‘Fuaimean Gràidh / The Sounds of Love: Selected Poems’, by Niall O’Gallagher

I recall a conversation I had with Niall O’ Gallagher a number of years ago about poetry and his poetic process. He told me that he would describe himself as a poet with Classical sensibilities rather than Romantic ones – poetry was a craft that had to be honed and he would sit at his desk, forming a poem into strict metre and rhyme. He was certainly clear that he did not view himself as a poet of free verse. At the time, I admired his diligence and his carefully wrought practice and now, years later, this attentiveness to his art form has brought forth impressive fruit. In Fuaimean Gràidh / The Sounds of Love, it is evident that he has been true to his early stance on poetry and its composition. This is a selection of poetry where traditional forms of Classical Gaelic are at the forefront of O’Gallagher’s mind. And yet, it is obvious that while he has, in favour of a more Classical tradition, actively avoided the reputation of a Romantic poet in his choice of poetic style, love in its many forms is never far from his mind. Fuaimean Gràidh is dedicated to his wife and children, and this is fitting, because romantic and familial love are beautifully woven throughout the poetry in this book. Poems such as ‘Ubhal / Apple’, ‘Blàth Na Bealtaine / Beltane Blossom’, ‘Beàrnain-Bhrìde / Dandelions’, and ‘Cur Na Peitseige / Planting The Peach’ are alive with the paternal love for a child. I can think of no other Gaelic poet who melds this love so perfectly with the genre of nature poetry. 

The appearance of O’Gallagher’s Selected Poems is fully justified. Fuaimean Gràidh may come as something of a surprise to those who continue to name O’Gallagher as one of the ‘new’ poets of the Gaelic language and yet it should be noted that this book is made up of three substantial collections – Beatha Ùr / New Life (2013), Suain nan Trì Latha / Three Nights Dreaming (2016), and Fo Bhlàth / Flourishing (2020). It is a reminder, therefore, that O’Gallagher has, at this stage in his career, more than earned his place as an important and established Gaelic poet of the twenty-first century. O’Gallagher was named the first Bàrd Baile Ghlaschu (Glasgow Gaelic Poet Laureate) in 2019, and a number of poems in Fuaimean Gràidh have emerged from this role. These include ‘An T-Eun Nach D’rinn Sgèith / The Bird That Never Flew’, which is part of a sonnet series about St Mungo and St Enoch. The poem recounts the story of the patron saint of Glasgow, Mungo, bringing a robin back to life. The bird had been killed by his classmates who had then blamed him for the deed but the poem is transplanted into the playground of a modern Glasgow school – Thàinig iad nan gràisg: ‘Is ann a dh’eug/ brù-dhearg, mharbh esan e’ (The gang moves in: ‘the robin’s deid – / he kilt him’) and, much like the tiny bird nestled in Mungo’s palms, in O’Gallagher’s hands new life is gently blown into this story in a poignantly familiar way (anyone who has ever found themselves the focus of casual yet brutal playground politics will surely find this relatable). Through the figures of the past, other sonnets such as ‘Teneu’, ‘Fàilte Shearbhain /St Serbán’s Welcome’, ‘Hielanman’s Umbrella’, ‘Ainmeannan / Names’, and ‘Beurla Nan Ceàrd / The Traveller’s Language’, show how the themes of poverty, language difference, and the refugee experience, are painfully relevant to a modern Glasgow/urban setting – ‘Dhùisg mi ann an currach air a’ chuan. / Dhùisg an leanabh nam bhroinn,’ (But instead I woke in a coracle on the sea, / and the child woke inside me’). Yet there is celebration, too. In the powerful ‘Votum Kentigerni’ the call is to sow grace. The powerful closing stanzas firmly set the Lowlands within a greater historical and literary landscape. One might be tempted to suggest that the usual trope of ‘Urban Gael’ or ‘Glasgow Gael’, which feels like such a modern concept when referring to issues relating to language revitalisation, becomes something far richer and more nuanced when approached by the poet. 

A’ ghainmheach mhìn a chruinnich sinn
a dh’fhalbhas, a’tuiteam uainn
mar chuimhne, fàsadh i a-rithist;
gum b’ e toradh ar talmhainn-ne
air bruaich Chluaidh bheannaichte
baile nan naomh is nam filidh.

This fine sand that we assembled 
will fritter away from our hands
like memories, but grow again.
o let the reaping of our land
on the Clyde’s broad banks be blessed:
a city of saints and poets.

In O’Gallagher’s poetry, the city is as ancient as it is modern. It is a multi-faceted environment and, even in its gritty moments, it is this multi-faceted nature which makes the subject of the poetry sparkle. In other poems, O’Gallagher with the knowledge of his Irish immigrant background, so emblematic of Glasgow, deftly weaves the Irish and Scottish languages into a greater whole; ‘Scottish National Dictionary’, with its opening quotation from that Dictionary’s introduction in 1931 (‘Owing to the influx of Irish and foreign immigrants in the industrial area near Glasgow the dialect has become hopelessly corrupt’), is beautifully bitter in its account of a people 

gun ghuth no dachaigh
is an cainnt ro bhorb ’son a’ chlòth 
a dh’fhigheadh le luchd an fhaclair 

without a voice, without a home,
their language too brutish for the fine fabric of words
that the compilers of the dictionary had woven 

On the next page, ‘Alphabet of Trees’ celebrates the language that did not die and is still flourishing – ‘Ach cluinnear fhathast i an Cnoc a’ Ghobhainn’ (‘Yet still in Govanhill these words are heard’), again resituating language and a sense of place, and perhaps insinuating that language is playing the long game and may yet triumph.

O’Gallagher’s poetry, accompanied by excellent translations courtesy of Peter Mackay, Deborah Moffatt and others, is itself a triumph of subject and form, showing that tradition can be both respected and enhanced. In the book’s Preface, Alan Titley rightly describes O’Gallagher as ‘one of those poets who lives the new while singing the old that is always well-made, a poet of our time who lives in an ever present past’. If Fuaimean Gràidh is the poet’s pause, to gather and assess how far he has come in the last ten years, it will be exciting to see what unfolds in his work in the next decade. 

Fuaimean Gràidh / The Sounds of Love: Selected Poems is published by Francis Boutle Publishers

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