BACK TO THE GAMES ROOM
EARLY IRISH BOARD GAMES
by Eoin Mac White
Owing to the meagre and vague character of the evidence, the student who would elucidate the nature of the various board games mentioned in early Irish literature must tread warily. Not only is the evidence slight and ambiguous but it is sometimes contradictory. However some possibilities and probabilities can be shown, and a few impossibilities likewise. One of the latter is the popular fallacy that fidchell and brandub were chess or draughts. Both fidchell and brandub are frequently mentioned in the saga literature of the Ulster cycle, and fidchell is mentioned in the Laws, which would bring us back to the seventh century at least. The etymological identity of Old Irish fidchell with Old Welsh gwyddbwyll might well
bring us into prehistoric times. H.J.R. Murray in his monumental History of Chess
has demonstrated that "European chess is a direct descendant of an Indian game played in the seventh century with substantially the same arrangements and methods as in Europe five centuries later, the game having been adopted first by the Persians, then handed on by
the Persians to the Muslim world, and finally borrowed from Islam by Christian Europe."
Draughts, whatever its exact origin was, cannot be traced back beyond the thirteenth century, and some of its characteristics
(viz. the board and the idea of promotion) seem to have been borrowed from chess.
Thus both brandub and fidchell were current in Ireland some five centuries before the introduction of chess into Europe, and for a longer period before the invention of draughts.
There are three games of which I intend to treat. These are
fidchell, brandub and buanfach. The literal or etymological meanings
1. I wish to express sincere thanks to Prof. Eoin Mac Neill and to the editor of Eigse for advice, encouragement and corrections.
2. 1913, p. 27.
3. The identification of fidchell with chess goes back to the 15th century in Ireland, as is shown by a gloss incorporated in the text of a 15th century MS. of the Battle of Moyturra (Rev. Celt., xii, p. 79,#69). "But if chess (fidcheall) was invented at the epoch (?) of the Trojan war, it had not reached Ireland then, for the Battle of Moyturra and the destruction of Troy occurred at the same time." The idea of chess as a Trojan invention gained currency from Guido de Columna's Historia Troiana, a 13th century work which was twice translated into English, once by John Lydgate (c. 1412-1420. v. Murray, op. cit., p. 501.
4. Murray, op. cit. pp.615-6
5. The Cennchaom Conchobair ("the Fair-head of Connor") is not a distinct board game as Murray op. cit., p.31, n. 16 suggests, but merely the proper name of Conchobar's own fidchell: v. Hull, The Cuchulain Saga, p. 37n.