Contributed by Michael Newton
The high rates of emigration throughout the 19th century placed literary-minded Gaels into many corners of North America. There is continuous evidence of literary production in both rural and urban settings throughout the 19th century and early 20th century, but the number of active poets drops off dramatically between the World Wars. Ronald Black has remarked that the prose and poetry of Aonghas Y. MacGilleFhaolain (1879-1962) could be said to “mark the stirrings – regrettably still-born – of a modern Gaelic literature in Cape Breton” (An Tuil, p. 729).
With the dire shortage of formal institutions to protect and develop the cultural norms of Highland immigrant groups, the language and literary traditions were sustained in North America – as in modern Scotland – almost solely by people embedded in kinship networks and living in close physical proximity. These informal structures and contexts were inadequate to sustain Gaelic in the face of anglophone (and in the case of Quebec, francophone) hegemony, however, and the penetration of the dominant majority culture into the “last strongholds” of Highland settlements during the course of the 20th century sounded something of a death knell.
This analysis in general terms is clear by viewing the dates during which Scottish Gaelic poets have flourished. One means of doing so is by selecting the When Flourished timeline and looking at the blue bars (representing Scottish Gaelic).
Given the near total death of Gaelic in North American immigrant communities, the rebirth of Gaelic literary activity that is apparent since the late 20th century – even if small in size – is something of a minor miracle, then. Most of those involved in this new literary activity to date have been people who have learnt Gaelic as adults and have attained high levels of fluency, despite the virtual absence of institutional support. They have themselves, in turn, helped to create new communities of practice by teaching Gaelic to others and helping to run Gaelic organizations, the most important of which have been An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach – a North American association with a strong core in the Washington, D.C. area – and Slighe nan Gàidheal in the greater Seattle area.
The “Gaelic revival poets” (my own term) are people who were drawn to the Gaelic language largely on the strength of its traditions of song and poetry. Through their participation in learning and performing songs and their keen interest in the literary tradition, this dedicated cadre have been slowly re-establishing the North American Gaelic literary scene, despite the lack of living mentors and shortage of audiences in local communities. While some have benefitted from formal education in Scotland or Cape Breton, or friends from those communities, most are best described as autodidactic language activists.
Their poetry spans a spectrum from strictly conventional in style and local in scope, to innovatively “modern” in style and global in scope. Lodaidh MacFhionghain of Nova Scotia – whose father is a native Gaelic speaker –, despite being a strong advocate for tradition, is arguably the most experimental of the group, having composed a great deal of free verse about contemporary life. In 2011 An Comann Gàidhealach of Scotland awarded him the Bardic Crown for the verse in his book Famhair agus dàin Ghàidhlig eile / Giant and other Gaelic poems, the first time that the award was given to someone outside of Scotland.
What this phenomenon suggests to me is that Gaelic literary activity is being sustained in North America by members of virtual communities of affinity who engage with each other not on the basis of kinship or geographical proximity, but on the basis of their enthusiasm for the language and culture, a strong component of which is usually song. While some people have Gaelic-speaking ancestry, many do not and do not see it as necessarily relevant. This revival also demonstrates that the Gaelic literary canon is a rich and compelling resource in itself and that aspiring poets who study it carefully can find models and materials that can form the basis of new contemporary literary efforts.