Poetry that makes you proud to be Gaelic and Nova Scotian
by Dr. Brad King
Last week I’d heard that an old friend of mine, Lewis MacKinnon, has become the first non-Scot to be named Poet Laureate of the Royal National Mod in Scotland.Since our days at university playing together in a small traditional music group, Lewis has made it his life’s work to preserve the Gaelic language in Nova Scotia and has pursued that vision relentlessly via his music, his poetry and his day job as CEO of the Nova Scotia Office of Gaelic Affairs.
Lewis’s story brings to mind the issue of cultural preservation, even as culture changes continuously all around us. Any attempt to preserve an all-but-dead language with no more than a few hundred native speakers remaining might appear like a last-ditch effort to save something long gone, but the fact that there’s even such a thing as an “office of Gaelic affairs” is evidence of the cultural shifts that have occurred on the East Coast and in Canada as a whole over the past thirty years. It’s cultural change that makes someone like Lewis possible – and in turn, he has made it possible – and it has to do with the rediscovery and reclamation of the traditional as a marker of identity.
When I was a teenager growing up in Cape Breton in the 1970s, traditional culture was to be avoided and shunned. It persisted and it had its flagbearers, but it made teenagers of my generation cringe. We identified with the modern, the up-to-date, the “now”, and longed to be better connected to the currents of the dominant North American urban culture.
And then, by the early 1990s, it was “cool” for a group of university students like us to form a band that played nothing but two-hundred-year-old Robbie Burns songs or fighting songs sung by the early 20th century IRA. And we were at the bottom rungs, the grassroots. In the more mainstream culture, all things Celtic were suddenly “in”, making it possible for performers like Natalie MacMaster, the Rankins or the incredibly talented Ashley MacIsaac to become international stars. So what happened?
This is a big question and at this point I can only guess at the answers. In this era of identity politics, the resurgence of traditional cultures is a reclamation and celebration of an identity that had always been present, and the reclamation of the area’s Celtic identity through its Gaelic language and cultural foundations over the last 2 decades represents not only a revival of regional pride, but may also be the cultural expression of a drive toward economic self-determination, after decades of relying on outside investment for economic growth . We’ve seen how culture is one of the tools for locally-driven economic and social rehabilitation, particularly in an era of government retrenchment in matters of regional economic development. (And yet, though a Celtic identity through Gaelic has been emerging, it requires noting that the region is composed of many different minority languages and cultures.)
It also may have to do with a rekindled desire for the authentic – or, at least what is perceived to be authentic – an impulse that drives movements such as cultural tourism. When successfully marketed to a mass public ready for something more elemental than the superficialities of more dominant forms of popular culture (a desire served so powerfully by the quality and creativity of the artists and performers), the commercial success of traditional cultural forms validated the regional identity in a virtuous circle, greatly expanding an already-present cultural industry. It’s a great example of the triangle of cultural change- the public, the artist and the patrons working together resulting in a shifting of the goal posts of the dominant culture. In this case, the cultural change is one that has successfully rescued Gaelic language and Celtic culture in Canada from the threat of extinction, and turned it into a vibrant cultural industry, transcending national borders and recognized around the world – including the ancestral homeland of that culture.
These points may be argued. Whatever theory is correct, Lewis’s poetry and music are wonderful examples of how new artistic expressions can arise from old cultural forms, and he should be congratulated for the tremendous work he has been doing to preserve Maritime Gaelic culture over the past twenty-odd years.
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