Discovered in 1831, these chess pieces are more than artefacts, they hold an important bond with Scandinavia, the Vikings and the Celtic peoples of both Scotland and Ireland, writes Joe Burns


The game of chess in its modern form has been played worldwide for over five hundred years, but the precursor to the game, which originated in India, was played for one thousand five hundred years before that.
Following the Arab conquest of Persia, chess became popular in the Muslim world and consequently the game entered Southern Europe and by the ninth century it was being played in Western Europe.

It is thought that the Norman Conquest of England spread the game across the English Channel and so it entered the British Isles.

At that time chess was for the most part a game played by courtly society, Kings, Princes, Lords, Barons and other titled personages. Indeed by the twelfth century, chess was one of the seven skills that a prospective knight must have accomplished.

However, the present form of the game of chess did not evolve until around 1500. Until that time there were different rules, alternative pieces, with different names, some of which moved in a way we would consider odd today.
Before 1500, in place of a Queen there could have been Minister, a Bishop could have been an Elephant, and the Rook, or Castle would have been a Chariot.

Indeed the King and Pawn would seem to be the only two chessmen to have remained consistent throughout the history of the game.

The evolution of chess, from the old to the modern game came about because of a variety of reasons and circumstances, one of these were because of regulations enforced by the Christian church in the late 1400s.
It was around that time that the Elephant was replaced by the Bishop, and other moves and rules were changed, in fact with the exception of the rule concerning ‘Stalemate’, chess would have been recognisable to a modern player.
The modern chess pieces which would be used today in school competitions and international games became standardised in 1849. These were designed by Nathaniel Cooke and named after the English chess master Howard Staunton.

While the Staunton Chess is recognisable to everyone today, it is by no means the only design available.
Chess is a war game. Strategy, tactics, traps, sacrificing and the pinning of your opponents’ resources until his or her King can be trapped, which in the game is called is called, ‘Check Mate’, are all part of this complex and evocative game. Conversely the fact that an individual is good at playing chess, does not guarantee success on the battlefield, and vice versa!

Napoleon, who had one of the world’s most accomplished military minds, had trouble when it came to mastering the chess board. However, that doesn’t stop manufacturers of modern chess sets from designing and selling Napoleonic chess sets where the man himself faces the Duke of Wellington as the opposing king. Indeed there are chess sets available depicting many historic battles and fantasy themed styles.

There is the, battle of Culloden set, the Gettysburg set, the American War of Independence set, the American Civil War, the battle of Trafalgar, Greek Mythology, a Robin Hood against the Sheriff of Nottingham set, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and even a Northern Ireland chess set with masked Paramilitaries as the pawns.
There is one other chess set which is just as recognisable as the Staunton Chess set to any chess player or historian, a set which is not based on someone’s interpretation of a battle or modelled from a work of fiction. A chess set, which is in itself is an important artefact and a living part of history. This of course is the iconic Isle of Lewis Chess set.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own