Air thòir Somhairle!

It’s quite frustrating for an Irish person when it comes to celebrating Somhairle MacGill-Eain‘s centenary birthday. I could only propogate his image and his words online through my Tumblr blog and Twitter, continue reading about Highland history, read some of his poems and have a glass of Scotch in his honour at home. I realise that there was a lecture given on Somhairle with an evening of Gàidhlig poetry and Scottish music as part of the IMRAM festival, but unfortunately I was unable to make it as I had to return to Louth. As a new Somhairle scholar, I feel like I should be at everything to do with the man, and everything to do with Gàidhlig. This, of course, is impossible. I’m only delighted that I could attend Ainmeil thar Cheudan at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig earlier this year, which was all the more fitting with the bona fide Highland backdrop and the Gàidhlig all around me. This is more comfortable (to me) than having Gàidhlig in the context of Gaeilge anyway; the time has come for Gàidhlig to stand in its own right, for the Gàidhlig voice to take precedence in describing itself and its culture, not English and not Gaeilge. (I can’t wait for the day when I can write this in Gàidhlig!) Of course, speakers of Gaeilge and speakers of Gàidhlig will always be supportive of one another, and have a special friendship of mutual understanding. They should do, anyway. I would say that it’s frustrating for Scottish people to celebrate Somhairle’s centenary birthday! I’m only beginning to fully understand how marginalised the Scottish Gael is in Scottish discourse. The people of the Gaeltacht in Ireland may feel marginalised and at odds with the prevalent ‘Irish’ culture in the rest of the country, but at least they are cherished as keepers of Ireland’s (true) culture. I think the people of the Gàidhealtachd still have a long way to go until they can feel like they can shout from the hills and rooftops with pride for the celebration of their artistic voice. It astounds me how many people have never even heard of Somhairle MacGill-Eain (or Sorley MacLean, for that matter…) That said, I took delight in the enthusiasm of those who work with Polygon (and Birlinn), who are based in Edinburgh and are the publisher of Somhairle’s new collection of poetic writings. They had tweeted to wish Somhairle a happy birthday, and I tweeted back in Gàidhlig saying how I can’t wait for my copy to arrive. They replied “Worth waiting for, it’s sublime. All madly in love with Sorley at Polygon Towers!” Aww. 🙂
I think that I have literally been standing back and gaping in awe at Somhairle since I studied his poetry quite thoroughly during my Masters. I’ve been reveling in the passion, throwing myself into learning the language and acquiring the knowledge and understanding of the context of Highland history and culture. Whenever I pick up by copy of Dàin do Eimhir or O Choille gu Bearradh, my eyes widen at the richness and complexity of the language, and I feel ashamed that I have to take a glance at the English on the facing page. (Though I am happy that I can recognise when the English translation pales in comparison to the original in terms of meaning!) It is arrogant to think that an Irish speaker can just pick up a book written in Gàidhlig and understand it. You think you’re getting the gist, then you realise that there are many ‘false friends’ and that you actually don’t get it! At this stage, I can pick up a book of short stories by Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn and read away happily, understanding nearly every word. But Somhairle – wow. He is a true modern poet, writing about the complicated subject of the human condition in the complexity of poetic language, armed in the richness of the Gàidhlig and tradition that he inherited by birthright. You don’t take up a book of Somhairle’s poems lightly; you’re literally picking up the weight of the human condition and the richness of Gaelic (and European) culture into tentative hands. This was a man who admitted to being an avid reader of history and philosophy, and who came from a long line of tradition-bearers.
I feel that I need to acquaint myself better with the history and culture of the Highlands (hence my current reading) in order for me to be even worthy of reading this poetry, to be worthy of understanding it. (Though poetry isn’t there necesarily there to be understood, but I don’t think Somhairle was one of those pretentious poets.) I feel like… the true vision shared by Somhairle in his poetry can only be earned by becoming fluent in Gàidhlig and being well-versed in Highland (and European) culture. I am not saying that Somhairle is a provincial poet and that his poetry is relevant only to Gaelic culture – this is simply not true. His aim was to speak from his own corner of the world to the world, and he demonstrates that the experiences of one race can be applied to another’s, that we’re all in this fight for the good of humanity together. His obsession with the ‘lyrical cry’ suggests that he was in fact keeping with the role of the bard who speaks on behalf of his people; the lyric as a form historically speaks as the ‘Everyman’, expressing people’s shared experiences of love, grief, and everything in between. He frequently reaches out to and calls to other European nations throughout his poetry. In Dàn XIII of Dàin do Eimhir, Somhairle wishes to intertwine the cultural merits of nations as diverse as Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Greece and Norway in order to fashion a Dàn Dìreach for his beloved:
Agus uime sin bu chòir dhomh
‘n Dàn Dìreach a chur air dòigh dhut
a ghlacadh mac-meanmna na h-Eòrpa.
Bu chòir nochdadh ‘na iomchar
dianas na Spàinne gu h-iomlan,
geur-aigne na Frainge is na Grèige,
ceòl na h-Alban ‘s na h-Éireann.
Bha còir agam gach uile èifeachd
a thug Lochlann is Éire
is Alba àrsaidh do mo dhaoine
a chur cuideachd an caoine
agus an ìobairt don ioghnadh
tha geal dealbhte an clàr t’ aodann.
At the moment, I’m still learning Gàidhlig and reading reading reading. I need to come up with a proposal for my PhD on Somhairle. I still feel like I’m not worthy to be dealing with such a subject at such a level. My passion is what sets me alight and gives me the courage to go after it. The bard himself said that passion is the ingredient needed in order to create true poetry. Somhairle went on the hunt for poems and for his beloved – now I’m on the hunt for him!
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