“Erotic” might not be what immediately comes to mind when you think of Gaelic literature or poetry – and yet that’s exactly the theme of the award-winning anthology, ‘An Leabhar Liath, The Light Blue Book: 500 Years of Gaelic Love and Transgressive Verse,” edited by Peter Mackay and Iain S. Macpherson.
An Leabhar Liath – which won the Donald Meek Award for Gaelic writing in 2016 – features a selection of 65 poems that range from outright explicit to merely suggestive, and Peter Mackay, a lecturer at the University of St Andrews, will be in attendance at Faclan, An Lanntair’s Hebridean Book Festival, to discuss them at 10.30am on October 28th.
Peter and Iain first toyed with the idea for the book when they were both working in Belfast; Peter at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, and Iain at Ulster University. “We’d spoken about this material, about this huge body of rude verse that was out there, and the fact that it wasn’t very well known. We were more or less asking the question, where can we go and find this?” remembers Peter.
“We wanted to draw a thread about what was allowed, what was taboo, and what was permissible in Gaelic culture, looking at how Gaelic speakers talked about the body, about love, about sex, to see if there was anything that carried through the centuries.”
It is often the older poems that are more explicit, describing everything from prostitution to body parts in great detail. “The past is much less innocent, and much less naïve, than we like to think about,” observes Peter, noting that in Gaelic verse up to the 1800s, “there was a lot that was much more direct, and earthy, and they were not embarrassed about talking about the body.”
An Leabhar Liath is the culmination of eight years of work, often taking place via Skype and email as the two editors found themselves in different locations. Peter and Iain decided on new translations for the poems, the English versions of which feel very modern in their language and tone – a deliberate move on their part, in order to make the works “as accessible as possible to a modern reader.”
“Many of these were songs or poems that were designed to be enjoyed,” explains Peter, “and so we were trying to keep up with the sense of humour, the sense of rhythm, as much as possible, and also trying to aim for the same level of shock and offence.”
But not every poem in the book is shocking; some are moving, others suggestive, and a few are even downright funny. Featuring writers from Alexander Macdonald to Sorley Maclean, and Anne Frater to Marcus mac an Tuairneir, An Leabhar Liath shows that the erotic Gaelic verse Peter and Iain set out to find is as alive in the 21st century as it was in the 17th.