The Running Muse

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flame toes 2.3

Runner, I married him.

By The Running Muse, May 16 2015 11:27AM

' "I am sorry to have made you run so fast, my dear", he said, with a grateful sense of favours to come.'

The speaker here, Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy's 'Far from the Madding Crowd', had mistakenly assumed that Bathsheba's running after him across the fields, face flushed, implied an acceptance of his marriage proposal, and so he immediately starts a conversation about their married life together. Her running in this context was a signal to him that she was up for it.

We have already seen in previous posts a few stories from Greek myth and German folklore that link running prowess with matrimony, where the prize was marriage to the loser or to a princess, for instance. Other tales involving some kind of running trial have marriage as the consequence rather than the prize, such as the 1957 western, 'Run of the Arrow' (see 'running quotes'), while the most popular ports of call for Spartan husbands prospecting for a wife were the rare all-female races of Greek antiquity (and this in a city-state which practised 'husband-doubling').

The human race goes on, of course, and it is not only in the animal kingdom that running has played a role as a kind of mating display to impress potential partners. Indeed, nuptials were a prominent and explicit feature of our history's oldest organised competitive was divorce.

Let me first set the scene for the story of those games, which were first held 4,000 years ago, by recalling one of the more extraordinary feats of performing under pressure in a race - the story of Macha in Irish legend.

At a local tournament of games and races, Macha's husband, the brilliantly named Crunnchu, had boasted to the king, who had just won a chariot race, that his wife could run faster than the king's horses. To save him from being executed, she is forced to run against them whilst nine months pregnant. She not only wins, but also manages to give birth to twins at the finish line before the horses arrive in her wake!

The scene of the race was named Emain Macha, 'the twins of Macha' (today's city of Armagh), capital of the Ulaidh tribe who gave their name to Ulster, and home to the most celebrated of Irish mythological heroes, Cuchullain, himself no slouch as a runner: at the age of six, he could hit a hurling ball, throw his hurling stick and spear after it, then run and pick up the first two before catching the spear in mid-flight.

In Marie Heaney's version of the tale in 'Over Nine Waves', Macha's appeal for help from the crowd at the start of the race falls on deaf ears. As a result, she places a nine-year curse on them: in their hour of greatest need, they will become weak and defenceless from labour pains, the only men in 'history' to experience the pangs of childbirth.

When Ulster subsequently comes under attack from the army of Queen Maeve of Connacht, its soldiers' incapacity drives the heroic, single-handed deeds of Cuchullain, the only warrior immune to the curse, as he cuts a swathe through Ulster's enemies in epic adventures such as the 'Tain bo Cuailnge', the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

Now, Cuchullain's father was Lugh, who gave his name to the Gaelic festival that celebrated the beginning of the harvest in the last fortnight of July, Lughnasa. It was at this festival that he held funeral games for his foster-mother, Queen Tailtiu, thus inaugurating the Tailteann Games in Ireland, which predate even the ancient Olympic Games by at least a millennium and were held in their original form until well after the Norman invasion.

As well as athletics contests, including hurling, there were competitions and prizes for mental and artistic ability in tests of strategy, storytelling, singing, weaving, poetry and the making of jewellery.

The games were also the occasion for 'handfastings', arranged marriages after which the couple had a year and a day to decide whether they wanted to divorce on 'the hills of separation'. To do so, each of them would simply march up one of the twin earthen mounds there and turn their backs on each other across the Vale of Marriage, at which point the marriage was 'broken', without social consequences. No legal bills, no paperwork, no nothing. Just straight back down to the races, maybe, in search of another mate.

In medieval times, the games/handfasting combination continued intermittently as a fair at the original site at Teltown, County Meath, itself named after Tailtiu. They were then resurrected without the matchmaking after Irish independence, as the government and the Gaelic Athletic Association sought to create a new Irish sporting identity, eschewing British 'garrison games' such as football, rugby and cricket.

This modern version, open to all of Irish ancestry, was first held at Croke Park, Dublin in 1924. The extensive range of events included chess and music, but by 1936, the politics of the island's partition had scuppered the games, and the name only survives today in the Irish Schools Tailteann Interprovincial athletics festival (see below for an unusual and successful dip for the line in the Boys 800m in 2012).

The poem 'Ode to the Tailteann Games' won a bronze medal for Ireland at the 1924 Olympics in Paris in the Mixed Literature 'event' of the arts competition (yes, there were modern Olympic Arts Competitions run by the International Olympic Committee until 1948, but that's another story, a fascinating one that will feature here soon).

The writer was Oliver St. John Gogarty, the senator, surgeon, poet and athlete on whom James Joyce based the character of Buck Mulligan in 'Ulysses'. He had just won a gold medal at the Tailteann Games themselves for his poetry collection, An Offering of Swans - W.B. Yeats was on the prize committee - and Gogarty had also competed in the archery there.

He is seen here in Orpen's 1911 portrait, now at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, but he is perhaps more widely known today for the famous music pub named after him in Temple Bar, Dublin.

As for matchmaking festivals, they continue elsewhere today, notably in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, during which they still have horse races, although the human athletics on display is limited to pub crawls.

Meanwhile, a certain amount of informal handfasting still goes on in running clubs and even at the modern Olympic Games, and it's a common sight these days to see proposals and weddings before, during and after city marathons. The current Citroën TV advert even has two strangers running in opposite directions and bumping into each other at a corner, with their future three children springing instantly from their collision.

Sadly, there are no modern equivalents of the 'hills of separation', unless you count leaving your partner sliding to the bottom of muddy inclines in an endurance race. Whether marriage itself is an endurance race, a hurdle race, a marathon or a sprint, I'm not sure the world is ready for Olympic Separation Trials or a Divorce 10k with a certificate in the goody bags.

The vicissitudes of marriage were handled so much more sensitively in those civilised race meets of 4,000 years ago, don't you think?

Over Nine Waves: a book of Irish legends (1994) by Marie Heaney, Faber and Faber

Top image is 'The Storm (La Tempête)' by Pierre Auguste Cot, 1880, oil on canvas, 234cm x 157cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Well, you're not alone - ever since the earliest cave paintings, the meaning and pleasure of the running experience has been explored by writers, painters and composers, by philosophers, film-makers and dramatists.


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