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Multilingual Poetries Lost and Found

James McGonigal
ScotLit 32, Spring 2005

In the streets and shops of Glasgow, I hear snatches of conversation between different generations of Asian Scots and other minority ethnic families, and wonder about their present experience of Scotland, and how this interaction of cultures and languages will affect all of us over time. My work in teacher education takes me into classrooms where young Asian Scots and more recent ‘international students’ learn in Standard and Scottish English. My other life as a writer brings me into contact with poets and novelists from a variety of minorities, bringing new sorts of awareness and language to contemporary Scottish writing. Caught up in this cultural change, I wonder what is being lost and gained, and what happens to the memories and ideals carried in the mother tongues of these new Scots, that are now being over-written by new language and understandings.

Such global shifts of population seem new, but have happened here before. My own recent experience of writing what became a prize-winning long poem, Passage/An Pasaíste (Mariscat Press, 2004), in English, Scots and Irish Gaelic, brought me into contact not only with the personal histories of my own migrant ancestry but also with identities lodged within the language they spoke and then forgot. They were part of the large-scale 19th century economic migration into the West of Scotland that brought newly charged encounters between Irish and Scottish workers, who were divided from each other by culture, religion, politics and language, while sharing the daily burden of the mill-working or coal and iron production on which depended their own and Scotland’s prospects of advancement.

The complexities of linguistic and cultural change, all too visible at the time, were largely hidden or inchoate so far as Scottish literature is concerned. Cairns Craig has argued that the mainly local and sentimental concerns of 19th century Kailyard novels are evidence of a society unable to create a satisfactory narrative of its own industrial transformation, and falling back instead upon safer homely themes and small-town characters. The Irish were largely written out of this storyline – or, in the case of my Dundonian namesake, were considered to have totally lost the plot!

Then, the role of new ‘Scots-Irish’ writers and intellectuals was certainly problematic. Political attempts at controlling the crisis of democratic radicalism in the early 19th century, especially after the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798, led to the disappearance of one intellectual strand of the narrative of the Irish in Scotland into secret trades union activity and even a United Scotsmen movement. More generally, the Irish migrants’ rapid loss of the intimacies of speech and memory, as well as of homeland, was oddly typical of the culture into which they were now inducted. There were clearances of traditional agricultural patterns of life in the Highlands and in the Lowlands too, and the industrial towns and mining villages of the Central Belt from Renfrewshire to Midlothian became home to many uprooted workers.

The word ‘Irish’, however, continued to function as a sign of difference within the host culture, in relation to religion, to Scottish rationality and deductive reasoning, and to the individualistic cast of mind embedded within a Calvinism that laid upon the lone conscience the existential terrors of election to salvation or damnation. In their Scotland (and perhaps residually in ours) as in nearby Northern Ireland religion and politics were desperately entangled. The historical, ideological and emotional complexity of this heritage was such that I finally came to believe only imaginative writing could answer it.

When at last I came to write as a poet about the Irish in Scotland, some harmonisation of the different dimensions of my Scots-Irish identity would have to be attempted. As it turned out, the defeated republican rebellion of the United Irishmen, who in 1798 managed to combine Catholic and Protestant forces towards a shared libertarian ideal for a brief period (until government agents fomented sectarian infighting that fatally undermined the rebel forces) would play its part in Passage/An Pasaíste. So too would the abandoned Irish language, and the largely forgotten history of industrial life that had absorbed a culture shaped by the rhythms and lexicon of that tongue.

My own introduction to the aftermath of the Scots-Irish experience began in the 1950s, when I was sent at age ten with my elder brother as a sort of vanguard to a family move from Dumfries to Glasgow. I had been born in that rural county town, where my father had come to work and recover from what may have been tuberculosis, endemic in the poor housing conditions into which he had been born (in 1916 in a miners row with a clay floor and a pit railway running past the door). Now he had got a job in the Mathematics department of Stow College of Engineering, but had to work his notice in Dumfries. For some reason, financial or logistical (there being five younger siblings), we were sent ahead to stay for about six months with my grandmother in the Lanarkshire mining village of Cleland.

Her husband, a miner, had successfully argued for a move to a new post-war council house in the early 1920s (apparently it was unusual for these to be allocated to Catholics), but there was still a high bing or spoil heap just beyond my grandmother’s back door, and beyond that the never-ceasing glow and roar of the ironworks at Newmains, and the groan of ore trains by day and night. My brother and I had been enrolled in a school in Glasgow, near where it was planned that the family would eventually live, and we travelled the fifteen miles to school in Glasgow and back each day by train and tram, through an industrial world that was decaying even as we rattled through it.

Unhappy and uprooted at the time, I have since come to value the experience of those dark months. My grandfather had been killed in a pit accident in 1932, leaving his widow with eight children to raise through the years of Depression and war. Two had died of tuberculosis. Life in the house had changed little in essentials, and I had the experience of a culture that stretched back to the migrant households of the previous century, in terms of religion, food, dress, and a cast of mind and phrasing that was profoundly unlike the Scottish norm. This would gradually change in the 1970s, with home improvements, television and so on, but in the 1950s we said our Rosary nightly after listening to Irish and Scottish music on the old radio, we attended long wakes for the newly dead, we were sent out on Sundays on a sort of pilgrimage of three miles to the large grotto at Carfin – really a series of grottoes and statues which had been carved out by unemployed miners during the 1920s, and which had made such a positively exotic impact on Edwin Muir on the travels recorded in his Scottish Journey (1935).

This was a matriarchal world, with fierce intelligence geared towards survival in an unforgiving environment, and with a devotional Catholicism as the deep sacramental source of that survival at a spiritual level. I did not fully understand this Irishness under a smoky Scottish sky (my mother, a convert, had grown up in the Scots Presbyterian tradition) but gradually engaged with its familiar foreignness. Here too I encountered a lived sense of the prejudice at various levels of Scottish society against which Catholics had struggled in their slow rising through education towards the professions. It was spoken of lightly enough, often with a satirical wit, and it was only later research that revealed its extent.

When my own children were young in the 1970s and 1980s, I avoided visiting Ireland because of sectarian unrest and violence there. Gradually in the 1990s, however, we took the ferry back across the Irish Sea into the smoke-and-mirrors world of Ulster, oddly similar to the West of Scotland in its terrain and tensions, and in the bone structures, speech patterns and surnames of its people. I was drawn back again, and travelled in both Ulster and Eire over six or seven summers, usually trying to learn something of the language and always baffled at the ease with which I forgot it on returning home.

In poems written there or thereafter, however, and out of my reading of Irish poetry, there emerged the sense of a different poetic voice that I might have possessed had not my ancestors come across to Scotland and erased a way of responding to the world by turning, as they must, to the other Scottish life at hand. Trying to recreate that lost resonance, I began a series of ‘Poems written for translation into an abandoned language’, constructed in a sort of translatorese – that not quite English language encountered on the right hand page of any selection of Gaelic poetry. Instead of staring glumly at the original before turning to the translation, I decided to put the translation on the left hand page, and to write it first. Thinking that I was writing for Scottish Gaelic, I was surprised and delighted when the Dublin poet Rody Gorman, teaching at the Gaelic College of Sabhal Mór Ostaig on Skye, translated them into Irish. They were published in various magazines or anthologies in the 1990s, either with or without the translations. Here is a sample:


I often praise God for the glittering
giftwrap of another language –
often but not often enough it seems

for just as He lets me remember
the machair and lichen word perfect
just as often He casts me

up on a desoloate shoreline
having lost all of the words but one
for the smell of the waves on my jacket

which we call the ‘praise’ on the cloth.

Such creative exploration was underpinned by family history, mainly the work of my wife, whose research gave insights into the living and working conditions of mining and foundry workers (our shared ancestry) and the politics of 19th century Ireland and Scotland. Her family name included that of a radical priest, James Coigly, who was the last priest to be hanged in England, in fact, for seeking assistance from the French revolutionary government for the United Irishmen’s struggling cause. Her research on poor law applications and court cases as well as on the founding of Catholic churches and schools built up a surer sense of the life whose passing I had witnessed in my own early years.

But how was all this to be shaped and focused for a long poem? If it was to be even a mini-epic in aspiration, then it needed some journey or quest to sustain it. The idea of the voyage across the time and cultural space undertaken by my ancestors seemed appropriate, and was a really unexplored area in Scottish poetry. In the single word ‘passage’ I could link the migrant voyage from Ireland to Scotland, the passing of time, and even the narrow coal seams mined by many ancestors, named or nameless, and in particular by my grandfather, who had died in one. The poem’s title ‘Passage East’ derived from an English mistranslation recorded on road signs near Waterford in Ireland. ‘Passage East’, the name of a small ferry port linking the estuary banks of the rivers Barrow and Suir, is given alongside the Irish An Pasaíste, which rhymes with East but means simply Passage. But if Passage East now existed, and could name the journey from Ireland to Scotland, then why not Passage South, North or West?

These become the poem’s co-ordinates. I could envisage the final evening journey south to the pit where my grandfather would die on an April nightshift in 1932. A Passage North would take the poem back to Northern Ireland in the 1990s, and Passage West would reach Donegal again and the western seaboard. Lines from the earlier translations of my ‘abandoned language’ poems could be stitched into the weave early and late to signal something of the linguistic and historical change involved in migration, and there would be use of Lanarkshire and Ulster Scots too to ground the poem in particular localities.

A voice that turns out to be my grandfather’s introduces the poem, plunging us into the midst of things (in medias res) in a section called ‘Entry’. This recalls ‘the ingaun e’e’ (the ingoing eye) that was the old Scots mining term for the entrance to a pit shaft dug into a hillside, starting at an easy understated pace before plunging suddenly into violent accident. His life and labour are only later recovered and reassembled in Section 3, as it were, by the images and sounds of the life he left behind on an April evening in 1932:

Nights governed by the moon’s flywheel. Men cycle off. Kitchen hearths are banked with dross. The moon floats
in the reservoir and on eyeballs of raindrops in kail leaves.

In this role as poet speaking for an almost forgotten community, I sometimes had a strange sense of being guided to find what needed to be found. Helping my wife in a library search on an unrelated topic, my eyes lit on a contemporary geological survey of the Bathgate coalfield, written a few years before the death that was a focal point of the work, and so I was able to locate the pit (long abandoned and now invisible under farmland) and also imagine more clearly the levels of rock and sediment through which he and his fellow miners had toiled on a daily or nightly basis, and also to contrast the discourse of geologist and collier, with Scots terms (such as ‘cry’ for ‘call’) mingling with the more aspirational English which my grandfather would have studied for his promotion to fireman (or shot-firer) in the team:

Not coal we’ve won, but coals.
Down the shaft you’ll fall past
Millstone Grit, Leavenstone,
Orchard and Index Limestanes,
then seams of Lady Merton Coal
(that we cry Jewel)
down to the Bathgate Main.
That peters into Johnstone Shell
above top Hosie Limestone.
I’ve shouldered some of those
as well as sandstone, fakes, blaes
and coarse fireclays.

Earlier in ‘Passage East’, the first main section of the poem, other night voices are recalled on the overnight ferry from Derry to Glasgow, some of them escaping from the United Irishmen’s failed rebellion. The rebel priest James Coigly is heard in his political role: ‘How ignorant, then, or how wicked / must that man be, who attempts, / through interested motives, / to make us enemies for religion’s sake’ but also in a secret spiritual lexis that is carried across with the migrants into protestant Scotland:

Angels of the height fall backwards treading air
with wrists still intricately fluent in the language
ash trees speak in a breeze. Their wings open
like atlases whose veins mark hills and corries
of that tongue. Who could master it?

He, or another companion, recalls the frustrated rebellion, and in the process drifts naturally in and out of Gaelic:

and I think of Antrim men catching
the full force of the weather
out on the hill or along the shore
walking home in it
uisce baístí ag rith anuas
a graiceann is ag bogadh a léine

rainwater running down
their skin and soaking their shirt.

The next section, ‘Passage South’, takes us intimately into a later settled Scottish Catholic world, mingling work and spirituality in the way I had experienced it as a child in industrial Lanarkshire:

But when the sun shines across chairs
we are content, through window squares
of blue or rain-streaked grey or violet.
This mystery of glass that searches heaven.
Our sky is rimmed some mornings
with blue and white like an enamel
bowl ringing with heat.
Grace before I earn our meat.

That meditative voice continues in a different guise in ‘Passage North’, which owes something of its tone to the Japanese poet and Buddhist traveller Basho, whose Narrow Road to the Deep North in Penguin translation made an impact on me as a student in the 1960s. Here the poem tries to catch both the sectarian violence and the natural beauty of Down and Armagh, the impossibility of easy resolution, and the intimate connection with Scotland’s people, ‘planted’ here as part of an earlier solution to earlier Troubles, and now inextricably part of Ulster’s language and culture, and of its problems. Personally I find myself oddly more at ease here amid the tension of a divided society than in easy-oasy Eire, and put this down to the depth of my Scottification. So there is a bleak humour and a fetching intractability that I like in this section, as well as more muted reflection on history and ancestry:

The dead can read maps
white swans and stars use    gliding
clear of Mourne Mountains.

‘Passage West’, the final section, offers a sense of recovery as single poems record aspects of journeys westward from the Glens of Antrim, within sight of the Mull of Kintyre, to ancestral Donegal. Towards the end, I face the possibility that, had my people remained there, I might have become a terrorist. That is shocking to think and to write, and seems unlikely, and yet it has to be faced:

that was when a man of my age with two dogs
stooped out of his farmhouse door and passed
through the glare from a workshop where his son
was still focused by arclight, holding the gun
up for appraisal, the stare from its single black eye
that ends in a blink –

In formal terms this links back to the United Irishmen’s republican revolution, but the poem as a whole evokes a sense of time passed, of weariness with armed struggle, of uncertainty as to its ends. My ancestors’ journey to Scotland possibly saved me from all that.

The passing of the worst excesses of prejudice against my ancestry within modern Scotland could too easily slide into the typical Scottish denial of history that Cairns Craig has warned against. My long poem’s true direction is forward, therefore, with a sense that only by recognising the validity of a neglected set of experiences can one strong ethnic Irish strand of Scotland’s weave sit naturally with the rest, and emotional lessons be learned for the future. As the migrants strove to escape the sense of political and economic defeat from which they had come, and the industrial degradation from which they now struggled to rise, modes of speech and thought were left behind, and many things left unspoken. Overcoming such migrant reticence by recalling or re-creating words for forgotten lives is important for the creative life of the nation too. This is particularly the case as the language and insights of a new generation of Scots-Asian writers such as Suhayl Saadi, Bashabi Fraser, Ghazzi Hussein and Daljeet Singh Dilber, and of other migrant peoples, begin to enrich our understanding of what it means to be Scots in this new century.

From a personal perspective, of course, it pleases me greatly that Passage/An Pasaíste has won awards, in whole or in part, in both Scotland and Ireland.


Copyright © James McGonigal 2005


Last updated 23 August 2010.