Sunday, 2 December 2012


Or dèanamh gàire ris a’ chloc
I‘m reading Aonghas MacNeacail’s new and selected poems in a Gaelic/English parallel edition.  Aonghas MacNeacail was born in 1942 in Uig on the island of Skye.  He is regarded as one of the most important poets writing in Gaelic today and his reputation has spread far beyond his native Hebrides.  Having very little Gaelic I have to be content with the English translation, but sometimes I look at the Gaelic poems and try to read them aloud and catch the musicality (even in my blundering pronunciation) of MacNeacail’s originals.

In laughing at the clock Aonghas MacNeacail has written his own English translations and they read beautifully.  None of that stilted English which blights some poetry translations.  Occasionally he writes some explanatory notes which give an insight into the original poem.  “attire” is a finely crafted poem – ostensibly about shirts.  In Gaelic each kind of shirt (“lèine”) has a name.  Towards the end is the longest line of the poem:  “the fine-threaded shirt is wearing out”.  In Gaelic this shirt is “lèine-chaol”, the Sunday best white linen shirt.  Only one shirt left – the “death shirt” in the final verse: “lèine-mhairbh”, Gaelic for a shroud.  By now I realise that the shirts symbolise the stages of the poet’s life.  My eye goes back to the beginning of the poem.  The first two lines suggest birth and the awakening of consciousness:
          “i wakened from
            the little shirt”
The little shirt is a literal translation of the Gaelic “lèine-bheag” but what makes this magical is that it is also Gaelic for the inner lining of an eggshell.

I’m so glad to have discovered Aonghas MacNeacail (thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library).  He has an impressive breadth of subject matter and a wide-ranging and generous mind.  His poems are the work of a careful, loving craftsman and, even with my limited knowledge, the translations read as careful and fine equivalents of the originals.  In the introduction Angus Peter Campbell writes that Aonghas MacNeacail practices the art of poetry “with great delicacy and an elegance and precision that delight”.

Aonghas MacNeacail writes in a minority language but his poetry deserves an international readership.  Long may he continue to laugh at the clock.

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