t h e  g r e a t  b o o k  o f  g a e l i c

a n  l e a b h a r  m ò r


‘Good ideas don’t mind who has them.’ On the other hand, Cholm Cille, or St Columba, was once in a dispute that was adjudicated with the resolution, ‘to every cow its calf’.  The Leabhar Mòr is the ‘calf’ of the Great Book of Ireland which is itself one of the many calves of the Book of Kells. Its genesis dates to a crisp and sunny winter’s day in January 1997.

I had come to the home of Poetry Ireland in Dublin Castle to view the Great Book of Ireland and to meet its architect, the poet Theo Dorgan. Our conversation was lively and ranged from the European Schottenklöster and rock ‘n’ roll, to the fragile ceasefire in the North and Sorley MacLean. Latterly we talked about the continuing power of Gaelic poetry, despite centuries of division, to inspire and delight and to connect our countries. By the time we parted it seemed obvious to both of us that the time was right for a Great Book of Gaelic, a 21st-century Leabhar Mòr, that would celebrate 1,500 years of shared Gaelic heritage and embrace the poetry of both Scotland and Ireland.

The idea grew and I returned some months later with a proposal which mapped out how, if all went well, we could create a new book that built on Theo’s experience in new ways. We agreed to take the leap together and he gifted me a book of his poems inscribed ‘For Malcolm, the day we decided to crucify ourselves with Leabhar Mòr na Gaeilge/Gàidhlig. Ar aghaidh linn!’ The idea had continued to grow.

The first confirmation that the time was right came later that summer with President Mary Robinson’s visit to Scotland and the announcement of the Columba Initiative, Iomairt Chaluim Chille. This important inter-governmental initiative, aiming to renew and redevelop the links between Gaelic Scotland and Ireland, became a key partner in progressing the Leabhar Mòr.

The time was also right in terms of Scottish and Irish constitutional change. By devolution in 1999, the Council of the Isles and the Northern Ireland peace process had created a new political context in which the idea of the Leabhar Mòr has flourished. In many ways the artists have anticipated or paralleled the best of the political process by working across old boundaries, seeking new perspectives, creating new relationships and reconciling history with the cutting edge of the here-and-now.

The key confirmation that the time was right, however, was the immediate enthusiasm of the great team of talents that collectively created this Great Book. The idea of the Leabhar Mòr has generated a remarkable degree of goodwill from the hundreds of artists, poets and others who have contributed generously along the way. One American visitor heard a BBC radio programme about the Leabhar Mòr while caught up in London traffic, and was inspired to pop a £50 note into the post ‘as a contribution to a wonderful project’.

Why the idea of the Leabhar Mòr has attracted such interest and support is beyond the scope of this brief introduction but three principle factors suggest themselves.

Firstly, ancient meets modern on a grand scale with 100 contemporary artists’ perspective on 1,500 years of Gaelic history and identity. Secondly, it also transcends academic and creative disciplines in its collaborative exploration of poetry and language through contemporary arts practice. Finally, perhaps the most important factor, is that it transcends political boundaries to celebrate the unity and diversity of Gaelic culture as an integral part of contemporary life in both countries.

A language map of Europe reflects cultural realities that bear little resemblance to political boundaries. This is particularly true of Gaelic Scotland and Ireland.

There are no two countries in Europe with more in common. We share a mythology, three languages, a rich music tradition and some significant history. And yet a great deal of this enduring connection has been consistently glossed over or deliberately obscured.

It was the Irish Gaels, known as the Scoti, who migrated into Scotland from the 5th century and gave it its name. The most famous artefact from Ireland’s golden age, the Book of Kells, originated on the Scottish Island of Iona. It was the Gaels who united Scotland in the 9th century and made Gaelic the language of the medieval court. The ‘Irish’ Gaelic culture in the Scottish Highlands survived that in Ireland by a century and a half. The Scots were ‘planted’ into Northern Ireland from the 17th century and hundreds of thousands of Irish people migrated to Scotland in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is less well known that the Hebrides were once mapped as the Irish Isles or that Michael Davitt was a leading figure in the Scottish Highland Land League.

The interwoven pattern of our separate histories continues and the Gaelic language remains our most potent living link. The models of modern Gaelic language development in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic have all been different and there is everything to be gained from sharing experience and collaborating on future development.

Scottish Gaelic, for example, has an unexpected resonance in Northern Ireland where Gaelic has become widely regarded as a badge of Catholic republicanism. The predominant Protestantism of the Scots Gaels, and their habit of voting for all parties and for none, provides a healthy antidote to such stereotyping and opens up fresh perspectives on old issues of language and identity for both the unionist and nationalist communities.

The Irish connection expands the horizons of the Scottish Gaidhealtachd following decades of contraction. It does so at a time when the Gaelic community looks hopefully to the new Scottish Parliament for a new recognition. Since the 1980s there have been important developments in Gaelic-medium education, broadcasting, the arts and the cultural economy, but Scotland’s overall relationship with its Gaelic dimension remains ambivalent. The language has been reclaimed from the museums but remains poised between eclipse and rejuvenation.

The issue is not local but international. One of our planet’s 6,500 languages becomes extinct every two weeks and the total number of languages is likely to halve in the coming century. Language death is now of global significance and sustaining language diversity will be one of the paramount cultural challenges of the 21st century. If more artists recognise this acceleration in language death as an appropriate subject for literature, drama, music, visual art and as yet uncategorised artforms, then the issue will come alive in the minds of the general public. The Leabhar Mòr is a modest, but significant and optimistic, step in that direction.

At the first meeting of the full editorial team at the Glasgow home of MP Brian Wilson in June 1999, the selection process for both the poets and the artists was hammered out. The literary panel aimed to select 25 Scottish and 25 Irish poets, and to invite them to provide one poem of their own and to nominate one other, giving – in all – 100 poems. Following extensive discussion, however, it was finally decided that 15 Scots and 15 Irish poets would each provide one poem of their own and nominate two others, giving a total of 90 poems. The remaining ten poems were nominated by other writers with an intimate knowledge of Gaelic poetry. They were all asked to nominate their preferred translation.

Consequently, the Leabhar Mòr is not a conventional anthology, with all the gravitas that that implies, but a collection of favourite poems that inevitably omits some important poets. The Leabhar Mòr makes no pretence of being comprehensive or balanced, but offers a poet’s and artist’s insight into Gaelic poetry, and so may be more human, more inclusive and more unpredictable. Each poet is represented once and the 100 poems come from almost every century between the 6th and 21st. An impossible feat for most other European languages, including English.

The visual artists were selected on the basis of 50 percent by nomination and 50 percent by open submission. Key individuals with a knowledge of the visual arts and of the Gaelic communities were asked to propose artists on the understanding that at least two of their nominations would be invited to contribute. Advertisements placed in the arts and Gaelic press in both countries invited open-entry submissions from artists interested in the project. The difficult task of selecting the final 100 artists took place in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin and in a hotel ballroom in the Western Isles in early 2001. The consistently high quality of the finished artwork confirms the good judgment of our Scots and Irish visual arts panels.

Representatives from both the literary and visual arts panels met at Newman House in Dublin for the pairing of poets and artists. Each artist’s work was shown and discussed as the panels sought five poems that might suit the artist’s interests. Every artist was offered a poem by a living and a deceased Scottish poet, a poem by a living and a deceased Irish poet, plus one ‘wild card’ poem. The artists indicated their choice of poem in order of preference. The poems were finally allocated on a first-come first-served basis as an incentive for the artists to choose and respond promptly. Eventually 75 percent of the artists were allocated either their first or second choice of poem and the remaining 25 percent were dealt with on a one-to-one basis until we matched all 100 poems to 100 artists.

The ten-strong calligraphy team was assembled and led by Frances Breen, and included typographer Don Addison. They first met in the Writers’ Centre in Dublin at the time of the Irish press launch on Latha Bríde, February 2001, traditionally known as Poets’ Day. Forty artists, calligraphers and a support team met in the Belfast College of Art later that month.

The Visual Research Centre in Dundee, led by Arthur Watson and supported by Paul Harrison, was commissioned to provide all technical, printmaking and other support for the artists and calligraphers throughout the artwork production period. They also supervised the production and distribution of the hand-made paper.

The process has been as important as the product throughout the making of the Leabhar Mòr. Simply bringing together substantial numbers of poets, artists, calligraphers, academics, arts workers, film makers, publishers, designers and others has had its own intrinsic value. Effecting introductions across new art forms, borders and languages has initiated new understandings and dialogues and some lasting relationships. The process of ‘translation’, characterised by one artist as ‘letting go’, has also been central. Not only the translation from the original Gaelic text into English, but the translation from text to artist’s image, the calligraphers’ squaring of the circle and the subsequent translation of the Leabhar Mòr into other media such as this book, the film, the BBC radio series and the website. These multiple translations enable the Leabhar Mòr to be experienced in several ways simultaneously and offer a rich compound value.

It has been my privilege to work with all of the remarkable team of talents that has created the Leabhar Mòr and given new shapes and forms to the Gaelic language. Every picture carries the story of its making, of those who made it and the innumerable creative interactions, decisions and discoveries that have brought it into being. Different readers will seek, and find different things within its pages. It is already something more than the sum of the parts. Maybe it represents a small punctuation mark in the Gaelic story. Time will tell if it marks an ending or a beginning – or simply a great, illuminated question mark.

Dhòmsa dheth, thàinig seo uile a-mach à gaol mòr eadar mi fhìn agus tè sonraichte bho Eilean Eireann.


August 2002


Malcolm Maclean is a Glasgow Gael who has lived since 1975 in the Western Isles, where he helped raise two lovely daughters. A graduate of Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and the Open University, his previous incarnations include fisherman, water-diviner, art therapist, painter, cartoonist, book designer and teacher. He helped form Peacock Printmakers (Aberdeen 1974) and An Lanntair art gallery (Stornoway, 1985). He was curator/editor of the touring exhibition/book, AN FHEARANN (From the Land) (1986-1990), co-curator of ‘Calanais’ (1995-97) and various other touring exhibitions. He has been the director of Proiseact nan Ealan / The Gaelic Arts Agency  since 1987.


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