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Early Irish Board Games

Dr. E. Knott has collected most of the useful evidence concerning brannumh. [25] She shows that there is a special piece in the game called the branan. The word branan is a common poetic epithet for a chief and the piece is probably a "king-piece" of some sort. It is often referred to as the branan dead and hence may have sometimes been made of ivory and thus distinguished from the other pieces on the board. Dr Knott publishes a part of a poem "Abair riom a Eire ogh," attributed to Maoil Eoin Mac Raith, [26] which throws much light on the game of Brandub. I quote her translation in full:

The centre of the plain of Fal is Tara's castle, delightful hill; out in the exact centre of the plain, like a mark on a parti-coloured brannumh board. Advance thither, it will be a profitable step: leap up on that square, which is fitting for the branan, the board is fittingly thine. I would draw thy attention, o white of tooth, to the noble squares proper for the branan (Tara, Cashel, Croghan, Naas, Oileach), let them be occupied by thee. A golden branan with his band art thou with thy four provincials; thou, O king of Bregia, on yonder square and a man on each side of thee.

Thirteen pieces were used in the game, five on one side and eight on the other, as is evidenced by Acallam na Senorach: [27]

My famed brandub is in the mountain above Leitir Bhroin, five voiceless men of white silver and eight of red gold.

BUANFACH

Concerning this game the early sources tell us practically nothing. Zimmer [28] was the first to recognise that it was a board game and collected many examples of its use. Only one instance however gives any information, and even here we cannot be sure that we are not dealing with transference by the writer of a feature from one of the other games. A passage in the Tain [29] tells of Cuchulainn playing buanfach with Loeg, his charioteer. Loeg had to keep his eye on the plain below them and nothing came into it that he did not see. Nevertheless he won every other game from Cuchulainn. This seems to be a reference to the alternate winning idea apparently associated with fidchell in Cormac's Glossary.


DISCUSSION OF THE EVIDENCE

It is obvious that the games of fidchell and brandub cannot be completely reconstructed from the above evidence. If however we examine the comparative material, both literary and archaeological, we can come to fairly secure conclusions.



NOTES

25. The Bardic Poems of Tadhg Dall O hUiginn, ii, pp. 198-9.
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26. Dr. Knott has assigned no date to the poem. Its language, metre and style show that it belongs to the court poetry of the period 1200 - 1640. The word ti here translated 'square', as the context suggests, has on pp. 26 and 27 been translated 'row, line'. Had it both meanings?
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27. Stokes, Irische Texte, iv, i ll. 3949-50.
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28. Zeitschrift fur Vergleichende Sprachsforschung, xxx, pp. 78-80.
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29. Ed. Windisch, ll. 1809-12.
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