Aonghas MacNeacail

Aonghas MacNeacail (b. 1942)
Photograph of Aonghas MacNeacail by Roddy Simpson
Aonghas MacNeacail © Roddy Simpson

Biography

Summary

Aonghas MacNeacail has been a leading voice in Gaelic poetry for decades, as poet, and as a regular literary commentator in print and on Gaelic radio. He is also a songwriter, screen writer and librettist.  

Full Biography

Aonghas MacNeacail has been a leading voice in Gaelic poetry for decades. That voice has been central to his poetry and to the new departure in Gaelic verse his work represented. MacNeacail took the innovations of Derick Thomson and Donald MacAulay a step further, bring Gaelic verse into contact with a new-age sensibility, taking its place in the flowering of new forms of expression that characterised the 1960s.

Aonghas MacNeacail was born in Uig on the Isle of Skye on 7 June 1942, but has lived for many years in the Scottish Borders with his wife, the actor and singer Gerda Stevenson, and their family. His father was an able seaman on coastal freighters, and died of cancer when MacNeacail was eight. Attending Uig Primary School, ‘my first teacher’s first job… was to teach her tearful new charges a foreign language, which most of us would soon learn to speak better than our own’ (Spirits of the Age). He left Portree High School to try a variety of jobs, landing in Glasgow and finding at Langside College a teacher who introduced him to contemporary Gaelic and English poetry. Registered at birth as ‘Angus Nicolson’, he changed his name officially to its Gaelic form, but is often known simply as ‘Aonghas Dubh’ (‘Black Angus’). In Glasgow, he became part of Philip Hobsbaum's writing group which included Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard. Known primarily as a poet, MacNeacail has also worked as a songwriter, screen writer and librettist, a regular literary commentator in print and on Gaelic radio, and is a ready voice of encouragement for younger Gaelic writers.

  Writing in both languages, I considered English the medium for my
  ‘serious’ poetry. Being invited to take a writing fellowship at Sabhal
  Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College, in 1977, turned me into a Gaelic
  Poet. A Fellowship at Glasgow University, in 1993, twenty-five years
  after I’d first matriculated there, turned me into a bilingual poet again.
  (Spirits of the Age)

The poets who established Gaelic free-verse in the post-war period were often quiet and introspective as they moved away from the more public, ritualistic forms of poetry such as song and prayer that still echoed in the work of Sorley MacLean and George Campbell Hay. By contrast, MacNeacail’s Gaelic verse made the individual poetic voice central to his poetry's public role. While MacNeacail looks for examples in the Gaelic song-poets of previous generations – many of them women – his poetry's closest affinities are with modern verse in English, particularly with the work of American poets, the Black Mountain School and the Beats, to whose work he was introduced by Tom McGrath. Like e e cummings, MacNeacail often avoids conventions such as capitalisation and punctuation which highlight the written nature of poetry as a product of the pen and the page. Instead, his verse presents itself as primarily oral, animated by the breath of the voice. MacNeacail’s third Gaelic collection, an seachnadh agus dàin eile / the avoiding and other poems (1986), opens with a short piece that introduces his poetic persona:

do ghuth a’ glaodhaich
foillsich thu fhéin
a charaid, is mise
an t-amadan naomh
am bàrd
amhairc is èisd rium

(‘your voice crying / reveal yourself // friend i am / the holy fool / the bard / observe and listen’, ‘bratach’ / ‘banner’, trans. Aonghas MacNeacail)

History is a central subject for MacNeacail's, both in the sense of the story of people who came before and how that story can and should be told in the present. In the poem which gives its name to his 1996 collection, Oideachadh Ceart agus Dàin Eile, the speaker is presented as the bearer of his people’s history, in this case the history of eviction and exile suffered by Gaelic-speaking communities from the 18th century onwards:

nuair a bha mi òg,
cha b’eachdraidh ach cuimhne
nuair a thàinig am bàilidh, air each
air na mhathan a’ tilleadh a-nuas
às na buailtean len eallaichean frainich
’s a gheàrr e na ròpan on guailnean
a’ sgaoileadh nan eallach gu làr,
a’ dìteadh nam mnà, gun tug iad gun chead
an luibhe dhan iarradh e sgrios,
ach gum biodh na mnathan
ga ghearradh ’s ga ghiùlan gu dachaigh,
connlach stàile, gu tàmh nam bò
(is gun deachadh e màl às)

(‘when i was young / it wasn’t history but memory // when the factor, on horseback, came / on the woman’s descent from / the moorland grazings laden with bracken / he cut the ropes from their shoulders / spreading their loads to the ground, / alleging they took without permit / a weed he’d eliminate / were it not that women cut it and carried it home / for bedding to ease their cows’ hard rest; and there was rent in that weed’, trans. Aonghas MacNeacail)

In this poem ‘history’ is placed below ‘memory’, as passed down through songs and stories and embodied in the voice of the poet. While thoroughly modern, without rhyme or regular metre, the rhythm and the repetitions used in this poem suggest the work-songs of the vernacular Gaelic tradition, a crucial vehicle for the transmission of the memory MacNeacail describes.

In his more recent work, MacNeacail’s emphasis seems to have shifted from the centrality of the poetic voice to the stuff of poetry itself. Of the poems in his 2007 collection, Laoidh an Daonais Òg / Hymn to a Young Demon, perhaps 'A' Dèanamh Ìme' (‘Making Butter’) best reflects its author's mature respect for poetry as craft, for the patience necessary for its creation and the pleasure and value that can result:

chan eil a shamhla ann –
tionndadh ’s a’ tionndadh a’ ghileid òraich
am broinn dòrcha na h-eanchainn
ag èisteachd ri suirghe is
dealachadh is pòsadh
nan lid luasganach leaghtach
ag èisteachd airson nam boinne
blàthaich a’ sileadh air falbh o
ghramalas òrbhuidhe dàin

(‘there’s nothing like it – / turning and turning the golden whiteness / inside the darkness of the brain / listening to the wooings and / partings and weddings / of soluble tossed-about syllables / listening for the drops / of buttermilk trickling away from / the golden yellow firmness of a poem’, trans. Aonghas MacNeacail)

Aonghas MacNeacail continues to be an influential figure for the Gaelic poets and prose writers who have followed him. He has often read abroad, where his bardic appearance and engaging contextualisation of his poems – as at home – have made him a popular performer: ‘Scotland has a curious relationship with its Gaelic poets. It likes the fact that we’re there, so long as it doesn’t have to read us…. The rest of the world is more open to what we have to offer’ (Spirits of the Age). His knowledge of and respect for traditional Gaelic verse combined with his embrace of modern poetic techniques make his work a necessary bridge between the old and the new, the literary and the vernacular, Scotland and the world.

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

imaginary wounds (Glasgow: Print Studio Press, 1980)
Sireadh Bradain Sicir / Seeking Wise Salmon (Nairn: Balnain Books, 1983)
An Cathadh Mor / The Great Snowbattle (Nairn: Balnain Books, 1984)
an seachnadh agus dàin eile / the avoiding and other poems (Edinburgh: Macdonald Publishers, 1986)
Rock and Water: poems in English (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1990)
Oideachadh Ceart agus dàin eile / A Proper Schooling and other poems (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1996)
laoidh an donais òig / hymn to a young demon (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2007)
dèanamh gàire ris a’ chloc : dàin ùra agus thaghte / laughing at the clock : new and selected poems (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2012)

Selected Biography and Criticism

Christopher Whyte, ‘The 1990s’ in Modern Scottish Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004)

Aonghas MacNeacail, ‘Leaves from a life’ in Paul Henderson Scott (ed.), Spirits of the Age: Scottish self portraits (Edinburgh: The Saltire Society, 2005)

Attila Dósa, ‘Aonghas MacNeacail: land, language, memory’ in Beyond Identity: new horizons in modern Scottish poetry (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009)

Peter Mackay, ‘Aonghas MacNeacail’ in Matt McGuire and Colin Nicholson (eds), The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)