Scottish Gaelic Literature

16th to 17th Century

The first evidence of a distinct Scottish Gaelic literary tradition appears in The Book of the Dean of Lismore, compiled between 1512 and 1526 by Sir James MacGregor. It is an anthology of writings by Scottish and Irish authors: heroic sagas; poetry (dating from the 14th century on), including a group of 28 Ossianic ballads; and ecclesiastical texts. Although it is presumed that much other early poetry existed, popular verse as well as the work of professional bards, none of it has survived.

Some 16th-century folk poetry that had survived orally was written down in the mid-18th century; and in the 17th and 18th centuries, work songs, also descendants of an older oral tradition, were set down in writing. Predominant among these are the "waulking" songs that accompany the fulling (bulking treatment, such as shrinking, beating, or pressing) of cloth. In the 17th century Scottish Gaelic poetry flowered. Much of it was contained in three manuscript collections, The Black Book of Clanranald and The Red Book of Clanranald, written by the MacMhuirich family, hereditary bards to the MacDonalds of Clanranald. The third anthology was the Fernaig manuscript (1688-1693), a compilation of political and religious verse. Among many poets, three stand out. Mary MacLeod, 17th-century bard of Harris and Skye, employed conventional imagery with a fresh, natural style, using strophic meters rather than the strictly syllabic meters of the bards. Iaian Lom, active in contemporary events of the 17th century, wrote poems about the Battle of Killiecrankie and the restoration of Charles II, and in opposition to the union of the Scottish and English parliaments. Remarkable for their intensity of feeling are the late 17th- and early 18th-century works of Roderick Morison, known as the Blind Harper, such as "Song to John MacLeod of Dunvegan."

Irish Gaelic Literature

17th to 20th Century

Their support gone when the nobility was dispossessed during the reign of Elizabeth I, the bards themselves disappeared, and Gaelic gave way to English as the vernacular. Despite this, a good deal of prose, much of it devoted to Ireland's past, was written. Examples are The Annals of the Four Masters (1636), the history of Ireland up until 1616, by Michael O'Clery; and the History of Ireland (1620?) by Geoffrey Keating. At the same time, expressions of defiance of English rule began to appear in the folk poetry that circulated clandestinely. Among the most famed writers of the 17th and 18th centuries were the passionate nationalists Dáibhidh Ó Bruadair and Egan O'Rahilly, and Brian Merriman, a schoolteacher in county Clare. The latter's The Midnight Court (translated 1945), a broad satire on marriage customs, is considered the best long-sustained poem in Irish Gaelic.

Throughout the 19th century, principally because of the emigration and starvation caused by the potato famine of 1845, the Gaelic language, both written and spoken, fell into disuse; most of the Gaelic speakers were by then illiterate. Toward the end of the century efforts were made not only to restore Gaelic as a spoken language but also to stimulate the writing of literary works in Gaelic. Interest in the language was revived by the work of various societies, particularly the Gaelic League, founded in 1893, and by the works of such scholars and nationalists as Douglas Hyde, Canon Peter O'Leary, Patrick O'Conner, and Padhraic Pearse. In the last decade of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries the Gaelic revival resulted in the publication of many collections of Irish folk tales and in the writing of a considerable number of plays, works of fiction, and poetry in Gaelic.

Among the numerous 20th-century lyric poets and novelists writing in Gaelic was Tomás O Crohan, who wrote The Islandman (1937; translated 1951) about a Munster fisherman. Brendan Behan, better known for his works in English, composed The Hostage originally in Gaelic.

18th-Century Scottish Gaelic Literature &
The Scottish Gaelic Renaissance


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