Makers & Brothers


What follows are thoughts complied by Tom de Paor, the architect who carefully reimagined an ancient Irish game.

An Brandub is the boardgame mentioned since the sixth century in Irish texts. The old game of ground is presented as a section of peat, compressed and cut into thirteen figures, played on a punched felt mat. An Brandub, the raven, is perched at the centre of the board, outnumbered and surrounded, and plays for stalemate.

An Brandub, although mentioned since the sixth century, descriptions offer only glimpses of the play. The Ballinderry board, made in Dublin in the 10th century and found in 1932 during the excavation of a crannóg in Westmeath is tantalising. The board is 9.5 inches square with a pegged grid, carved border decoration and lovely handles, derived from the early Scandanavian strategy game played on a latticed board called Hnefatafl. 

An Brandub is the smallest rendition of a variant of the Viking game, the advantage with the invader and the focus on the end game. The play begins as a cruciform of two unequal forces, that on the perimeter is greater and moves first, the advantage of the Viking raid. An Brandub controls the centre and holds for stalemate with her rooks. It is an island game. 

Like all games, an Brandub embodies exchange. Versions of this material culture were carried, played and copied across much of northern Europe from before 400 B.C, as training or perhaps consolation.

As with all tafl games, there is a 2:1 ratio of pieces, with the lesser side having a centre piece whose objective is to escape to the board's periphery or corners, while the greater force's objective is her capture. The size of the board, the number of pieces and the name adjusted across the territories, by the invaded. Tafl was played here on a 7x7 grid and called an Brandub, a miniature of the Welsh Tawlbwrdd played on a 9x9 grid, itself a reduction of the Norse 11x11 grid of Hnefatafl. 

Each gaming piece is the figure of a crow - the raven (an brandub, corvus corax), her four rooks (an rúcach, corvus frugilegus) surrounded by eight jackdaws (an cág, corvus monedula) agitated on the periphery. They make a rookery of thirteen. 

The raven is the largest of the crow family – Corvus corax, Latin from the Sanskrit for ‘lamenter’, the bird’s name and song are synonymous – the raven is widespread worldwide. The collective name is a 'murder’. Communal, adaptable and opportunistic, in medieval times, the bird was thought to be immortal, predict rain and reveal ambushes. In recent times has been shown to be capable of individual human recognition, to count, make and use tools and to play. 

"The centre of the plain of Fal is Tara's castle, delightful hill; out in the exact centre of the plain, like a mark on a parti-coloured Brandub board. Advance thither, it will be a profitable step: leap up on that square, which is fitting for the brannán, the board is fittingly thine.” 

How to play
The raven – an Brandub perches at the centre (an brannán) of a circle of felted wool punched with 49 holes. No other piece may occupy this position.
Na rúcaigh (the rooks) start on the four squares adjoining the brannán.
Na cáig (the jackdaws) start in pairs from the edge of the board, moving first.

Each player may move one piece per move. Any piece may move either one (for a slow game) or any number (for a fast game) of vacant spaces in any straight line. Any piece besides an brandub may be captured and removed from the board if surrounded on two opposite sides by the enemy. It can however move into the space between two opposing pieces.

If an brandub reaches a corner square, which no other piece may occupy, the game is won. If an brandub is surrounded on all four sides, she is captured and the game is lost.

Stalemate is a victory for an brandub.

An Brandub can be explored further

Illustrations, dePaor
Quote, Maoil Eoin Mac Raith
Photography, Andrew Nuding

Welcome. Keep up to date with our news, events and exclusive offers.