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Review: Lainnir a’ Bhuirn – The Gleaming Water: Essays on Modern Gaelic Literature

Edited by Emma Dymock and Wilson McLeod.
Dunedin Academic Press Ltd.

REVIEW BY JOHAN SANDBERG MCGUINNE

Despite the strength of Gaelic writing in recent decades, only a precious few collections of essays dealing with 20th and 21st century Gaelic literature have ever been published. For anyone interested in contemporary Scottish Gaelic literature, the newly published collection Lainnir a’ Bhuirn –The Gleaming Water is thus a must-have. Presenting essays that all in some way or another deal with the importance of water and the ocean, to quote Moray Watson, ‘mar chrìoch, […] chnap-starra, […] atharrachadh agus comas’ (as an ending, a barrier, as change and power) in Gaelic literature over the last hundred years, this collection re-imagines the ocean as a literary, linguistic and physical sphere in order to touch upon subjects as broad as the work of Somhairle MacGill-Eain, the politics of translation and self-translation by Gaelic writers and the history of Gaelic novels, drama and short stories during the 20th and 21st century.

In stark contrast to the usual focus and language when dealing with Gaelic literature, Dymock and McLeod have had the good taste to bring together writers both from within and outwith the academic sphere who all challenge a symptomatic flaw of Gaelic literary criticism. As McLeod points out in his Gaelic introduction, less than 17% of all Gaelic literary criticism is written in Gaelic, whereas of the collection’s 12 chapters, four are in Gaelic and all the other chapters present the readers with Gaelic quotes and passages that only occasionally are given English translations. In fact, the collection’s arguably most prolific Gaelic scholars – among them Ronald Black who have contributed to the collection with a well-researched and much needed history of the Gaelic novel in the 20th century – have all chosen to write their essays in Gaelic, rather than English.

But even more worthy of recognition is this collection’s conscious attempt to move away from seeing Gaelic literature as merely consisting of poetry created in a now long gone past. On one hand the reader is offered essays dealing with contemporary prose, short stories, drama and the Gaelic publication industry – especially Michelle MacLeod’s essay on Gaelic drama highlights a part of Gaelic literature that deserves far more attention within the field of Gaelic studies – on the other hand this book makes an active attempt to fill the void of essays on Somhairle MacGill-Eain, i.e. an author whose literary production, in relation to its importance in both Scottish and international literary criticism, has been severely overlooked. As Dymock points out, only one major collection of essays on MacGill-Eain has ever been published, which in itself justifies the fact that a third of the collection’s chapters deal with the Raasay bard’s poetry.

At the same time, however, it is infinitely hard to find any essay on Gaelic literature that does not feel the need to at least once invoke the name of MacGill-Eain and as much as Ní Annracháin, MacAoidh and Dymock have written compelling and much needed essays on different aspects of MacGill-Eain’s poetry – Dymock’s use of Kristeva’s theory of the abject when analysing the image of the morass, i.e. a neither-norness of land and water in ‘An Cuilithionn’ is especially thought-provoking – I cannot but feel that Gaelic critics ought to dare look away from MacGill-Eain- Thus it is far more chapters like the one written by Moray Watson that makes this collection of essays worth reading. In his essay, Watson draws upon a Gaelic context in order to look at the importance of water and the sea in Gaelic writing as a defining idea of said literary movement. It is perhaps in his suggestion that the sea functions both as a border and a wall between worlds in Gaelic short stories that we come closest to what this essay collection is all about. In focusing on the symbolic importance and image of the sea in Gaelic writing, Watson highlights the sea as a leitmotif that characterises Gaelic literature as both contemporary and international without ever discrediting the importance of tradition within the works of Gaelic authors. And, even more importantly, in doing so he is at the same time, along with many of the other contributors to this collection arguing for a reading of Gaelic literature that takes both existing literary theories into account while also looking at Gaelic through a lens that is defined primarily by its own contexts – as an example Ní Annráchain’s compares Greek myths with the Gaelic hero tradition alongside Christian motifs in her reading of MacGill-Eain’s ‘Coilltean Rathasair’.

If I were to choose one chapter in Lainnir a’ Bhuirn – The Gleaming Water that I would want every literary critic who has ever tried to analyse Scottish literature to read, however, it would perhaps be Watson’s essay. It is only a shame that far too few people speak Gaelic in order to make said suggestion come true. And this is perhaps this collection’s only flaw; in choosing to make a border-line political statement where Gaelic literary criticism is approached as a subject to be studied from within, for and by Gaelic speakers – a choice I in theory am highly supportive of – some of the collection’s most interesting essays have become illegible to the large majority of people who would benefit from reading them.

As a freelancing translator and self-styled failed poet, however, the minor disadvantages of including Gaelic essays without English translations in this collection could not possibly bother me less. Instead I consider the essays dealing with different social, technical, personal and political aspects of translating Gaelic poetry, to be by far the most interesting ones. These chapters take the reader from an essentially academic point of view to a sphere where Gaelic literature becomes something more than just a studied object. Krause, MacLeod, Whyte, O’ Gallagher and Ó Dúill have all written persuasive articles that move from theoretical discussions on the practices of post-colonialism and self-translation to detailed discussions on a poet’s as well as two translators’ respective work processes. Where Krause references Bakhtin, keeping her essay a more or less academic one, e.g. Ó Dúill’s essay is by and large a personal yet intellectual discussion on the very process behind how he, as a translator, approaches Gaelic literature. And as much as Krause’s theoretical discussions on different aspects of translation serve an intellectual purpose and as such might prove more useful to someone studying translation and the politics behind a number of different linguistic choices within Gaelic writing, it is far more Ó Dúill and O’ Gallagher respectively who intrigue me the most. Both writers’ chapters offer glimpses into the everyday life of translators and O’ Gallagher’s suggestion that a translator should not just gloss over a poem, but rather recreate its rhythm as well is very interesting.

On the whole, Lainnir a’ Bhuirn – The Gleaming Water fills a spot within Gaelic literary criticism that has for all too long been left empty. In its commendable attempt to highlight some of the many neglected contemporary aspects of Scottish Gaelic literature this collection is sure to become an inspiration to many Gaelic scholars for years to come.

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