How to be Gay in Gaelic
Marcas Mac an Tuairneir
Grace Note Publications, 2013
In 2011, the LGBTQ rights charity Stonewall Scotland unveiled a new poster for schools which said, sharply and simply in colloquial Gaelic, “Tha cuid de dhaoine gay. Gabh ris! / Some people are gay. Get over it!” That these posters borrowed the word “gay”from English is in fact because Gaelic possesses no non-offensive terms to describe any non-heteronormative sexual orientation. This makes the publication of Marcas Mac an Tuairneir’s debut bilingual collection Deò in 2013 all the more remarkable, as it provides Gaelic with its first truly, and vibrantly, indigenous gay poetry.
Deò’s cover art features Mac an Tuairneir looking suitably smouldering, with plenty of chest on show, beneath a dictionary gloss of the book’s semi-untranslatable title. Deò’s definitions speak for themselves: breath, air, the vital spark, life, ray of light, vision, and more quirkily, “place where a stream falls into the sea”. Because Gaelic (with barely 60,000, and now predominantly elderly, speakers left) is a language often caricatured as a fossilized remnant, contemporary poetry like Mac an Tuairneir’s, which is so self-consciously infused with life, is of existential importance. The poetry is fresh and, with its focus on gay love, pushes the language into unknown depths and new semantic meanings. In the early poem Sluagh-gairm / Battle-Cry, Mac an Tuairneir exploits an original pun to explain why he is writing this poetry of passion in Gaelic, rather than in the language that the “sgrùdairean / critics” expect:
Ach do fhleasgaichean bàna, diùid,
Sgaraicht’ eadar clòaid leis an aodachIs clòsaid eile leis a’chac.
But for the timbering, gentle lad,
Stuck between one closet with the clothing
And another closet with the crap.
Mac an Tuairneir’s background, an adult Gaelic learner from York, implies that writing in Gaelic must be a self-conscious, even uncomfortable, choice for him, and not the language he would perhaps automatically use to explore his sexuality. Yet at the core of the book is a series of love poems—Cuarsgag Ghaoil / Love Cycle – as striking as any this reviewer has ever read in Gaelic. They describe the highs and lows of a turbulent love life and range from the gritty and sparse narrative of Rùisgte / Unsheathed to the bombastic, heartbreaking Deireadh / Finality.
Like all contemporary love poetry in Gaelic, his work shows the influence of Somhairle MacGill-Eain’s Poems to Eimhir. MacGill-Eain’s infatuation with a string of women and strong sense of duty to his socialist convictions produced a searing modernist work of unrequited love and political turmoil. Such was MacGill-Eain’s genius, it has become tempting to understand modern Gaelic poetry as nothing more than a series of footnotes to Eimhir. For instance, Mac an Tuairneir echoes MacGill-Eain’s style in Muir / Sea by using the traditional and universal imagery of nature to articulate desire:
Le fhleasg cinnt mo chridhe.Gus do chumail, le a thromlachd,
Air na gainmhichean sin.
With the pendant of my heart’s authenticity
So its weight holds you there,
On those sands.
Is d’amharc air a’ghrèin,
Do làmh nam làimh,
M’òrdag air d’òrdag.
And your glance, towards the sun,
Your hand in my hand,
My fingertip on your fingertip.
Mac an Tuairneir has crafted poems that are undeniably Gaelic, but simultaneously novel in their specific exploration of gay love. There are frank, graphic lines, which excite the reader with their freshness and vigour. For a language to survive it must be able to articulate, and thus reproduce and mediate, the act of sex. Gaelic, if it is to reproduce and survive into the twenty-first century beyond a simple scholarly sterility, must build and accommodate a language for the expression of everyday life’s passions. The publication this year of Michael Newton’s vocabulary text, The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic, is a positive sign. Indeed, in a forthcoming academic paper, Mac an Tuairneir himself lauds poetry as “the only significant extant literature to discuss the concept [of homosexuality] in Gaelic.” This is not a neutral collection: Mac an Tuairneir is trying to inject some life into a culture whose artistic relationship with sexuality has been in serious decline since the eighteenth century, which nevertheless reached the heights of women praising their orgasms. Although Crìsdean Whyte has translated the Greek gay poet Cavafy, the Gaelic literary renaissance was dominated by heterosexual men writing about women. Mac an Tuairneir points out that “homosexuality resides outside the paradigm for the ‘Gaelic man’and that it is preached against from the pulpit.” In a short stinging poem called Baisteadh / Baptism, he criticises how Christian churches, still powerful in Gaelic-speaking areas, have publicly attacked LGBTQ communities in recent years:
Eadar tiodhlacadh nan Iùdhach
Is linn an Rìgh, luasgaichidh
Doras an diabhail, fhosgailte, is
Eilthirichidh fuath mar smùid.
King’s Pool, swings open
The Devil’s door
And hatred seeps out like steam.
But it would be unfair to reduce Mac an Tuairneir’s poetry to an emotional and intellectual guide on how to be gay in Gaelic. The collection tells a broader narrative: the story of a young educated Gael in twenty-first century Scotland, jumping between Aberdeen and Skye and Alicante. Caithris na h-Oidhche / Night-Visit, which uses old-fashioned imagery to describe sensuality, stands out:
A’ruith air raon mhachair do bhalg.Ràinig e cruinn-mhullaich chruaidh do bhroillich.
An taigh dubh mo chùba,
Cha robh smùid ach fàileadh mo chèothan,
Is ar dàchoinneal, a-nis, nan teine.
Ach ‘s fuar a bha do chèir bho do chuairt.
My mind ran over the machair-plain of your stomach.
It reached the hard domes of your chest.
In the blackhouse of my room,
No smoke but the smell of cigarettes,
But your wax, still cold from the journey.
The collection is rather incongruously centred by some English songs Mac an Tuairneir has translated into Gaelic. These translations have simpler diction than the rest of the poems; pleasant to read, they touch on such Gaelic subjects as the sinking of the Iolaire. But like much of his poetry, they seem to lack clearly discernible rhythm or rhyme. Gaelic is blessed with a rich heritage of metrical forms, as well as a legacy of exciting experimentalists like Aonghas Dubh MacNeacail, so it is surprising that most of the time Mac an Tuairneir sticks to a rather uninspired chopped prose, split into uneven stanzas.
Be that as it may, the later poems have lots of interesting things to say. The section on Alicante is a perceptive take on eons-old themes of exile, though they are somewhat ruined by the odd choice to include a distracting Facebook cover photo-style picture of the poet’s friends at the bottom of the page. The poems written in Skye are some of the book’s most successful, however, including the almost scriptural Nam aonar am measg do chàirdean / Alone amongst your friends, which makes the menial task of doing the dishes as majestic as the Cuilthionn:
Clach chaol fhliuch
Air clach chaol fhliuch.
Slender wet stone
Atop slender wet stone.
There are two self-referential poems about Saobhraidh nan Sgrìobhadairean / The Writers’Den, the place where Mac an Tuairneir honed the tools of his bardic trade. In the translation of the first of these, Mac an Tuairneir uses the words “pulsating synapse” to great effect, conjuring up scientific connotations, yet even to a native Gaelic speaker like myself, the ostensibly original Gaelic is inscrutable and lacked this effect. The debate over self-translation raged in the 90s in the world of Gaelic literature and cannot be fully entered into here—but there is something problematic about a poet, who has being speaking Gaelic for so little time, presenting the English work as post-hoc translations of independently conceived Gaelic originals. There is always an interaction between the languages and when the English is sometimes superior to the Gaelic it begs the question whether the Gaelic just exists for aesthetic purposes—to exoticize what might be a fairly unremarkable, though well-written, life? English-only readers make up much of the market for Gaelic poetry and one worries what sort of creative status the Gaelic occupies in this kind of diglossic collection.
There is a glorious exception, however, in An Eireannach / The Irishman, which is not rendered into English at all, but is given an interpretative Irish translation by Nicola NíCharthaigh. In this poem, Mac an Tuairneir self-reflexively queries how appropriate it is for an interloper like himself to take up the mantle of the creator of a Gaelic gay poetry (the English is this reviewer’s own translation):
Mìon-chleachdainn nan Gàidheal:
Sàbaideachd nan Lèodhasach
Leis an tuiseal ghinideach.
A rèir sloinnidh,
A rèir cinnidh.
The narrow customs of the Gaels,
The Sabbatarianism of the Lewismen
With the genitive case.
The order of naming
According to ancestry,
According to ethnicity.
But despite these misgivings, in the poem Cùmhnant mo chlèibhe / Covenant of my chest, written in praise of the Department of Gaelic at Aberdeen University, he decides to use Gaelic for good:
Gun cuirear eagal is fearg fada bhuam.
Gun bristinn bannan mo chuinge.
Gun sgrìobhainn dàn dod làrach nam chridhe.
To send fear and anger away,
To break the cords that bind me,
And to write in praise of your place in my heart.
Although this collection has been marketed as the first collection of gay poetry in Gaelic, its exploration of sexuality is in fact rather subtle, and is woven into a deeply personal journey of someone finding their voice in an alien language. The book, punctured with academic explanation and photographs, is at times almost self-indulgently personal and the poems are rarely allowed to speak, decontextualised, for themselves. But Mac an Tuairneir’s ability to sculpt vivid images using all Gaelic’s lexical potential cannot, and should not, be denied. In the UK’s current publishing climate of de-politicised and de-sexualised middle class poetry, it is refreshing to read such serious, vital work in a minority language about the things that matter to a new generation of Gaelic speakers finding their voice in the twenty-first century.