Archipelago magazine has published one of the best things I’ve seen online in some time, An Leabhar Mòr: The Great Book of Gaelic. To quote the Introduction by Malcolm Maclean:

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.

You can see a list of the poems (with thumbnails of the art) here. The main page features a quote from Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean), whose Reothairt is contraigh: taghadh de dhain 1932-72 (Spring tide and neap tide: Selected poems 1932-72) introduced me to the glories of Scots Gaelic poetry:

  an fhéile
Nach do reub an cuan,
Nach do mhill mìle bliadhna;
Buaidh a’ Ghàidheil buan.

the humanity
That the sea did not tear,
That a thousand years did not spoil:
The quality of the Gael permanent

(Via wood s lot.)

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