ní tabair eochu ar dúana;
do-beir a n-í as dúthaig dó:
             I know him:
He'll give no horse for a poem;
he'll give you what his kind allows:

This short Old Irish poem is blessed with an unusually felicitous, I might even say marvelous translation, the origin of which I have unfortunately forgotten; it is one of my favorites. It is very rare in my experience to be able to preserve the meter and sense nearly so well as this, and the skill of the translator in both languages cannot be overstated. If you were to look this up in an anthology you would likely find one much less good, by Gerard Murphy; so I advise you to enjoy this occasion.

Now, I would like to believe that the poem is clear and provides its own context, yet on the internet, that wretched hive of scum and villainy, I have seen people — amateur historians, no less — completely baffled by the rejection of the cow, what with it being »the basis of wealth in Irish society« (and it is certainly true that a heifer was one of the main units of currency, worth one-seventh of a woman), so I think I ought to clear that up. The deal is, in brief, that a poet would not normally be a landholding farmer but a traveling artisan or court retainer, and as such a cow would be no good to him. Moreover, a horse, a fine courser especially, was a far more valuable thing than a cow, and would likely set you back at least a girl and a half. So the poet is saying that some lord is no real, generous nobleman, just a cheap, trumped-up rustic.


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