A chariot worth 4.58 million bondmaids

'Go here, Mac Roth,' Medb said. 'Ask Dáire to lend me Donn Cuailnge for a year. At the end of the year he can have fifty yearling heifers in payment for the loan, and the Brown Bull of Cualinge back. And you can offer him this too, Mac Roth, if the people of the country think badly of losing their fine jewel, the Donn Cuailnge: if Dáire himself comes with the bull I'll give him a portion of the fine Plain of Ai equal to his own lands, and a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, and my own friendly thighs on top of that.'

 - Thomas Kinsella (trans.), The Táin, Oxford University Press, 2002, p55

Just over a year ago, two modern day chieftains went cap in hand to their own feudal lords in Europe and asked for a loan, not of the Brown Bull of Cualinge, but of €67.5 Billion, and while then Taoiseach Brian Cowen fortunately did not make an offer of his own friendly thighs in return, what he did put forward as collateral was a chariot worth 4.58 million bondmaids.

The Táin Bó Cuailnge is our original national epic, the closet thing to a foundation myth we have, and while during Sunday’s State of the Nation address current Taoiseach Enda Kenny drew inspiration from another more recent foundation myth – referencing as he did the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty, which falls squarely on tomorrow's revenue-raising Budget day - to truly understand the state we are in the Táin is as good a place as any to begin. Specifically, the role of the bondmaid in feudal Ireland - a bondmaid being a female slave. So common were female slaves in early Ireland that, according to historian Nini Rodgers, they formed a basic unit of currency:

In the law tracts (the bulk of which were compiled c. AD 700) they are most frequently listed as units of currency. Cattle were the normal medium of exchange employed in receiving a stipend or rendering tribute, but slaves constituted a higher unit of currency. The value of land was calculated in numbers of slaves - cumal, a single Irish word requiring a double barreled term in its English translation 'female slave'.

- Nini Rodgers, Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p8

The cumal, or bondmaid, did all the menial labour, they looked after livestock, milked cows and made butter, and were the primary grinders of grain, a very labour intensive and arduous activity. The economy of feudal Ireland was built on the backs of these bondmaids, and the feudal chieftains that owned them were Ireland's very first bondholders.

One month ago a group of unsecured Anglo Irish Bank bondholders were paid over €700 million by our government, and the toll of this on the country was immediately obvious when the following day it was announced that Social Protection would be cut by €700 million in the forthcoming Budget. In fact Michael Taft estimates that the total cost of the Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide bailouts will be €90 billion over the next twenty years, but even the current debt figures are epic enough.

As I write this, according to the National Debt Clock created by FinanceDublin.com our current national debt is approaching €118 billion, up from €65.278 billion when the clock was launched on 30 June, 2009 - an increase almost exactly in line with the loan taken by Messieurs Cowen and Lenihan last year. With a population of 4.58 million, this means that the share of the national debt is more than €25,000 for every man, woman and child in this country; a debt to be collected in taxed income and reduced services.

But the payment of this debt will not be spread evenly. As Fintan O'Toole has noted about the contemporary Irish aristocracy, it is not an aristocracy in name (for Article 40.2 of the Constitution forbids that), but an aristocracy in deed - for he defines the aristocracy as those in society who are traditionally above taxation. Once again this budget looks to leave tax bands unchanged, with a rise in VAT, a flat rate property tax and the reduction of child benefit set to hit those who can least afford it disproportionately while leaving our aristocracy relatively untouched - the rationale being that if our aristocracy is taxed they will flee the country. While the UK have retained their 50% tax rate for earnings over £150,000, our government is happy for the poor to emigrate. They feel, however, that they would miss our lords and ladies. The reality is, of course, that our Earls have already fled. Regardless, our elected leaders still bow and tug the forelocks at the long shadows they cast from Bermuda and the Bahamas; or worse yet grovel at their feet when they jet in to Dublin Castle for a few hours at the Global Irish Economic Forum to dispense wisdom (we should have Paddy's Day twice a year) and largesse (with an offer to sit on Government quangos for free), before racing back to the Caribbean sun before their tan fades along with their non-dom status.

With a National Debt of epic proportions arising largely as a result of the need to pay overseas bondholders, and the aristocracy responsible for creating that debt held unaccountable, the citizenry of this country have been reduced to little more than currency, their present and futures and those of their children traded back and forth between the Government, the ECB and the IMF, excluded from the decisions that affect their lives with a condescending pat on the head from our modern day Queen Medb. ‘You are not responsible for the crisis,’ said An Taoiseach on Sunday, but you most certainly will pay for it all.

We are all bondmaids now, the property of local chieftains themselves in thrall to feudal lords both domestic and overseas, and the state we are in is one that Cúchulainn would find not that unfamiliar at all. {jathumbnailoff}


Image top: Eadaoin O'Sullivan.