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Derick Thomson at 90: Gaelic poet in the world

Ruaraidh MacThòmais (Derick Thomson) has as poet, scholar, teacher and editor made a profound contribution to Gaelic literature over six decades. The quality and range of his work deserve belated recognition in the context of the culture he has done so much to enlarge, says David Hayes.

The death of Scotland’s most renowned poet Edwin Morgan at the age of 90 in August 2010 left an unfillable creative gap but also a more formal one, for he had been the modern country’s first makar (national poet). There is something characteristic in the fact that in the public debate about who should be his successor, the name of Derick Thomson was absent.

For despite six decades of quiet achievement as poet, as scholar of Gaelic and Welsh literature, and as editor of Gairm, the literary magazine he co-founded, Thomson - though greatly respected in the Gaelic world and in parts beyond - has never received the full recognition that he deserves.

Thomson’s ninetieth birthday on 5 August 2011 is both an occasion to celebrate in its own right and an opportunity to register the scale of his literary contribution. Perhaps along the way some of the ripples he has made on Scotland’s cultural life in these years of transformation will become more visible.

The context

Ruaraidh MacThòmais / Derick Thomson was born in the small township of Pabail / Bayble on the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland’s northwest island littoral known as the Outer Hebrides. This Atlantic-facing edge of Europe tends to nurture both a sense of deep belonging to immediate locality and its lineages and an awareness of multiple connections to the far beyond: Scandinavia, the Americas, distant fishing-grounds and diaspora settlements, fields (and cemeteries) of emigration and empire. There is also an intimate and complex relationship with non-Gaelic Scotland, whose cities (mainly Glasgow, but also Aberdeen and Edinburgh) have offered many young Gaels across the generations their induction to further education, employment, and a life of exile-leavened-by-periodic-return.

Many of these themes are visible in the arc of Derick Thomson’s life. He was born three years after the end of the great war of 1914-18, which had already taken many sons of Lewis when the island was hit by a further, unconscionable disaster on the very last day of 1918: the sinking, within sight of Stornoway harbour, of a boat (the Iolaire) carrying men home from the war, with the loss of 205 more. The fact that family members were gathered on the shore in joyful expectation of welcoming their loved ones intensified the profound grief. In the hard years that followed, many were numbed by the memory (a daughter of one of the soldiers who went down recalls that her mother never spoke of the incident, and wore black every day until her death) and emigration rose.

The “emigrant ships” which carried people from Lewis to the new world in subsequent years have come to be symbolised in the name of a single one, the Metagama, that sailed to Canada in April 1923. (A decade on, the young woman who would become the mother of Donald Trump made her way on another).

Two vessels, the Iolaire and the Metagama; war and homecoming; return and exile; death and new life; loss and memory; love and grief; language and silence; faith and the eternal sea; the island and the world. All that Lewis has contained, in all its universal connections and associations, has weaved itself through the work Derick Thomson has produced in his ninety years.

Thomson took a degree at university in Aberdeen, and then underwent training (including in camps at Bradford and Cranwell) for service in the Royal Air Force (1942-45). His wartime experience - which included compositions such as the patriotic, exhortatory Faoisgneadh / Burgeoning - make him by default part of a generation of Scottish poets whose immersion in the conflict influenced (where it did not forge) their subsequent work: Hamish Henderson (Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica), Robert Garioch (Two Men and a Blanket: Memoirs of Captivity [1975], and the Gaelic poets Deòrsa Mac Iain Deòrsa / George Campbell Hay (Bisearta / Bizerta) and Somhairle MacGill-Eain / Sorley Maclean (Dol an Iar / Going Westwards, Curaidhean / Heroes), and Edwin Morgan himself (albeit he largely let the war go on his return, until The New Divan [1977]).

The happenstance that many of these writers-to-be served in the north African campaigns against the figure Maclean characteristically described as “Roimeal mòr” [“big Rommel”] was memorialised by Morgan in the memorable sonnet North Africa (“Why did the poets come to the desert?”). There were other fates and choices: Hugh MacDiarmid, a veteran of Salonika in the great war, spent part of the second conscripted in a Clydeside shipyard (and exchanged copious letters  with Maclean on the war, its justification, and the place of Scotland within it, a correspondence that continued until MacDiarmid's death in 1978); Robert Garioch, captured during the invasion of the Maghreb in November 1942, spent three years as a POW in Germany; other poets (Norman MacCaig and Douglas Young among them) were conscientious objectors.

In this context, there is something about Thomson’s war that prefigures a status as perpetual outsider, at least within the context of the (all-male) group whose creative energies and overlapping friendships came to be seen as defining of Scotland’s public culture in the post-1945 decades.

True, there was always something both retrospective and fictive about that presumed identity - much of it owed to a famous group portrait, The Poets’ Pub [1980] (now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) by Alexander (Sandy) Moffat, which depicts the “eight” - Hugh MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Norman MacCaig, Robert Garioch, Sorley Maclean, Edwin Morgan, Iain Mac a 'Ghobhainn / Iain Crichton Smith, and George Mackay Brown, with more glancing view of Alan Bold and the art critic John A Tonge - in richly observed if somewhat austere proximity.

In reality, things were rarely so clubbable (or indeed so visible as they were to become when literary tourism and media-cultural promotion began to take hold). The shy George Mackay Brown, for example, rarely ventured from his native Orkney (his sole visit to England was a day trip to Berwick-on-Tweed); the Edinburgh poet Robert Garioch, whose fine Scots verse (including translations of the Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Belli into the language) was part of no crowd; and Edwin Morgan, from his midlife flowering to his astonishing late period, was, though genial in company, too disciplined and astringent in judgment to belong.

In any event, Thomson has always resisted what Tom Leonard once called (in expressing reluctance to be quoted in a newspaper profile of James Kelman) “the magicking of literary personae”. His route in the post-1945 years took him to further study at Cambridge and Bangor and to teaching posts at Edinburgh and Aberdeen, before he settled in Glasgow as a lecturer in the department of Celtic at Glasgow University. His early scholarship included studies of the Gaelic sources of James Macpherson’s Ossian, and of one of the medieval Welsh mythological tales known as the Mabinogi (1961). 

In 1951, at the age of 30, he co-founded (with Fionnlagh Dòmhnallach /  Finlay J Macdonald) the quarterly literary journal Gairm which he was to first coefit and then edit alone over the next five decades. Under his tutelage, it became the foremost publication of original Gaelic writing in Scotland: giving space and voice to aspiring and established writers, encouraging new work and translations, acting as a focal point for a small but diverse community, performing a crucial role as measure of value and beacon of judgment.

This, the Gaelic literary world - the histories it inherited, its characteristic innovation-within-tradition, the human and creative energies that flowed into it, the generations that still, amid a larger environment of official indifference (and sometimes contempt), were coming into contact with it - is the imagined collective to which Derick Thomson has devoted his life, and indeed has done so much to cultivate. Gairm, which continued until 2004 (when a successor was founded, Gath), is a great sustained achievement.

The work

Over these decades of exacting editorial work, and while teaching at Glasgow University (1963-91), Thomson produced a stream of both poetic and critical publications. His major contributions to scholarship include the valuable The Companion to Gaelic Scotland (1983), a much-needed encyclopedic guide, and to education include Gaelic learners’ materials and dictionaries. There are also translations into Gaelic from (among others) Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry (1974) maps the development of several currents since the early 14th century. A particular emphasis is on the 18th century when in the context of social and political change, tradition and innovation combined (not least via the influence of contacts with other literatures) to produce a “new vigour”. A key figure here is Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair / Alexander MacDonald - author of exhilirating, biting political verse, both Gaelic nationalist and Scots nationalist in flavour (so Thomson argues) as well as of inventive nature poetry and the major Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill / Clanranald’s Galley, “the ultimate demonstration” says Thomson of the poet’s “hard, exact intellectual power”.

Thomson’s own poetry from the decades 1940-80 - including the volumes An Dealbh Briste / The Broken Image (1951), Eadar Samradh is Foghar / Between Summer and Autumn (1967), An Rathad Cian / The Far Road (1971), and Saorsa agus an Iolaire / Freedom and the Eagle (1977) - were gathered in Creachadh na Clàrsaich / Plundering the Harp, published in 1982. Three later collections - Meall Garbh / Rugged Mountain (1985), Smeur an Dòchais / Bramble of Hope (1992), and Sùil air Fàire / Surveying the Horizon (2007) - have followed.

The subject-matter is wide, the style often pithy, the eye sharp, the heart full. The way everyday experience (a sudden vista, a holiday moment, a shaft of light, a return, a TV programme, sometimes - though rarely - an encounter) touches off memory, and what happens when the latter filters the former, is the characteristic poetic “event” in Thomson’s work. In his own account, his work has moved gradually towards free verse, albeit with much use of internal rhyme, where timeshifts (this happened forty years ago, this is what occurs to me now...) are formal signals of the carving of a creative space that allows the poet’s singular vision of the world to emerge.

The atmosphere is reflective and self-reflective, intimate and sceptical, passionate and restrained, clear-eyed and filled with longings, attached and detached, pervaded by a sense of Lewis and aware of the deformities of nostalgia (“though many knots bind me/and the ones I broke are the hardest” [Fàgail Leòdhais, 1949 / Leaving Lewis, 1949]), committed to Scotland and its possibilities and mordant about its failings, conscious of aging at every point in the life-cycle including youth (as in the poignant early poem Marbhrann / Elegy for Sam Nicolson, Skye - a a comrade lost over Germany), melancholy in the undertow and threaded with wry humour (“I quite believe / that St Peter will turn out to be a Lewisman / if I do sneak in at the Gate” [Ma Gheibh mi Chaoidh a Ghlòir / If I Ever Make it to Heaven]), international in its connective desire and range of reference (there are poems inspired by Budapest in 1956, Chernobyl, Romania, Bosnia and Rwanda), alert to mystery and vigilant of faith (as in the five-line Urnaigh/Prayer, which closes the 280 pages of Creachadh na Clàrsaich).

The combination and working through of these internal tensions gives Thomson’s poetry much of its quietly compelling flavour. As the critic Proinsias Ó Driscoeil notes, “[metaphor] is central to his poetry which consists principally of short lyrics, their imagery integrated and concrete as they build towards a denoument in the final couplet”.

An enduring concern with duality, a potent and ever productive dimension of Scotland’s literary, social and linguistic consciousness, find multiple expression in the work of a figure Christopher Whyte calls a “reluctant symbolist”. In Dà Chànan / Two Languages, for example, Gaelic and English “are like the trees/in my garden, gently nudging/and encroaching, but keeping their own identity”; the poem ends with a jolt, “may the day never come/when they turn my mind into a Sarajevo”.

The dualistic cast of much of Thomson’s work is a theme explored by another of his critics, Malcolm Chapman, in his fertile and subtle The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture (Croom Helm, 1978). Chapman’s broader concern with the histories, reciprocities, power-relationships and psychic reverberations of what he calls the “symbolic appropriation” of the Celtic world leads him, in a chapter on “Modern Gaelic Poetry”, to argue that the images of Thomson's poetry are “not innocently appropriate” but rather “assume the appearance of a continued creation of the world of the Gael according to the demands of a purely external discourse”.

By “[using] in his poetry symbols that locate the two societies with which he is concerned in opposed and mutually defining worlds”, Thomson exemplifies what Chapman sees as the internalisation of a mode of thinking and understanding that has its origins elsewhere. By contrast, the poetry of Sorley Maclean avoids the dichotomous imagery of Gael and Gall and “denies the symbolic appropriation of his world by English language discourse not by vigorously rejecting it, which only leads to another form of acceptance, but by ignoring it without apparent difficulty”.

Chapman’s critique, one shaft of a penetrating inquiry influenced by the ideas of his anthropologist mentor Edwin Ardener, in its selective emphasis may in this instance do less than full justice to the range of Thomson’s work. Yet it also suggests (even if this is no part of his intention) a reason for the relative neglect of the poet in the non-Gaelic world, certainly in contrast to Sorley Maclean, the figure most closely identified with the “Gaelic renaissance” of the mid-20th century.

For the polarities and consciousness of inner boundaries that pervade Thomson’s work are also a permanent reminder to non-Gaels of the gulfs they must traverse in order fully to engage with it. By contrast, Maclean's confident transcendence of division works to reassure and include even those unable to enter what Seamus Heaney calls “the full climate of his linguistic world”.

The relationship

A recollection of Sorley Maclean’s own trajectory may offer a useful counterpoint here. Somhairle MacGill-Eain (1911-86) was a decade older than Ruaraidh MacThòmais, a man of Skye whose forebears came from, and deepest emotional attachments lay with, the nearby island of Raasay. Indeed, the vanished communities of that island under the impact of a local variant of the “Highland clearances” - the extensive, forced expulsion of small farmers from workable land in much of northern Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries, to make way for sheep pasture - were the subject (and title) of Maclean’s greatest poem, Hallaig, a work of redemptive beauty in the way it mourns yet celebrates the departed.

Maclean studied English literature at Edinburgh University under the near-legendary figure of Herbert Grierson, trained as a schoolteacher, and in the mid-1930s became intensely moved by the political events and perils of the time - not least the civil war in Spain and the spreading threat of fascism. This was combined with a tremendous moving fealty to his language and ancestry, and further stirred by passionate romantic feelings, to produce a collection of poems unprecedented in Gaelic literature: Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile / Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems (1943).

The vivid language, haunting symbolism and urgent rhythms of this work represented a breakthrough, the revelation of a new voice and evidence that Gaelic could be as much a vehicle for literary modernism as any other national literature (and why should it not?). Its restricted readership and the wartime conditions of its publication long gave the text an elusive, fugitive aura; something accentuated by the fact that subsequent withdrawals from, additions to, and amendments of its corpus made it hard to establish a definitive version (see the edition of Dàin do Eimhir annotated and contextualised by Christopher Whyte [Polygon, 2008]).

But more than any other of Maclean’s works - including An Cuillithion/ The Cuillin, the unfinished epic that radiates out from Skye to the world and back - Dàin do Eimhir was to imprint itself on Scotland’s literary-public consciousness; a remarkable achievement to which Maclean’s extraordinary, mesmerising readings of his poems at public events and in broadcasts during his own late flowering greatly contributed.

Sorley was inimitable, in work and persona (my mother attended the same church as one of his sisters, and used to hear of his lovable eccentricities). The tangible reassembly of national cultural resources that started to happen in Scotland in the 1980s, partly as reaction to a depressive politics - Edwin Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland (1984) is often heralded as the catalyst - gathered him into its embrace.

There had been earlier such moments: 1972 saw the launch of the left-nationalist magazine Calgacus, edited by Ray Burnett and featuring Tom Nairn and Owen Dudley Edwards among its contributors, whose first issue has a portrait of Maclean and reprints Hallaig in its entirety. Timothy Neat’s film Hallaig (1984) marries images of Raasay and the sounds of the poem to moving effect. The broader cultural moment in Scotland of what might be called left-Celticism - elsewhere represented by the 7:84 theatre company’s The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black. Black Oil (1974) - remains to be explored, not least as it is still a resource that inspires a degree of political energy.

Maclean’s enduring appeal here is understandable (and it is worth recalling that he was closer in generation and political temper to Nazim Hikmet and Pablo Neruda than to Thomson, though not a communist in the party sense). There was and is an uncanny, magical quality in his poetry and voice that moves people and even suggests transcendence; and an empathy vividly realised in (for example) his affecting portrait of the physically frail English comrade whose courage he compares to his noble martial forebears (as in Curaidhean / Heroes: “I saw a great warrior of England, / a poor manikin on whom no eye would rest; / no Alasdair of Glen Garry; / and he took a little weeping to my eyes”).

Much of Derick Thomson’s verse operates in a different register: drier, more glancing, reflecting on itself. In its tendency to move from the quotidian event, memory and observation to hint at a larger truth which it also then offers to qualify or question, the overall effect is less one of voice than of tone (the scholar and poet Raghnall MacilleDhuibh / Ronald Black suggests that Thomson is a “long rumble of thunder to Maclean’s brilliant flash” - an image that conveys too the disparity in the size of their oeuvres).

The political cadences are also different - Thomson’s political nationalism is consistent, though also qualified by his emotional exactitude, in contrast to Maclean’s romantic socialism. Thomson’s work is contained and recognisable, but it is also possible in retrospect to see how by comparison with the inimitable Maclean’s it might seem copyable (or perhaps scaleable: Maclean as Cuillins, Thomson as Munros).  

More broadly, the fact that the language produced two such figures as Sorley Maclean and Derick Thomson is testimony to the larger, richer social life that both drew on. Gaelic may be a “minority language” (an unfortunate and misleading bureaucratic term) but the Gaelic renaissance that they exemplified is evidence that something profound did happen amid the transformations of the mid-20th century whose resonances have lasted for decades.

The work of Iain Crichton Smith, George Campbell Hay and Dòmhnall MacAmhlaigh / Donald MacAulay shows that in poetry it went far wider, and many fine younger writers have emerged in later years to extend and vary the oeuvre - among them Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul / Angus Peter Campbell (a novelist and now actor as well as a poet and prolific journalist), Aonghas Macneacail, Meg Bateman, Maoilios Caimbeul (Myles Campbell), Màiri NicGumaraid (Morag Montgomery), Christopher Whyte (an intimate critic of Thomson’s work), Catriona NicGumaraid (Catriona Montgomery), Rody Gorman, Anne C Frater (who shares with Iain Crichton Smith and Thomson an origin in Bayble). An Tuil / The Flood (Polygon, 1999), an 800-page anthology of 20th-century Gaelic poetry edited by Ronald Black, is evidence of the extraordinary vitality of this tradition.

There is rich scholarship too that continues to produce work such as the compendious Songs of Gaelic Scotland (Birlinn, 2005) by the singer and historian Anne Lorne Gillies (whose autobiography Song of Myself [Mainstream, 1991], along with that of the actor-comedian Norman Maclean, The Leper’s Bell: The Autobiography of a Changeling [Birlinn, 2010] are landmarks of emotional honesty); and the visual anthology An Leabhar Mòr / The Great Book of Gaelic).

If diversity is a strength of any culture, as it surely is, and conformity a crippling weakness, as too is certain, then these various streams and characters (and there are many others in a speech-community that hovers around 60,000) reflect a vigorous and diversified inner world.

Here, the antipathy between Maclean and Thomson, so little discussed over the years takes on another shape. “They don’t get on!”, Hamish Henderson told me in Langholm at Hugh MacDiarmid’s centenary in 1992. But looking at (for example) Thomson’s copious critical work it is notable that his judgment of Maclean’s work, if sparse, is measured and scrupulous.

At various points, however, he refers to the complex history and versions of Dain do Eimhir. It may be that here, perhaps reinforced by political differences, that the source of a distance sharp at least on Maclean’s side (according to Edwin Morgan, in correspondence) can be traced. But this is of less public or literary-political interest than because it reveals a larger point: that in the end, such tensions in a relatively small linguistic-cultural world can be seen as an index of its vitality.

Where a social world seeks more than anything else to cluster around an imaginary unified self - rather than to be true to its multifarious self and to live in that truth - it is in trouble. Gaelic and the Gaels, thanks in part to its poets, still - like the animal in Thomson’s A' Chaora 's an Smeur / The Sheep and the Bramble, tied to the tethering-post, free but within limits, as all humanity - have the inner resources to live in that truth, and therefore to grow as well as merely survive.

The controversy

A peculiar twist occurs when a writer who has produced so much of genuine quality becomes known for an injustice done to him rather than for the substance of the work. This was Derick Thomson’s fate in 1997 with the discovery that his poetry (along with that of two other Scottish writers) had been extensively plagiarised by a writer in Cornwall.

The discovery led me to reflect on two parallel questions: why was Cornwall the source of this violation, and why was Derick Thomson the target? (see “’We have our own history still’: a Gaelic poet crosses the Tamar”, PN Review 121, June 1998).

The plagiarism involved the wholesale lifting from the English versions of poems in Thomas’s Smeur an Dòchais / Bramble of Hope (1991) sometimes with the changing of names and locations to give them a smattering of Cornishness. In the same collection, a poem by the young Gaelic writer Meg Bateman had also been misappropriated, as elsewhere (it was later discovered) had chunks of George Mackay Brown’s novel Beside the Ocean of Time (1994).

It was a messy exposure in which the London newspaper the Independent on Sunday was the involuntary catalyst of discovery. The paper published a short item about the militant revival of Cornish culture which quoted a few lines declaimed at a public event describing an incident supposedly set in a Truro cafe. I recognised immediately their source - Derick Thomson’s poem A’Bhan-Phrionnsa Diana/Princess Diana - and wrote to the paper to alert it. At that stage there was no indication of any subterfuge (the “borrowing” might have been credited as part of a live performance). The letter was not printed, and I followed up with a stronger one to the literary editor suggesting the possibility of “a minor scandal”. Again, no response.

It took a trip to Cornwall to pursue the matter further, and to discover a book called Modern Cornish Poets (1995). A journey that began with a brief news report ended in visceral shock at encountering a case of large-scale and systematic pilfering - over two hundred lines - by one of the book’s three featured authors (the other two of whom were entirely free of blame and thus also victims). After the Scotsman newspaper publicised the matter and Canongate (the publisher of Smeur an Dòchais, then as now led by Jamie Byng) was alerted, the book was withdrawn.

It was interesting even at the time to see, from a position as both observer and participant in this mini-drama, how much of the media coverage of it had a trivialising, “silly-season” flavour (some others, more seriously and quite properly, referred to previous literary deceptions in the Gaelic and Scottish literary worlds, such as the Ossian episode and Hugh MacDiarmid’s plunderings).

The incident forced a deeper consideration of the phenomenon of plagiarism, and of the reasons why (as so many subsequent cases confirm) it is often taken so lightly. The answers surely include the determined efforts of cultural stakeholders who have an interest in finessing or downplaying clear evidence of wrongdoing (see, among many works on a proliferating subject, Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble : Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower [New Press, 2005], and Neal Bowers, Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist [1997; Southern Illinois University Press, 2nd edition, 2007]).

The legacy

Am Faigh a' Ghàdhlig Bàs? / Shall Gaelic die?, was the title and theme of a poem by Iain Crichton Smith in 1969. The question has echoed in many other forms (A bheil dochas airson na Gaidhlig / Is there a hope for Gaelic? was Sorley Maclean’s in a 1974 article). Angus Peter Campbell’s collection Aibisidh/ABC (Polygon, 2011) is the latest chapter of a lifelong meditation on the subject.

Many answers are still possible. It was always dying (like English pubs or the political left); only if we let it; yes, because older speakers are going; no, because primary schools are mushrooming; yes, but the death will be prolonged and beautiful; no, as long as its speakers use it and don’t let it be confined to kitsch, kirk or kitchen.

There are many, in echo of a disdain expressed across the centuries, who would be at leastindifferent. What Alasdair mac Mhaigstir Alasdair, in his poem in praise of the Gaelic language, termed miorun mòr nan Gall (“the “great ill-will of the Lowlanders”) lives on in the sheer hostility towards Gaelic in parts of Scotland’s culture, which includes prominent figures on the academic and media left, and which finds endless pretexts for its contempt. Indeed, there is enough material for a book to be written on anti-Gaelic sentiment in modern Scotland; a good subject for a reverse "englobing" (to use Edwin Ardener's luminous term).

It was never one-sided, of course. Thomson’s tribute to Clann-Nighean an Sgadain / The Herring Girls, recalling the Hebridean women who would follow the boats and shoals each season round the coast to remote southern corners such as Great Yarmouth, says “their tongues’ gutting-knife / would tear a strip from the Lowlanders’ mockery” (see John Macinnes, “The Gaelic Perception of the Lowlands”, in William Gillies ed., Gaelic and Scotland / Alba agus a'Ghaidhlig [Edinburgh University Press, 1989]).

The hostility clearly has some parallels with that in the Republic of Ireland, though the very different sociolinguistic history of a country where after independence Irish was an official language, compulsory in schools and to qualify for government jobs, makes the dynamics there only loosely comparable (for a variety of perspectives, see Reg Hindley, The Death of the Irish Language: A Qualified Obituary [Routledge, 1991]; Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin, Language from Below: The Irish Language, Ideology and Power in 20th Century Ireland [Peter Lang, 2006]; and Liam Carson’s acute memoir, Call Mother a Lonely Field [Hag's Head Press, 2010]).

There is evidence for gloom and affirmation, and many points between. Thomson’s words in An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry are surely applicable to many other fields: “The reservoir of talent still seems formidable, for a relatively small population”. Amid so much rightful emphasis on historic decline and retreat, it is after all an index of vitality that Gaelic’s literary voyagers are interested in exploring the world through the language rather than “representing” the latter to the world (though there is a place for that too).

The ambiguities and pressures that surround the language have been well examined by anthropologists such as Sharon Macdonald (see Reimagining Culture: Histories, Identities and the Gaelic Renaissance [Berg, 1997]) and educationalists (see Kenneth Mackinnon, Gaelic: A Past and Future Prospect [Saltire Society, 1981]).

The theme of duality is, even more now there are no longer monolingual Gaels, inescapable. Everyone alive today who knows Gaelic, everyone likely in future to speak Gaelic (by fortune of birth and education, or professional or personal motivation) is - some singular exceptions perhaps excluded, along the lines of Hugo Hamilton and his Irish-German upbringing - does and will do so in a situation where several variants of English are nearby, ever-present, ever-available. To speak Gaelic will in most circumstances outside as well as often inside the professional (teaching, administration, government and media, for example) forever remain a choice, and one that has regularly to be justified and self-justified.

This existential condition might suggest it is more a miracle that Gaelic has lasted so long and remains alive than that it is approaching a dusk that portends the language’s death. It also provides the ground for contemporary Gaels’ many-sided responses to the predicament of their language and therefore of their future. As they go on their way, and for many decades yet, the patient encouragement of Derick Thomson will surely throw a long and benign shadow.

About the author

David Hayes is a co-founder of openDemocracy. He has written textbooks on human rights and terrorism, and was a contributor to Town and Country (Jonathan Cape, 1998). His work has been published in PN Review, the Irish Times, El Pais, the Iran Times International, the Canberra Times, the Scotsman, the New Statesman and The Absolute Game. He has edited five print collections of material from the openDemocracy website, including Europe and Islam; Turkey: Writers, Politics, and Free Speech; and Europe: Visions, Realities, Futures. He is the editor of Fred Halliday's Political Journeys - the openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011)

More On

David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy, which he co-founded in 2000. He has written textbooks on human rights and terrorism, and was a contributor to Town and Country (Jonathan Cape, 1998). His work has been published in PN Review, the Irish Times, El Pais, the Iran Times International, the Canberra Times, the Scotsman, the New Statesman and The Absolute Game

He has edited five print collections of material from the openDemocracy website, including Europe and Islam; Turkey: Writers, Politics, and Free Speech; and Europe: Visions, Realities, Futures. He is the editor of Fred Halliday's Political Journeys - the openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011)


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