The Curragh of Kildare

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXV....continued

5. Races.

The old Irish were passionately fond of racing, even more so than those of the present day. Everywhere, in all sorts of Irish literature, we read of races—kings, nobles, and common people attending them at every opportunity. The popularity of the sport affected even the Law: for we find in the Senchus Mór a provision that young sons of kings and chiefs when in fosterage are to be supplied by the foster-fathers with horses in time of races. But perhaps the best illustration of the passionate admiration of people, high and low, for this sport is that it is represented, in some of the old Tales, as one of the delights of the pagan heaven.

The Curragh of Kildare, or, as it was anciently called, the "Curragh of the Liffey," was, as it is still, the most celebrated racecourse in all Ireland: and there are numerous notices of its sports in Annals and Tales. The races were held here in connexion with the yearly fair, which was called Aenach Colmain or Aenach Lifé, as being on the plain of the Liffey. It was the great fair-meeting of the southern half of Ireland, and especially of the kings of Leinster, when they resided at the palace of Dun-Ailinn (now Knockaulin: see p. 332, above), which was on the edge, and which, being on a flat, detached hill, overlooked the Curragh and its multitudes. Though sports and pastimes of all kinds were carried on there, races constituted the special and most important feature, so that some of the annalists mention the Curragh under the name of "Curragh of the Races." The games here were formally opened by the king, or one of the princes, of Leinster, and lasted for several days: and the great importance attached to them is indicated in the "Will of Cahirmore," in which that king bequeaths to his son Criffan the "leadership of [i.e. the privileges of opening and patronising] the games of the province of Leinster."

Numerous references to chariot-racing are met with in Irish literature. During the first three centuries of the Christian era, this sport was universal in Ireland; and it was specially popular among the Red Branch Knights. Horse-racing was also very general, almost as much so indeed as racing with chariots. The Fena of Erin, as we have seen (p. 45, supra), did not use chariots, either in battle or in racing; but they were devoted to horse-racing. Foot-racing does not appear to have been much practised by any class.

Coursing with greyhounds was another favourite amusement. On one occasion Irish visitors at a meeting in a distant land were challenged to a coursing match; which came off with victory for the Irish hounds. The greyhounds mentioned in Cormac's Glossary as being always found at oenachs or fair-meetings, were for coursing contests, as part of the games carried on at the fair.

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