The Angry Corrie 30: Jan-Feb97

TAC 30 Index

Sorley Maclean

TAC rarely runs to In Memoriam tributes - and your Ed was always more of a Norman MacCaig man - but Mick Furey was moved by the recent departure of a great modern Gaelic poet: Somhairle macChaluim (Sorley Maclean)

To say that a light has gone out in the world may sound a little fanciful to the (allegedly) hard-bitten, numbers-obsessed readers of TAC, but I doubt that anybody with a love of hills could fail to be conscious of a sense of loss at the news of the death of Somhairle macChaluim, originally of Raasay. Somhairle was arguably the finest poet in any of the languages of the Gael. His works were appreciated, no, loved, as equally in Ireland as in Albain, indeed world-wide among the Gaelic diaspora.

His fire, and delight in words, was outstanding, both in Gaelic and in English. One of my longlasting regrets is that my own Irish is not good enough to fully appreciate his poetry in the Gaelic. All translations are pale copies of the original, yet Somhairle's own English versions are delightful, and inspiring. He inspired many poets to aim for his standard of excellence; that sheer exuberant joy in the sound of words to express emotion. Very few Gaelic poems and songs are in the narrative format, you have to know the story before the poem starts, or have it explained to you first. The words tumble over each other, repeating, strengthening, the feelings of loss, of joy, of anger.

Somhairle's people were of the islands, one of his great-uncles had fought in the Battle of the Braes on Skye during the struggle for crofters' rights. His work was greatly influenced by the struggles of the common people against the arrogance of authority figures, whether those figures were the formal ones of church and state, or the informal ones of greedy landholders.

Yet there was a gentleness in many of his poems about the land. Not a meek, hands-clasped adoration of the nature of things, but rather a strong-willed acceptance that "nature" can seem, if not cruel, then sometimes indifferent to humanity. His poem, "The Cuillin", is a celebration of the awful strength of those hills, and the affinity of the Gael with such places. That is not something to be dismissed as "twee", or "precious", or "fanciful"; it is a fact of the make-up of Celtic-speaking people. Whether it's because we were driven to the hard margins of Europe by later migrations is a matter for argument, the fact remains that we are forever turning our minds to the hills.

I was overjoyed when Gordon Stainforth included great slabs of Somhairle's poetry, in both Gaelic and English, in his photographic work, The Cuillin, Great Mountain Ridge of Skye. The extracts reinforce Stainforth's marvellous pictures, in a way that mere prose never could. Isn't that the art of the poet; to say a lot, in as few words as possible? A light has gone out in my world, for certain; it will be a darker place without him. Perhaps one quotation from "The Cuillin" will suffice:

"The edge of man's spirit will be ground on the bare sharp summits of mountains" - Somhairle macChaluim, 1911-1996

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