It started on the edge of an Edinburgh sofa. I put a hungry Malcolm MacLean there during a lucid interval of an Edinburgh Festival. He perched. People will do this in Edinburgh at any time, hungry or not, but at Festival time Edinburgh doubles its population, it’s August, there is weather, there are people who come for the festival, people who would prefer to have just the culture without the festival, and cultural people who have to be there because other cultural people have to be there. Hunger, thirst, shelter and culture exhaustion are often a problem.
Malcolm was hungry, but he managed his hunger well - the house had been eaten-out by famished cultural migrants. There were scraps, some strong hints of former food and we were tantalising Malcolm with morsels and with tales of the eating he could once have done but now couldn’t.
So we talked. Malcolm is director of Proiseact nan Ealan, The Gaelic Arts Agency in Scotland. He had an idea - A Great Book of Gaelic, born out of his burrowings around Ireland and everywhere else; and of his encounters with The Great Book of Ireland. You may not have heard of the Great Book of Ireland, but at the time we had all heard something and, though knowing nothing, felt we should all nod our heads knowingly at the mention. I nodded.
Malcolm was, as usual, imagining possibilities, so after he took his hunger elsewhere I looked around to see what the Irish Great Book was like. The whispers were vague but impressive and there was a direct relationship between the vagueness and the impressiveness. It was a sort of souvenir of Irish Literature, a canonical selection, GreatIrishWriters only. It was very grand.
Whispers apart, I found very little. It hadn’t been printed. It was a unique artefact, inscribed on vellum (because The Book of Kells was). It lived in a vault. You could feel its price (increasing in proportion to its invisibility) but never its value. You couldn’t read it, buy it, look at it. You couldn’t touch it. You could only imagine the width, admire the fundraising, inhale the budget. There was some satisfaction among the whisperers that it existed.
When I did find a reproduction of a page, it was on the cover of the annual report of the Irish Arts Council - Paul Muldoon’s ‘Meeting the British’, overlaid with corporate typography, a very shiny gloss finish and the sweaty whiff of a culture congratulating itself. It’s a thing we do in Ireland, often; but then we have a wonderful culture - several people have told us so; there are books about it. You’d wonder at the way cultures are willing to sign their own death certificates and how often this is called a ‘celebration’.
A while ago a (very expensive) Dublin shop was selling Christmas hampers. There was a catalogue. They had an Oscar Wilde hamper. There was a Yeats one. OK so far? Is this the kind of borderline kitsch we have led you to expect? Probably. But how about the last straw - the Samuel Beckett Christmas Hamper?
The Free State has been forgiven much, on account of having a lot of learning to do, an awful lot of growing up, a fearsome History. But its puberty has been very prolonged, hasn’t it?
In some ways I preferred its childhood, when writers were kicked around and ignored like everybody else - no hampers, not much of anything, no greatirishwriters yet, only great Irish writers writing. There were monuments, or rather there was work that in the end achieved monument status because of the respect eventually paid to it. The hamper mentality thinks the respect is out there just waiting for the next monument to arrive, a docile crowd lined up for the procession. And any Great Book idea has a good deal of the hamper about it.
A scheme that takes on a whole culture is in trouble, or is trouble. Schemes come with managers, committees, a chain of commanding indecision, a rattle of invisible chains. Collections should be individual and in the end they probably always are. Better the individuality of any individual to the individuality of the committee.
I prefer things like the Bannatyne Book – an unofficial, personal and private collection of 16th century Scots court poems - to anything the Scottish Court itself would have produced; Francis Tregian’s Fitzwilliam Virginal Book to the frozen faced Triumphs of Oriana, which Elizabeth’s court did produce. Bannatyne and Tregian made scrapbooks, things made for themselves when they had the time - Bannatyne in retreat from the Plague, Tregian in the Debtors Prison. I have even heard of people who find Yeats’s very individual Oxford Book of Modern Verse ‘fascinating’.
There might be passionate people picturing our culture now, but what’s the use of that to us? We can’t wait. We’ll be dead. What the living get is The Millennium and arty versions of the greatest show on earth, yearly. We sell ourselves to ourselves by looking back.
I didn’t really mind the Great Books doing what they were doing and saw - things being as they are - that they were useful and that no included poet or artist would be objecting. But I did wish there was a closer link between the makers and the promoters, between the glossy page and the struggling, real achievements of the makers of the work.
The trouble with me is that I am not satisfied with any system we now have for commissioning, editing or promoting the arts and I don’t think anybody else is either. An ideal commissioner is somebody able to commission the right person to do the thing they are best able to do, then to be able to encourage and facilitate; then to criticise like hell, put the thing through the refining fire of intense, merciless, benevolent interrogation; and then be able to give the result the most suitable promotion - Diaghilev on a good day; maybe even Pope Julius when himself and Michelangelo were getting on artistically.
I think we’re all stuck. Contradictory ideas dominate the way the professional arts world thinks. On the one hand we believe in the autonomous artist who creates what they have to create. The real artist has nothing of the editor about them; they are all volcano, they erupt, molten stuff goes all over the place.
Then, on the other hand, we establish dramaturges, commissioning editors, the new tribe of arts interventionists with recipes and a production line in their heads; or we have mincing machines like arts councils who can only judge work according to rules that are not allowed to include taste or any kind of personal encounter with the work.
What can we do? We have to use what’s there and, if we invent, our invention has to conform to the funding systems that exist. Gaelic has had no commissioning or patronage system for ages, or none that worked. The Irish Free State used to do daft things like commissioning translations of Dickens into Gaelic. Seosamh Mac Grianna, an important writer, did this when he should have been writing his own stuff. The careers of Gaelic poets have been woven out of, apparently, nothing at all. No agent fights for them in the market place; no publishers in the Faber and Faber position sailing calmly into the wind and able to wait as long as it takes.
So along comes the Gaelic Arts Agency and does a few scruff-of-the-neck moves, establishes itself as a force, does what has to be done and, of course, suffers for it. This means that to get the Great Book going they have to have systems of control the Vatican would recognise; inspiration has to run along regular channels. I didn’t fancy this and I imagine the people in the Agency who had to run it liked it even less. But there it was.
Eventually it turned out that Murray Grigor, Cassandra McGrogan and I would be making a film about the Great Book and, from the point of view of a film, all this was fine. Everything was fine, confusion, bureaucracy, inspiration and all. At the least, it meant that more of the artistic iceberg would be visible than usual. Invisibility is a problem for arts films. Films exist not to discuss but to show; what you want to show is art being made, writing being written; and you can’t. The Great Book was not going to be like that at all. Artists would have to deal with texts, sometimes with poets; calligraphers would intervene. Lots of art would have to make sense to lots of other art. Things would be happening. We might manage to make an arts action movie.
So I had misgivings and expectations. I expected, at the very least, mischief. I didn’t expect the alchemy that happened. When I first went for a walk around the Great Book I thought it was a very smart move for Gaelic. The one Gaelic book that general readers usually want is an anthology – the whole Gaelic essence in one dose, a single reassuring package on the bookshelf. And the Great Book would be a sort of anthology, it would stride in seven-league boots over the whole territory; and it would be beautiful, in colour. Many people would buy it who would enjoy possessing it but feel very little need to read it. I thought it would do something for the organisation of the culture but little for the culture itself.
At an early Great Book meeting, somebody said that the people involved would do their extra best because it was all ‘for the language’. I had no faith in this; I still don’t, usually. But something did happen with the Great Book, various miraculous collaborations and coincidences. Maybe this happens when so many hands are involved. But the real miracle was the depth of engagement. Groups formed, the taciturn spoke, the solitary sought company, there was gossip. From our point of view it sometimes looked like one of those Breughel paintings that from a distance look perfectly composed, obedient and organised formations, but from close-in break up into a cast of thousands, everybody doing something personal and often peculiar but still, somehow, all together.
This wonderful chaos was not planned, and could never be, and in the end you probably would have to admit that ‘The Language’ and people’s attachment to it were the reason – even people who might have some Gaelic but often not much, people who felt they belonged to the language, even if the language did not securely belong to them.
This was only the beginning. It was, I think, 1998. It was supposed to be a Millennium project and I had daft and rebellious thoughts about the Millennium. So many arts people were buzzing around it, I managed to feel it was both inevitable and unlikely to happen. I disgraced myself with one of them by asking innocently (really!) ‘What Millenium?’
We more or less sat back and waited for things to happen. I hoped for the best. It took some time.
Things did start happening, but not to us at first. Malcolm was having meetings, persistently; and it is a law of The Arts that if meetings keep on happening then the real world will have to give in eventually. Life imitates art and art echoes meetings.
In a very old fashioned way, the Great Book assumed that a film would be a part of the whole thing and that we would make it (I get around to ‘we’ in a minute). It sounded good. The Great Book of Gaelic was a project, would become a book; it would tell its own story. But all around it there would be all this wonderful stuff – stories, people, amusing nonsense. There was a danger we’d have to waste it all on the young and bore our friends and relations with it. Or we could make a film. Then they’d have to listen. Wouldn’t they?
And anyway, making the film sounded like a good idea. There are very few times when making a film seems like a bad idea; but even so, we liked, we really really liked the idea of this one - because of the things that we had seen and hoped to see. We had heard the chimes of midnight with, for example, poets who were miles better at midnight than on stage or anywhere off the page.
I once managed some poetry readings in the middle of England by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Ciaran Carson. They were just readings, good, bad and middling. The two of them needed looking after, or we thought they did - most poets on the road seem to. We had a complicated time doing it, while almost learning to get reliably in and out of Birmingham. As you often do in the managment position, we felt like the only grownups in town. On the last night we were driving to Leicester, through English England - No Man’s Heath, Sheepy Magna, Sheepy Parva, places in which we had decided to take an interest – an unpatronising and friendly Irish interest. These, after all, are the cultural complications of our neighbours, The English, and although it is still absolutely essential that they continue to lose at cricket and to fail to master footballs without laces, we had come to understand England, not to bury her.
Now the capacity of Irish writers for being uninterested in England is remarkable; writers on tour have difficulty being interested in anything, and the pair of poets in the back had been doing over-the-garden-wall hometown gossip for a while. As the gossip sharpened, the car gathered speed and thirsted for Leicester.
We were passing Bosworth Field and the poets in the back seats were turning up the volume of their indifference. I started mentioning Shakespeare, gesturing towards an empty-looking darkness and driving unreliably. I was about to get busy on Richard III, and out of nowhere they started singing - ‘Siúl a Rúin’.
Oh, I’ll dye my petticoats, I’ll dye them red,
And round the world I’ll beg my bread,
Until my parents shall wish me dead
Is go dté tú mo mhuirnín slán.
Oh many’s the time I sat on my love’s knee,
And many’s the false story he told to me,
Oh he told me of things that would never be,
Is go dté tú mo mhuirnín slán.
I’ll sell my rod, I’ll sell my reel
I’ll sell my only spinning wheel,
To buy my love a sword of steel.
Is go dté tú mo mhuirnín slán.
But no, my love is gone to France
Afor his fortune to advance
And if he returns ‘tis but a chance
Is go dté tú mo mhuirnín slán.
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
I wish I had my heart again
And vainly think I’d not complain
Is go dté tú mo mhuirnín slán.
There are many versions. This is the one I remember.
For this and other macaronic songs, see Diarmaid Ó Muirithe,
An tAmhrán Macarónach, An Clóchomhar, 1980
By now, the only thing I spontaneously remember about that whole month on the road, is two rough and ready poet voices singing one of the most beautiful songs we have, or that anyone ever made. You can understand the point of the Martha-Mary thing sometimes, even from the Martha position.
The Leicester audience got nothing like that. They got a poetry reading. We got an experience of two rampant personalities, a setting where Irish anecdotes don’t usually get a chance to happen and the catharsis of a lovely song coming out of apparently nothing.
I imagined the film-making might have similiar difficult bits, but similar good things as well. But for a while, it was just a nice thought. We enjoyed the thought and looked forward to the incidentals, and to the temporary film family that would be forming and how it would provide new people to love and hate, and old familiar people to love and hate in new ways. The family had started to form itself.
Murray Grigor? He’s probably the simple reason for why all this was happening to us. Not that he did anything in particular or that he realised what was happening to him. One day he woke up, realised he was inside the project and tried to remember when he wasn’t.
Murray can be quite alarming. He is quite capable of talking like an escaped fragment of Finnegans Wake, and also of his very own kind of coherence. He is an authentic film person, was thinking filmically ages before that word was inflicted on the rest of us and, most alarmingly, he has confidence, has ability, remains Scottish and has lived here ever since he served his time in television. He assumes that, even without Hollywood being builded here, films can be made in Scotland – real films, and really Scottish. Entire branches of post-Brigadoon film studies were born out of his constructive demolitions of Scotland’s gombeen relationship to film, to cultural politics and to the money that usually stands behind it when things get serious.
Murray knows many things and has made films, exhibitions and cultural disturbances on almost everything architectural - Mackintosh, Scarpa, Frank Lloyd-Wright, America, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson; some Scottish things, such as Edinburgh and Scotch Myths; and about some Russian things, such as Russia. At any particular time he is likely to be working on a bulletin board full of large ideas, and to be irritating a small nation of tiny minds. He was gradually inhaled into this project when finishing off his Book of Kells film – The Work of Angels.
The Great Book (GB) is, of course, utterly contemporary with not a nostalgic bone in its very contemporary body and it was really really doing its best not to mention the Book of Kells but, addictively, never really managing it. Its best try was to announce that The Book of Kells comparison is not really quite right, not at all right, not really. Which was all very well, but denials lose a lot by repetition and in the end The Book of Kells continued to crop up, get denied thrice, get explained, pushed under carpets, sent to the back of the class, told to go home. But there it is. Still there. One – Nil to the monks.
So there’s Murray. His Book of Kells film has a stately opening in Edinburgh. There’s a meeting of the GB council, a GB reception in the City Chambers and then Murray’s Kells film and then something about the GB in a tent at the Book Festival. By the end of the day, Murray has been annointed as the film maker of The Great Book. I’m Irish, I’m in Edinburgh, so there I am too.
Afterwards, a very contemporary arts person mentions the Kells connection to me – in, of course, a playfully deconstructive and post-modern manner.
‘Kells’, she says. ‘Kells! Theo and I (Theo Dorgan, poet, joint editor of the GB) were saying that we should launch the GB in every Kells in Ireland’.
So we go through them. Kells, Co Meath, where the book was domiciled before Trinity College got it. Kells, Co Antrim, just by the skin of its teeth outside Ballymena. Kells, Co Kerry; Kells, Co Kilkenny and others which were numerous, but not too numerous to mention.
As I’ll probably be saying often, we - the Irish - do this. Inside every smart Dublin suit is a gazeteer of the small towns of Ireland. If you don’t understand jokes about Mullingar, you might as well give up entirely. And this is not because small towns are small. Because they aren’t. Every Irish small town is the capital of somewhere.
Anon. (See Benedict Kiely,
As I Rode by Granard Moat, Lilliput Press).
They do things differently in Scotland. Murray and I once wrote a proposal that I called ‘The Road to Ballyferriter’ and Murray - a Scotch Myths and Brigadoon deconstructor - thought I was making it all up, placenames and all – placenames in particular. The Scots don’t do placenames the way we do. You couldn’t do a ‘Rocky Road to Auchtermuchty’ without a lot of literal stuff about the traffic on the A91 and the price of fish in Anstruther and ‘The Rocky Road to Ballyferriter’ idea does not concern road maps or the Highway Patrol, though The Thought Police could develop an interest.
Anyway, there was Murray. He was interested but was in the usual Scottish position: he liked the notion of it, but he didn’t - couldn’t - believe a word of it. So he enters Co Kerry making his Book of Kells film and he gets to Dingle and beyond. And there it is: Ballyferriter. He phoned me and announced that Ballyferriter existed. He came home and congratulated me. He thought I made I it up so well that I had imagined Ballyferriter into existence.
He should have known that you don’t have to make this kind of thing up. It’s all stranger than fiction. Heard of Ballywee? Ballyweird? Now that you have, do you believe in them?