Waiting Games – Frank McNally on the origin of the ‘Irish Olympics’, 100 years ago

An Irishman’s Diary

During the uneasy peace between the Dáil treaty split and the start of Civil War, 100 years ago, the new Free State busied itself for a time planning what was dubbed an “Irish Olympic Games”.

The revival of the Aonach Tailteann, held at Tara in the seventh century BC, had been mooted for years. But the 1922 Irish Race Convention, held in January in Paris, gave the idea new urgency. By March, an organising committee had drawn up a programme that, according to The Irish Times, went “far beyond anything attempted at the Greek Olympiads”.

The eight-day games, initially planned for August that year, were to feature such athletic events as the “standing broad jump”, “standing high jump”, and the throwing of a 56lb weight (25.4 kg) over a bar. Other sports would include golf, shooting, and motor-boat racing. There would also be a wide range of cultural events, including choir contests and step-dance (4, 8, and 16-hand reels).

In late May, this newspaper was fretting about the lack of suitable accommodation in Dublin for the crowds expected. On the Saturday before a recent hurling final between Cork and Dublin, it noted, “a considerable number of two thousand visitors . . . were forced to walk the streets all night.” And yet 50,000 were expected at the August games.


It needn’t have worried. A month later, the Battle of Dublin launched the Civil War and ended prospects of a 1922 event.

The Irish Olympics were postponed, at first for one year, then two, as the pandemic of internecine violence proved more virulent than optimists had hoped.

The games eventually made their debut in August 1924, when the delay conferred at least one advantage.

While the original event had envisaged only Irish competitors, including the diaspora, ambitions to outdo the actual Olympic Games had since grown.

The inaugural Tailteann Games took place the month after the Paris Olympiad, attracting some of the athletes who had competed there. Among the international visitors was Johnny Weissmuller, a swimming gold medallist in Paris, who performed here at a specially adapted pond in Dublin Zoo. It was an oddly portentous venue for a man who would go to become Hollywood's definitive Tarzan.

The opening ceremony in Croke Park included a reading of the Tailteann Ode, by Oliver St John Gogarty: surgeon, senator, and role model for James Joyce's Buck Mulligan. Gogarty was himself an Olympic medallist, having won a bronze for the same poem in Paris. He was also deeply involved in the organisation of the Irish games, supervising accommodation for VIP guests, not all of whom appreciated it.

Hence one of the more scathing reviews of the event, mentioned in Michael Holroyd's biography of the Welsh painter Augustus John. John had been invited to what he later called a festival of "fatuous self-glorification" and was billeted by Gogarty in Dunsany Castle, County Meath.

Unfortunately he was a severe alcoholic, while his host Lord Dunsany was a teetotaller (whom Gogarty had warned not to serve his guest drink). That and the close attentions of Mrs Gogarty made the visit an unhappy one. "Here I am entrapped," John wrote from the castle. "I must get out of this. It was very fool-hardy to have come over."

The last straw was when Dunsany insisted on showing him how to play the “great Irish harp”, which encouraged John to a feat of athleticism worthy of the games themselves. According to Holroyd: “After [the others] went to bed Augustus climbed over the wall of Dunsany Park and walked the fourteen miles to Dublin.”

For the remainder of their short life, the Tailteann Games continued to shadow the other Olympics. They were held again in 1928 and 1932, but whereas the former benefited from the proximity of the Amsterdam games, the latter was not helped much by the Olympiad in Los Angeles.

There had also been a shift in power by then. Although Eamon de Valera was among the early proposers of the games, it was Cumann na nGaedheal that, in the wake of the 1922 Race Convention, ran with the idea.

Ten years later, it was seen as their thing. The incoming Fianna Fáil administration was less interested. By the time de Valera considered a revival in 1937, Europe was no longer in the mood for games.

Ominously, the festival banquet that accompanied the inaugural event was marked by a strike of electricity workers. Augustus John had been invited to that too and, according to Holroyd, was suffering through a long speech “in Gaelic” when the lights went out.

“What’s going on?” he asked his neighbour (the Scottish writer Compton Mackenzie). Mackenzie explained.

“Thank God,” said John. “I’m only drunk then. I thought I’d gone mad.”