A Contention of Horses

Last week we touched upon one of the major events of Lugnasad, the early harvest festival.  This was the oenach, the tribal assembly held at the centers of provincial kingdoms.  During the August lull in the agricultural cycle, mass trading took place as the craftsmen displayed glass beads and bronze brooches, baskets and woven trays, linen dress cloths and woolen cloaks, iron cauldrons and firedogs, wooden barrels and tubs, harnesses, halters, saddles, knives and axes.  Wolfhounds for hunting, weaned lambs, oxen for the plow, and fine horses exchanged hands.  The regional king heard disputes and the brithemain (pronounced BREH-hahn) passed judgments.  Since it was an occasion when long-feuding clans came together for trade and revelry, there were apt prohibitions against brawling and lawsuits.  Three crimes especially forbidden at the oenach were the stealing of oxen, the slaying of cows, and the burning of byres.  One wonders why they stopped there.  (MacNeill, 1962, p. 332-333).

But out of all these activities, the most anticipated event was the one that gave the assembly its name – oenach (pronounced OIN-naχ) – which Patterson suggests may have originally meant “the contention of horses” (1994, p. 144).  Foals were weaned by August and raced to determine their relative value, and there’s nothing like the excitement of a horse race to get the blood going.  On land, the sport is dangerous enough.  In water, the perils multiply.  Of the horse-swimming contests in Lough Ouel in Westmeath in later times, it was said, “Scarcely a year passes but some life is lost on the occasion.  Matches are made; and as none but the most resolute young men and the most expert swimmers dare engage in the exercise, the sport becomes very exciting.  Yet accidents more frequently occur from the terror and want of capability in the animals so unused to such immersions and such efforts, than in the want of resolution, presence of mind, or agility in the riders” (MacNeill, 1962, p. 246).

MacNeill also suggests that the horse-swimming event simply ensured that the animals were clean before the trading began, or it might also have been a ritual sacrifice to the god Manannan Mac Lir.  Ripples in the Rockpools opens with a horse-swimming event, and from there the ripples spread (see About the Author for more information regarding this work-in-progress).

The law tract Mellbretha, or Sport Judgments, which exists only in fragments, outlines some of the consequences of sporting accidents.  “There is no right to a fine or sick-maintenance for a boy injured in most games, e.g. hurling, jumping, swimming, hide-and-seek, juggling, etc.  However, if a boy is injured in the more dangerous fíanchluichi ‘paramilitary games,’ such as spear-throwing or hurling rocks, the culprit’s kin must apparently provide sick-maintenance” (Kelly, 1995, 150-151).

Ireland’s great epic Táin Bó Cúailnge includes a disastrous and fateful horse race.  The trouble started after the king’s horses won a chariot race and word went round that the pair could not be bested.  Crunniuc, a prosperous cattle-lord stupidly boasted that his wife Macha could do just that.  The king held Crunniuc hostage and threatened to end his life unless Macha performed this feat.  She came before the people and pleaded to be excused, for she was heavy with child.  But, that was no excuse!  Macha raced the king’s horses in the pain of labor and crossed the finish line first.  “As she gave birth she screamed out that all who heard that scream would suffer from the same pangs for five days and four nights in their times of greatest difficulty.  This affliction, ever afterward, seized all the men of Ulster who were there that day, and nine generations after them.” (Kinsella, 1990, p. 7-8).

If only we mortal women of today had such powers!


Kelly, F. (1995).  A guide to early Irish law.  Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Kinsella, T. (1990).  The Tain.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

MacNeill, M.  (1962).  The festival of Lughnasa:  a study of the survival of the Celtic festival of the beginning of harvest.  London:  Oxford University Press.

Patterson, N.  (1994).  Cattle-lords and clansmen:  the social structure of early Ireland.  Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press.

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