In the summer of 1924, Ireland did something extraordinary: it hosted the biggest sporting event in the world that year – bigger, even, than the Paris Olympics.
Thousands of competitors and tens of thousands of spectators packed venues around Dublin for an array of events encompassing not only athletics, swimming, horse racing, archery and other sports but also poetry, painting, dancing and sculpture.
The inaugural Tailteann games – named after an ancient version of the games last held seven centuries earlier – were designed to celebrate Irish culture and sporting prowess but with a modern, global twist.
Chess was included in the mistaken belief the Irish invented it – the 32 pieces supposedly represented Ireland’s 32 counties – while sports deemed English, such as football, rugby and cricket, were excluded.
Elite foreign athletes were invited, including the US Olympic champion – and future star of Tarzan films – Johnny Weissmuller. Ireland had no proper swimming pool so he swam – and won – in a repurposed pond at Dublin zoo.
This summer marks a centenary of sorts because the inaugural games were originally slated for 1922 and preparations were well advanced, while an arts exhibition went ahead. Next week marks the 90th anniversary of the 1932 – and final – Tailteann games.
Ireland is in the midst of commemorating historical events in a so-called “decade of centenaries” spanning 1912 to 1923, a transformative decade when Ireland emerged as an independent state. The Tailteann games, however, are not being commemorated.
“It has essentially slipped from the public consciousness. It has been lost to history,” said Paul Rouse, a history professor at University College Dublin who worked on a 2006 TG4 documentary about the games. “Over time it’s been lost in the public memory even though there are lots of houses with Tailteann medals and picture scrap books.”
But Rouse and the handful of scholars who have written about the games – held in 1924, 1928 and 1932 – say they were a hugely ambitious undertaking by a fledgling state to showcase Ireland as a viable nation.