Glasgow has some fabulous literary events and I go along to quite a few book launches and performances. I’m not so often to be found at poetry events but I had a wonderful time at Bar Gandolfi’s Literary Lunchtimes last Wednesday (29 October, 2014), when I went along to see Aonghas MacNeacail. It was very worth making the effort to head down to the Merchant City and a lovely way to spend an afternoon. The atmosphere was super and the host, Chris Agee, has hit on a great idea of placing his guest behind the bar with the gantry making a perfect backdrop to the intimate setting.
Aonghas, who was born and bred in Skye, and now lives in a small village in the Borders, is a charming, talented man and a great communicator. He started with some of his new poems and then treated us to a remarkable range of material covering half a century – reading in Gaelic, Scots and English.
I don’t speak a word of Gaelic, apart from the odd slainte mhath, but the sound of the language complemented by the emotion of Aonghas’ voice was remarkable – creating a sound both moving and gripping.
He also entertained us with anecdotes and I enjoyed listening to his description of his life in Skye as a youngster and learning something of his background, including his schooldays when: ‘in the wee school in Uig, they spoke Gaelic, then when they went to the big school in Portree they were taught in English.’ Given the choice of a ‘foreign language’ Aonghas opted for Gaelic rather than French. He pointed out that whereas being a Gaelic speaker was once seen as a drawback, nowadays being bilingual and having the Gaelic is an advantage. He is strongly of the view that: ‘the more we celebrate who we are the better.’
Aonghas also spoke about the pleasure he has found working with the musician, Duncan Shaw, composing songs for the band Capercaille, where his words are captured in song by Karen Matheson’s amazing voice:
You Tube Breisleach, Capercaillie
The intimate setting was well suited to Aonghas’ delivery and he shared with us his personal views including his continued questioning of his own work and his conviction that: ‘It is healthy to still be vulnerable – creativity comes from vulnerability as much as anything else’.
He also told us about the influences on his work such as 'Dylan Thomas - a wonderful poet'. His poetry also reflects his personal memories and his roots – his father, who died when Aonghas was only eight, and his aunt, who inspired one of the poems I liked best from shellfish strand. A beautiful poem with its strong image of the woman at work on the beach, it conveys the importance and difficulty of her task plus something of her character and Presbyterian upbringing – which Aonghas also touched on in his chat.
returning to the shellfish strand
where the grandmother garnered laughter
from cockles and the distance
she had to bend
to gather the evening’s meal
from its sandy bed
she was too pious for obscenities
though her mild oaths were eloquent
when necessary ...
father, though it’s long since you left
and the cancer being too corrosive
to let you make your farewell to
the world from the comfort of
your own bed, you are still, in the
memory of the lad who stays locked
in this uncertain recall (while he
has also encountered that hidden
army, in its charmed journey through
his arteries and veins), the true father
who promised wonders on your return
from that white healing wrapping ...
I was delighted when Aonghas gave me two signed copies of these poems and I will treasure them.
The event was a real treat. A bonus was running into my friends, the writers, Maggie Graham and Ellen McAteer, and after the event Chris Agee, Orly Koppel, Aonghas and another Angus, whose surname I didn’t catch,joined us for a chat. It could not have been more lively.
I can thoroughly recommend Literary Lunchtimes – next up will be Tom Leonard, 12 November at 1 p.m. Bar Gandolfi, 64 Albion Street, Merchant City, G1 1 NY.
(Aonghas MacNeacail has enjoyed an impressive and varied career harnessing his creativity not only as a poet but also as a songwriter with distinguished Scottish bands such as Capercaille. He has performed at festivals throughout the world, his work has been published on an international scale and he has gained numerous awards.)
Pat Byrne, 5 November, 20214