Chess in Ancient Ireland

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XV

The amusements of the pre-Christian Celt were, undeniably, intellectual. Chess has already been mentioned more than once in this work as a constant occupation of princes and chieftains. Indeed, they appear to have sat down to a game with all the zest of a modern, amateur. A few specimens of chessmen have been discovered: a king, elaborately carved, is figured in the Introduction to the Book of Eights. It belonged to Dr. Petrie, and was found, with some others, in a bog in the county Meath. The chessmen of ancient times appear to have been rather formidable as weapons. In the Táin bó Chuailgné, Cuchullain is represented as having killed a messenger, who told him a lie, with a chessman, "which pierced him to the centre of his brain." English writers speak of the use of chess immediately after the Conquest, and say that the Saxons learned the game from the Danes. The Irish were certainly acquainted with it at a much earlier period; if we are to credit the Annals, it was well known long before the introduction of Christianity. Wright gives an engraving of a Quarrel at Chess, in which Charles, the son of the Emperor Charlemagne, is represented knocking out the brains of his adversary with a chessboard. The illustration is ludicrously graphic, and the unfortunate man appears to submit to his doom with a touching grace of helpless resignation.

We may then suppose that chess was a favourite evening amusement of the Celt. Chessboards at least were plentiful, for they are frequently mentioned among the rights of our ancient kings. But music was the Irish amusement par excellence ;and it is one of the few arts for which they are credited. The principal Irish instruments were the harp, the trumpet, and the bagpipe. The harp in the Museum of Trinity College, Dublin, usually known as Brian Boroimhé's harp, is supposed, by Dr. Petrie, to be the oldest instrument of the kind now remaining in Europe. It had but one row of strings, thirty in number; the upright pillar is of oak, and the sound-board of red sallow. The minute and beautiful carving on all parts of the instrument, attests a high state of artistic skill at whatever period it was executed. As the harp is only thirty-two inches high, it is supposed that it was used by ecclesiastics in the church services. Cambrensis [4] mentions this custom; and there is evidence of its having existed from the first introduction of Christianity. Harps of this description are figured on the knees of ecclesiastics on several of our ancient stone crosses.


[4] Cambrensis.—"Hinc accidit, ut Episcopi et Abbates, et Sancti in Hibernia viri cytharas circumferre et in eis modulando pié delectari consueverunt."—Cam. Des. p. 739.