Geoffrey Squires: Five poems from 'Irish Poetry 600–1200' (a work in progress)

[Following his remarkable translations of the great Persian poet Hafez, Squires has embarked on an assemblage of translations from Old Irish, “the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe.”  Its relation to what John Bloomberg-Rissman & I have been assembling as outside & subterranean poetry should also be noted. (J.R.)] 



Over the sea comes Adzehead

off his head

with a hole in his cloak for his head

and a stick with a bent head


he stands in front of a table in front of his house

intoning impieties

and his followers all respond

amen       amen


Ticfa tálcenn … A hostile poem about the arrival of St. Patrick. The Adzehead is a rude reference to the shape of his tonsure. Anon, 6th c. or earlier.



How many Thirties in this noble island

how many half-Thirties allied to them 

how many townlands side by side                                                                               

how many yoke of oxen in each townland


how many townlands and Thirty-hundreds

in Ireland rich in goods and chattels

I tell you straight

I defy anyone else to work it out


and do not presume to challenge me

I who am known as Fintan the wise                     

the most learned man that ever was

in Scotland or Ireland


ten townlands in each Thirty-hundred

and twenty more       to be precise

and although they might seem small to us

together comprising a great country


a townland sustains three hundred cattle

with twelve ploughed fields       to be exact

four full herds can roam there without

one cow rubbing up against the next


eighteen Thirties       this is my tally

for the rich and fertile county of Meath

and one score and ten Thirties

belonging to the fair-haired men of Connaught


and fifteen thirties and another twenty

I can tell you as a matter of fact 

without fear of contradiction

in the mighty province of Ulster


eleven Thirties and another twenty

in crowded affluent Leinster

from the mouth of Inver Dublin

up as far as the Boru road


ten thirties and another three score

living together in perfect harmony

in the two illustrious provinces

of the far reaches of Munster


of the Thirty-hundreds I have reckoned

nine score altogether             

and not a townland or half a townland

short in any of them


five thousand five hundred and twenty townlands

by dividing and adding them up

believe me

this is how I have arrived

at the number of townlands in Ireland


Ca lín trícha … Ireland was originally divided into areas that could raise thirty hundred fighting men. Over time, these became simply administrative. The term ‘townland’ is still used for a small community. Fintan is a mythical poet. Anon, undated.



My cat and I are of one mind

he hunts mice but I too

hunt in my own way


indifferent to celebrity

I like nothing better

than to be seated quietly

at my books

diligently pursuing the truth

he is not put out because

he has his own small pursuits


when the two of us

are alone together in the house

each of us deploying our skills

we have great sport       endless amusement


he fixes his beady eye

on the far wall

my eyes are not so good now

but even so I focus

on the finer points of the arguments


every so often

a mouse falls into his net

as a result of his martial arts

as for me from time to time

some answer drops into mine


he is overjoyed when

with one swift movement

he traps a mouse in his claws

I am pleased when I grasp some problem

that has long preoccupied me


though we are like this all the time

neither of us gets in the other’s way

each of us loves what he is doing

my little white cat and I


he is a past master

of the work that occupies him daily

I too have my work to do

elucidating difficulty


Messe ocus Pangur Bán … This much-translated poem, known by the cat’s name White Pangur, was written in the margins of a manuscript in an Austrian monastery probably by a missionary monk. The original is in rhyming seven-syllable lines. Anon, 9th c.



I invoke the seven daughters of the sea

who spin youth’s threads of longevity


may three deaths be spared me

may three lives be granted me

may seven waves of good fortune wash over me


may spirits not harm me as I make my rounds

in my flashing breastplate

may my fame not come to nothing

may I enjoy long life       let death

not come to me till I am old


I call upon my silver champion

who has not died and will not die

may my life be as strong as white bronze

as precious as gold

may my status be enhanced

my strength increased


may my grave lie unprepared

may death not come to me

while I am travelling

may I return home safely


the senseless serpent shall not take hold of me

nor the pitiless grey worm       the mindless black beetle

no robber shall assail me        nor coven of women

nor band of armed men


may my lifespan be prolonged

by the King of the universe


I invoke the Ancient One of the seven ages

whom fairy women suckled on their flowing breasts

may my seven candles be not extinguished

I am a strong fort

an immovable rock

a precious stone

a weekly benediction


may I live a hundred times a hundred years

one after another

enjoying all the blessings of life

may the grace of the Holy Spirit be upon me


Domini est salus (thrice)

Christi est salus (thrice)

super populum tuum Domine benedictio tua

Admuiniur secht … Attributed to the abbot of Comraire who died in 762.  The poem mixes pagan and Christian references, typifying the mingling of the two cultures.



A bank of trees overlooking me


       how could I fail to mention this

a blackbird composing an ode for me


above my book       the lined one

here       in the glade

the chatter of birds       birdsong


a clear-voiced cuckoo in a grey mantle

sings to me

making a fine speech

from the top of a bush-fort


truly the Lord is good to me

I write well in the wood 


Dom-farcai fidbaide fál … Another marginalia poem found in a Latin grammar in Switzerland. The Irish is quite mannered rather than spontaneous, and has given rise to discussions about the role of ‘nature’ in such verse. Anon, early 9th c.


[NOTE. “The poems translated here were, with one or two possible exceptions, written between the 7th and 12th centuries AD, making them the oldest vernacular poetry in Europe. Latin, which arrived with Christianity in the 5th century and brought a script, was the only other language in play, although there are occasional loanwords from Norse and other tongues. … This work gives us a window onto a world that is in some respects very different but in others seems strangely close. There are poems about war and warriors, the geography and topography of the country, the religious life, nature and the seasons, the Viking threat, about love, exile and death. They comprise a mixture of pagan and Christian in a period when the two cultures intermingled, with the latter gradually displacing the former. … Here … the over-riding aim has been to make of these originals an equivalent poetry in English, and without attempting to reproduce the very different Irish prosodies, to capture something of their form, dynamics and style. The translations are typically close without being literal, and draw on the painstaking scholarly work that has been done in the field over the last century and more. But they are offered as literature: as texts that, despite the great chasm of time, and without in any way diminishing their otherness, still somehow speak to us.” (G.S.)]