Incredible Celtic History of Chess

Chess Variants: Celtic Chess
Celtic Chess
The Celtic history of chess is a fascinating aside in the whole Origin of Chess debate. Most people will be aware of the ongoing China or India tug-of-war over ownership of the birth of chess.

Most people are comfortable with the concept of chess originally coming from one or the other of these. But what about this idea that chess originated in Ireland? Is that not just a little bit beyond the Pale? Well in the interests of completeness why don't we investigate?

In much the same way that figures from Medieval Europe enter into combat in Battle Chess, the pieces were built in the image of Celtic Chieftains and Celtic nobles.

The game was played on an 8x8 64 square game board with 8 pieces and 8 pawns, just like modern chess.

Chess in Irish Myth and Legend

A Chieftain, his Queen and nobles
Celtic History of Chess - A Chieftain, his Queen and nobles
The ancient Irish were passionate about their chess. The game is mentioned again and again in literature dating back through the last couple of millennia.

One such reference concerning an Irish chess variant called Fidchell comes from Mac da Cherda and Cummaine Fota:

"Good," says Guaire, "Let's play fidchell."
"How are the men slain?" says Cummaine.
"Not hard, a black pair of mine about one white man of yours on the same line, disputing the approach on the far side."
"My conscience, indeed!" said Cummaine, "I cannot do the other thing, but I shall not slay (your men), you will not slay my men."
For a whole day Guaire was pursuing him and he could not slay one of his men.
"That is champion-like, o cleric," said Guaire.

Historical References

Celtic Chess Pieces
Celtic History of Chess - The Pieces
From the Middle Ages onwards we can see that many historians made references to chess when writing of Ireland in previous eras to their own. The Second Battle of Moytura written in 1512 has this reference to an earlier event:

This he the king said then, that the chessboards of Tara should be fetched to him Samildánach and he won all the stakes, so that then he made the Cró of Lugh.

In 1768 we see the following reflections:

Brannumh, chess, a game played upon a square board divided into sixty-four small chequers: on each side there are eight men and as many pawns, to be moved and shifted according to certain rules; an fitcheall agus an brannamh ban, (Old Parchment,) probably means the men; gon a bhranaibh déad, with his ivory men, because made of elephant's teeth. This was a favourite game with the old Irish.

Lewis Chess Set

Isle of Lewis Celtic Chess King and Queen
Celtic History of Chess - Isle of Lewis King and Queen
A Celtic Chess set was Isle of Lewis found on the off the west coast of Scotland in 1831. A number of chess pieces had been found in a bog in Clonard, Co Meath about 14 years earlier. This site is close to Tara, Co Meath which was the seat of power in old Celtic Ireland.

One of those pieces was a king that looked identical to the ones used in the Isle of Lewis set. This suggests that the Isle of Lewis chess set had Celtic ties, possibly dating back a couple of thousand years.

Many of the expressions on the faces of the pieces are also said to have remarkable similarities to the facial expressions of people in pictures in the Book of Kells.


Isle of Lewis Chess Set
Celtic History of Chess - Isle of Lewis Chess Set
It seems possible that Ireland could be a contender for the birthplace of chess. No one knows what exact rules were used for the people who actually played chess with the Lewis Chess set or the pieces from Tara.

Did those ancient tribes in Ireland and possibly Scotland play by rules broadly similar to the rules of chess today? Who knows? And if they did, what direction did the game travel? From Ireland to Asia or from Asia to Ireland?

Either way I doubt that the Indians or Chinese will be losing sleep. Their historians and scholars will continue to squabble over which Asian superpower is the original homeland of chess.

Moving On

History of Chess - The game spread from India through the Middle East into North Africa and finally Europe
The game spread from India through the Middle East into North Africa and finally Europe
We've thrown another spanner into the works in the Origin of Chess debate. You can read about chess and it's Irish origins in more detail. I know I know. It's controversial. Not saying it happened that way but the argument is out there. It's certainly a great story.

Remember no one really knows definitively who first came up with chess. It's plausible that different civilizations in different parts of the world came up with similar concepts for war-like board games independently of each other. Kind of like the way the Egyptians and the indigenous tribes of the Americas both came up with pyramids.

It seems a fitting way to conclude the LAPOC study of chess history, to lob in a grenade like that, then run for the hills. You can always get a quick primer any time.