Patrick O’Sullivan writes about the introduction of card games into Irish society

It was not until the 15th and 16th centuries that the playing of cards was introduced into Ireland by English settlers.

Elizabethan writers such as Edmund Campion and the poet Edmund Spenser were severely critical however of those professional gamblers who lay in wait for unsuspecting travellers by the wayside.

They invited the travellers to a game of cards, wagering everything from money to clothes, even their own hair on the outcome of the game.

The popular Irish term for a gambler was ‘cearrbhach,’ one of the most celebrated stories being that of ‘An Cearrbhach MacCaba,’ who traded his soul for skill at card playing.

The very early Irish myths reveal that it was the game of ‘fidchell,’ a game like chess which was popular amongst the nobles then. There were many tales of enchanted strangers coming to play fidchell with a chieftain or king, forcing them to honour some pledge that they made, when they eventually lost the game. In one story, for instance, the God, Midir, comes to play fidchell with the High King, Eochaid Airemh.

When Eochaid says that his board is in the queen’s room and that she is still asleep, Midir produces his own silver board with men and gold and bronze.

It is interesting to note that in later folklore, cards are substituted for chess in stories of enchanted strangers and wagers. The playing of cards for a small stake, such as a duck or goose or turkey, was very much a popular pastime in the rural Ireland of yesteryear. It was a society on the edge of television and, as such, still looked to itself, to its own resources for sports and pastimes and games. It was a society that knew little or nothing of cynicism and so not only allowed for, but revelled in, the possibility of wonder and magic and things beyond the ordinary.

If the latter found expression in storytelling, then the game of cards was in a very real sense a token of community and friendship and togetherness too. I remember an old country kitchen, the firelight leaping and shining in the great open hearth, the scent of the logs woody and green, the heavy measured beat of the clock filling the stillness again.

Then the kitchen filling up with people, the voices jovial, good humoured, full of the promise of things to come, the orange of the flames gleaming and glowing more brightly still. We did not think of it then, but the fragrance of the logs and the rhythm of the clock and the warmth of the voices had a magic all of its own. It was in a way like the music, the sweet incidental music of childhood, that finds echoes in memory still. It was the time of year when the harvest was gathered, the day of the thresher and the bagging of the grain remembered with pleasure again.

The favourite game was thirty one, a variant of the five card game, the game for the duck or goose, generally preceded by a game or two for lesser prizes, when the wager might be sixpence or a shilling per player.

Still the firelight swam in the old blue willowware on the dresser; outside the moonlight slanting across hedge and field and old boreen, the curlews calling in the bay beyond.

Those who played cards believed in good luck, luck which might stem from such seemingly innocuous things as the way the cards were shuffled, or cut, or dealt.

All of these were rituals of significance to the game. If a woman sat knitting or sewing behind a player she was sure to bring him good luck, but such a tradition was too well-know for it to go unnoticed. It might have been the luck of the needle for even a needle stuck in a player’s clothes without his knowledge was another guarantee of good fortune.

It was very much a social occasion, however, the making of the tea part of the ritual. Then there was the boiling of the kettle, the latter suspended above the orange of the flames, the clink of cups and saucers, taken as they were from dresser or cupboard, the jingle of spoons.

There was soda bread and butter and jam, but generally there were treats such as apple pie or barm brack, even seed loaf or butter loaf such as might be found the morning of the stations. The conversation was homely homespun.

After the tea and the chat, it was back to the serious business of the game, the pendulum swinging unerringly still, the friendly old sheepdog half asleep by the fire. It was late enough when the company broke up at last, the last of the stragglers making their way home down old boreens and tracks, the curlews calling still in the moonlit bay beyond.