Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Gaelic Gems: Carmichael's "Carmina Gadelica"

Mansueto and Regenstein Libraries at the U of C


One of the distinct advantages of having a mom who works at the University of Chicago is access to one of the largest libraries in the country--no joke. The University carries over 9 million books (probably more by now; that statistic is from 2010). That may seem like just a number, but when you walk through the miles of musty, cool, dim-lit shelves filled with the knowledge of millennia on virtually every topic known to man...it is an awesome experience.

I have had this experience twice in the past year. I remember last time I was there, standing in front of their (very large) Stevenson collection with my mouth almost watering. One tiny, badly worn volume of The New Arabian Nights caught my eye; I drew it out, and was physically shaken when I realized it was an original edition published in 1882! Those are the kinds of treasures just sitting on shelves at a library like the U of C.

Besides loads of books in English, the University library also carries a large foreign language collection. Tucked away behind the aisles of French, Spanish, and German volumes, are two-and-a-quarter shelves of Scottish Gaelic. Most are old, a few newly-published, but all written in the obscure little language that has stolen my heart.

The last time I visited I borrowed a book called Carmina Gadelica, by Alexander Carmichael. Just before the turn of the century, Carmichael toured the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, orally collecting poetry, hymns, and incantations among the old Gaelic-speaking population. By this time in Scotland's history most of that population was already gone, thanks to the massive clearances and emigration of the 19th century. So Carmichael's book, by his own admission, represents a way of life and traditions virtually extinct.

Don't get me wrong; Gaelic speakers still do exist (thank goodness!). But I would guess that the oral literature captured in Carmichael's collection is all but gone from today's native speakers. Nevertheless my own discovery of these archaic prayers and hymns has proved a rich and beautiful one.

For example, in Carmina Gadelica are a dozen or so different night prayers. Simple, rhythmic, and quite lovely in meaning, I have started using a few during my own private prayertime. But sharing them with others has proved a dilemma: none of my Gaelic correspondents are church-going, and none of my church-going friends study Gaelic! However, I'll try to remedy that in this post with a little video. Below is a recording of me reading one of my favorite night prayers, "An Achanaidh Anama", with Gaelic and English text. I hope you will find this simple piece as much of a blessing as I have. Beannachd leibh!