved in the name of Nenagh in Tipperary, in which the initial N is the Irish article an, 'the': N-enagh, 'the fair.' So also Monasteranenagh in Limerick, the 'Monastery of the fair,' where a fair was held long before the monastery was founded.

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