A blog by Niall O’Gallagher
My appointment as Bàrd Baile Ghlaschu coincided with the return of the National Mòd to Scotland’s largest city in 2019. The appointment of a Gaelic Poet Laureate for Glasgow made perfect sense. Known in Gaelic as Baile Mòr nan Gàidheal, Glasgow has been a centre – arguably the centre – of Gaelic publishing since the 19th Century, and some of the leading Gaelic poets of the 20th and 21st Centuries – Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith, Christopher Whyte – were either born or lived there. What seemed less obvious was how to make sense of my appointment, and therefore, how to go about the task I had been set.
I was asked to write three poems. No form or subject matter was set, but I understood the poems would have to be about Glasgow in some way, perhaps about Gaelic Glasgow in particular. This immediately raised two questions. The first was, how to write public poetry without resorting to a kind of reportage in verse? Working as a journalist, I’ve learned that good journalism shares some of the qualities of good poetry: a respect for the truth, for example, and an abhorrence of cliché. But the two are, for me, very different. Journalism, however well I try to write it, seems ephemeral, instrumental, its language a tool used to do a job and put aside once that job is done. In poetry, I want language to be more than that. The traditional Gaelic model of bàrdachd baile implied in the title I’d been given wasn’t much help either. Before my appointment and since I’ve often shied away from writing social poetry. It seems important to me to resist the pressure on writers in a suppressed, politicised language to respond directly to the situation of that language and its current speakers. The second question I asked myself was connected to the first: how to do the job of a Glasgow Gaelic makar from my own position as a writer from an Irish background, no less Gaelic for that, but used to approaching the Scottish tradition slantwise?
The answer to both questions lay in the myths surrounding Glasgow’s patron saints, Mungo and his mother, Enoch. According to one story, Enoch awakes at sea, alone in a small boat, having miraculously survived being cast down the hillside by her father the king, after he discovered she was pregnant. This story, of a mother and her child fleeing violence at home to seek a new life among strangers struck me as utterly contemporary in 2019. It still does.
One job a makar can do is to remake the stories we’ve inherited and ask what meaning they might have for us now. My three poems grew into a sequence of twelve sonnets called ‘Ceann-tighearna’, an imagined Gaelic etymology for Mungo’s birthname, Kentigern. In the ninth poem in the sequence, published in full in my third collection Fo Bhlàth (‘Flourishing’, CLÀR), we hear the voice of Kentigern’s teacher describing what happens when his classmates falsely accuse him of having killed a robin, in the hope that he’ll be punished. Saint Mungo of Glasgow is also the patron saint of bullied children:
I’m sure that the form, skilfully recreated here by Peter Mackay, is what allows the story to be shared, made public and eventually retold. Maybe that is the makar’s task, the work of a modern bàrd baile.
AN T-EUN NACH D’RINN SGÈITH
Laigh an t-eun gun ghluasad air an làr.
Thàinig iad nan gràisg: ‘Is ann a dh’eug
brù-dhearg, mharbh esan e’, ’n gille sèimh
a rinn iad a thrèigsinn mar bu ghnàth.
Cha tug e an aire ach, le gràdh,
rinn e nead le làmhan agus shèid
anail shocair, thlàth air a dà sgèith
sgaoileadh beatha feadh gach ite ’s cnàmh’.
Dh’fhan i tiotan air a bhois
a’ ceilearadh air leth-chois
mus do thog i oirre tron an sgleò.
Theich a threud ach cha do chlisg
an gille le làmhan brisg’,
cluas sa lios ri bualadh sgèith an eòin.
THE BIRD THAT NEVER FLEW
The bird lies stock-still on the ground.
The gang moves in: “the robin’s deid –
he kilt him”. The quiet boy is betrayed,
as happens when stuff goes down,
but he pays no heed and lovingly
makes a nest with his hands and blows
soft, warm breath into her bones,
her feathers, and fills her wings with life.
She hovers an instant on his palms
on one leg, singing,
then takes off into the dark.
Everyone else long gone, the boy still cups his hands
listens for a wingbeat in the yard.
Translated by Peter Mackay