Writing in Gaelic Today
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On the occasion of Bookworld Prague 2004, where Scotland, Ireland and Wales are joint guests, Transcript welcomes you to its panorama of contemporary writing in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. In this issue, we bring to the attention of our readers work by some fifteen writers who practice in Irish, and, in our feature on Scotland, we concentrate on four authors whose careers are flourishing.

The Ùr-Sgeul (Novel) programme in Scotland is an exciting development in the world of Gaelic writing. Co-ordinated by the Gaelic Books Council, and supported by the Scottish Arts Council Writers' Factory, Ùr-Sgeul is an initiative to develop new Gaelic writing for adults. In 'Writing in Scottish Gaelic' (see left), we feature, among other things, the first three books in the Ùr-Sgeul series.

Moving south to the north of Ireland, we find that the acquisition and adoption of the language in urban areas has seen Irish become the preferred idiom of several micro-communities. The strongest of these communities are to be found in West Belfast and Derry (Londonderry). Transcript presents Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn and Pádraig Ó Siadhail, three writers who have associations with Donegal, Belfast and Derry respectively.

The Gaeltacht is a term used to describe the areas where Irish is the dominant language. The fact that many native-speakers were, and are, semi-literate in Irish, has remained an obstacle to the development of a modern literature. Transcript presents Joe Steve Ó Neachtain, Micheál Ó Conghaile and Pádraig Ó Cíobháin, three writers from the Irish Gaeltacht who strive to woo a readership in this environment.

In the last twenty years, translation of Irish writing into English has become increasingly common. Writers today, while composing in Irish, conduct their careers bilingually. Translation, however, threatens to overtake composition. Texts in Irish have become shy children holding the hand of the parent translation. Time will tell whether this phenomenon contributes ultimately to the undermining of Irish as a medium of creation.

What are the prospects for Irish as a medium of communication? The everyday code of less than 3% of the population, is the old language bed-ridden now, sustained by the state? Perhaps not. Several hours television are broadcast daily on TG4. There are a daily, a weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines. Irish language programmes can be heard, day and night, on Raidió na Gaeltachta, RTÉ and BBC Northern Ireland.

However, the fabric of the language, like that of many smaller languages, is under much strain. Efforts to minimise foreign influence have, arguably, made of it a trailer, creaking along under a cargo of neologisms, while its movements and syntax derive increasingly from the locomotion of the English language.

Be that as it may, publishing in Irish is healthy. Children's books included, dozens of titles appear every year. Despite this, sales are low: many books sell no more than three hundred copies. Precious few can boast a four figure sale. In Scotland, bibliographies of recent Gaelic books are shorter, and sales are comparable to those in Ireland.

Writing of Angus Peter Campbell's An Oidhche Mus do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed), critic and author Aonghas MacNeacail remarks: '[His] relish for detail, character, and language, and the skill with which he builds the story, make this a novel worth learning Gaelic for...'. Publishers, and writers of Irish and Scottish Gaelic might reflect on the question implied here: along with works such as Angus Peter Campbell's, what is being written today which will make of Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages worth learning tomorrow?

(Read also Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic: distinct languages?.)

Diarmuid Johnson

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