WRITING IN SCOTTISH GAELIC TODAY

Martin MacIntyre
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Ath-aithne_cover1
Ath-Aithne, Martin MacIntyre
CLAR (2003)
Short Stories
ISBN 1 900901 09 9
Winner, Saltire Society First Book of The Year 2003.

Read Whales' Hunger, by Martin McIntyre. Scroll down to read Catholic culture adds magic realism to Gaelic canon by Aonghas MacNeacail.

Martin MacIntyre (1965) was brought up in Lenzie near Glasgow, and has strong connections with South Uist. He graduated in medicine from the University of Aberdeen in 1988. In 1992 attended Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college in Skye, where he studied broadcasting. In 1992 he won the first William Ross Prize for Gaelic Writing, sponsored by the Highland Council. His short story 'Geamaichean-Gaoil' (Love Games) was broadcast on BBC Radio nan Gaidheal in 2000. In 2003 he won the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award for Ath-Aithne. Martin MacIntyre lives in Edinburgh with his wife Annmarie and two children.



Catholic culture adds magic realism to Gaelic canon
'Those following MacLean, prose writers or poets, who contributed to the development of a modernist Gaelic canon, shared one characteristic:...they were all of Protestant origins.'

By Aonghas MacNeacail

In 1943, a book appeared that transformed the face and nature of Scottish Gaelic literature. Sorley MacLean's Dain do Eimhir established Gaelic as a medium for poetry that, without compromising full engagement with its own tradition, resonated with the literatures of the world.

Those following MacLean, prose writers or poets, who contributed to the development of a modernist Gaelic canon, shared one characteristic: from Derick Thomson and Iain Crichton Smith through successive waves, mainly of poets, but including remarkable prose writers like John Murray and Norman Campbell, they were all of Protestant origins. They were also, with very few exceptions, dissenters from those origins. It became the accepted view that while this literary 'Protestant ascendancy' came equipped to deal with the modern world, the Catholic islands were where one went to experience the pure tradition in its full, unstinted vigour.

Six decades later, under the auspices of a funding project administered by the Gaelic Books Council, the first two volumes in a new fiction strand have appeared. Martin MacIntyre's kaleidoscopic collection of short stories, Ath-Aithne, was launched during the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Clàr, £8.99). Now, after an interval of two months, An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) (Clàr, £8.99), a novel by Angus Peter Campbell, is available. Both writers, who have effectively laid down templates for Gaelic fiction in the 21st century, were raised as Catholics.

To some extent, they fit the stereotypical perception, in that both demonstrate a natural and profound sense of the Gaelic tradition. But then, so did Sorley MacLean. What they do seem to have gained from their background, as have writers from other Catholic cultures, such as Latin America, is an ability to introduce elements of magic realism in ways that seem integral, even matter-of-fact. Things that were driven underground by a more austere theology, being accommodated by Catholicism, have retained an energy such writers can access. Significantly, Angus Peter Campbell counts Gabriel Garcia Marquez among his favourite writers.

The focus of Campbell's novel is one family, and the small community they belong to, across the entire twentieth century, some having memories (albeit fanciful) as far back as the Napoleonic Wars. While concentrating on three siblings, Eoin, who trains for the priesthood, Alasdair, who settles in Brighton after distinguished service in the Great War, and Mairi, who ends her days in Spain, where she had been a civil war combatant, the story details the changes experienced by the community through the years, while evoking concurrent events at national and global levels. It may be that the impact, on group and individual, of love, belief, class, and alcohol, is essential to the fabric of any narrative of Gaelic life; each is certainly woven into this rich plaid, but each gives its own twist. No-one comes through without scars: all encounter temptations, petty corruptions, hardships of mind or body.

Each finds there's more than one route to redemption. The aura of power surrounding Father Archie had seduced Eoin into the priesthood, too. Returning to serve the same parish, he is drawn into exile by the saving love of Seasag, daughter of Eardsaidh Mhurchaidh. Sir Alasdair abandons wife Bunty, the majors, and the dog-eared comforts no longer available from Brighton, finding love anew on a Glasgow Highland dancefloor. Mairi, in old age, still mediates between Nationalist and Republican while hosting her ceilidhs where Latin harmonies know when to defer to the music of the Gael. If the author's attention to history gives this book an epic scope, that might be attributable to his declared enthusiasm for Tolstoy. He does, however, belong to a culture that celebrates traditional tales which took anything up to eight nights in the telling. Campbell's own narration, as psychologically complex and populous as anything produced by the former, draws on the latter for its stylistic modes, verbal refrains that riff though the book, patterns recognisable to anyone who knows Gaelic folklore.

In the early chapters, his language, richly idiomatic, closely observed, draws the reader into a fully imagined early-twentieth-century world, no simpler if less cluttered than our own. Two great and several lesser wars later, the language is less expressively dense, the emotional weave more intricate. The late twentieth and early 21st centuries may be more anxious to get things said, but they don't seem any readier to provide solutions. As always, those who hold certain beliefs may nevertheless act in contrary ways, their actions challenging the conventions that define them.

Angus Peter Campbell's relish for detail, character, and language, and the skill with which he builds the story, make this a novel worth learning Gaelic for - if you don't have it already.


The Herald Newspaper 01.11.2003






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