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Early Irish Board Games

An interesting point to note is that the most suitable board for such numbers is a 7 x 7 board, [46] precisely that of the Ballinderry board. The only difficulty against such an equation is the Manx origin of the board so clearly demonstrated by Hencken. But after all an Irish game in Viking Man need have been no stranger there, in view of the often rather international character of board games (as today) and the general intercourse with Ireland. Above all it must be remembered that the game of the Ballinderry board was played in Ireland

Concerning fidchell there seem to be two rather incompatible pieces of evidence; namely (1) that it was won by alternate players and (2) that the sides were equal.

A fundamental weakness in all chase games is the strong superiority of the attacking pieces. An expert player attacking will always win. For fair-play the players probably changed sides after each game, and if they were really expert the attacking man would win. Hence, I think the alternate winning idea connotes inequality of sides. If we accept this and interpret the statements saying that the sides were equal loosely, we can take fidchell as belonging to the tablut family; and as fidchell seems to have been regarded on a higher plane than brandub, it was probably a more complicated variant.

Such an interpretation, however, strains the evidence a good deal. The alternate winning motif might well have been transferred from brandub to fidchell, when the nature of the latter game was being forgotten. Taking it that the sides were equal, it seems on the present evidence that fidchell was a battle game similar to ludud latrunculorum or poleis. The suggestion that the main object of the game was capturing one's opponent's men, and the complete lack of any reference to a king-piece also support this conclusion, which carries the weight of H.J.R. Murray's authority. [47]


Postscript: Experiment on adapting the rules of tablut to a 7 x 7 board shows that the probable placing of the pieces was the King on the central point with one defender before him, one behind him, and one on each side of him. The attacking pieces were placed in twos in the same rows as the King's defenders, the whole then being in the form of a cross.


46. The board to have a central square must have an odd number of rows. A 9 x 9 board is played with a total of 25 pieces as in tablut. 5 x 5 is too small to give a playable game with 13 pieces.

47. Quoted by Austin Greece and Rome, iv p. 28.