Multi award-winning poet, musician, author, artist, and activist Marcas Mac an Tuairneir (Mark Spencer Turner) has been involved with the preservation and promotion of Gaelic culture and language for years. Recently we spoke with him about the challenges and rewards of his passion.
What are your roots?
I am originally from York in the north of England. I was born into the Irish Diaspora community there, so I don’t really know how I sit with my Englishness. I don’t suppose I need to worry about it too much, as I have lived in Scotland all my adult life. I came to Aberdeen as a student, and I have been based in Edinburgh since 2018.
Your Irish background – would that be your grandparents?
Yes, two of my grandparents, one on each side. My maternal grandfather was born in Kinsale in County Cork, in Charles Fort, a British military base that was later bombed by the IRA. And then my grandma was born in Dublin, although her family originated in County Wicklow. Growing up I felt more affinity to my Irish background and spent most of my summers there. I did study there as a student as well. So, I feel that I have a foothold in many different places around this Atlantic archipelago.
Was it those visits that stirred your initial interest in the language and the culture?
I think so. One of my earliest memories was just being fascinated by the language, seeing the visual bilingualism on the signage and in the shops and realizing that there was another language spoken there apart from English. Also, my parents were very much into traditional music and folk music, so I was brought up going to concerts and ceilidhs and things like that. At that time, the 1990s, there was a real sense of pride in the Irish identity – a very different experience from that of my grandparents, who were forced to decide on their own citizenship. With the creation of the Irish Free State, they were forced to choose between their new Irish passports or their British passports. Their experience was one of being brought up with signs like no blacks, no dogs, no Irish – there was a certain amount of prejudice. For us, being second and third generation, the 1990s was an important time in that it allowed us to retain and celebrate those aspects of our identity. I am very fortunate that my relationship with Ireland has been a very positive and creative one, and language has been at the root of that. I did study some Irish at university, but I am by no means fluent. But I do manage to still work kind of within the Irish linguistic domain through collaboration, whether that is musical or literary.
Are they the same reasons that you remain involved with the preservation and promotion of the culture today?
I chose to attend Aberdeen University because of their Celtic Studies program, and they instilled in me the understanding of the importance of every speaker of this language and that it is a language for today and it is our job is to take it forward. Today, I believe that the public use of this language is still a political act, and that slotted in very well to my experience as a member of the LGBTQ community. I was brought up under section 28 where I was unable to give blood or to get married, and I was able to see the parallels between the oppression of language and sexuality. What started as an investigation of heritage and culture quickly became a reason for living. It gave me a cause, and that has remained my cause, and I am politically engaged with the language and that has given me the platform to speak about these ideas through creativity.
From your perspective, why is it important to preserve and promote this culture and these languages through art?
Using languages through the arts can be enjoyable. And it is easier to engage with – perhaps as it is less confrontational and more open-ended – and allows others to participate with it on their own terms and find their own commonalities or contrasts. Whereas political movements can be more didactic, and it would be an absolute disgrace if the language and its culture is allowed to die in the contemporary era without adequate government support. The only way that we, as speakers, can ensure its survival is to continue using it in as many ways as we can. In that way, art presents greater opportunities for dialogue and for change.
What are your thoughts on how we, as a community, can better engage young people with the culture and language?
Online engagement – Spotify, YouTube, language apps, social media, and the like – are all valuable ways to promote the language and culture. We have seen an uptick in the use of Gaelic on Facebook and Twitter and TikTok as these minoritized communities create space and online networks. The problem, for me, is the homogenization of Celtic cultures. This is a colonial thing, where aspects of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Breton, and Cornish cultures are cherry picked and reframed in a way that is palatable and enjoyable for English speaking audiences. What is lost is the specificities of each language and each culture. Yes, we are linked by a common ancestry, however these are different, specific, special cultures.
In a way, that is understandable.
Yes. There is a colonial aftershock, a kind of protectionism that communities, particularly native-speaking communities, build up around their language after centuries of oppression – often violent oppression. Celtic culture, as we know it today, really only goes back a few hundred years to the Jacobite era or maybe medieval times or perhaps the Renaissance. Many Gaelic songs that we know and love, however, are from the 20th century.
Has it been watered-down over time?
Yes and no. There is a lot that we can learn from the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Within a post-colonial academic framework, they have been very proactive in terms of preserving and promoting their culture. We are starting to look at Gaelic culture in both Scotland and Ireland, and in the Isle of Man also, within that framework. Look – it is always going to be problematic if we frame Gaelic solely as the victim of history, and I don’t think that that helps the Gaelic-speaking community, both historically or in the contemporary era. I don’t know whether reparations are going to be the way forward for us, but one positive thing that has been happening in recent years is a revival of community trust. In the Hebrides, for example, where the communities are managing to buy back the land and placing it in community ownership – a really positive step, and something that may or may not have been inspired by the trajectory of Indigenous peoples elsewhere. There are a lot of things that we can learn from other cultures.
We have seen some political movement is recent years.
Yes. In Scotland we now have the Gaelic Language Act, and we are now looking towards the Scottish Languages Act, which places Gaelic in the context of Scots, and which acknowledges that Scotland is multilingual state. Thus, we all must coexist alongside each other, and we all deserve legal recognition and policies and provisions that recognize the uniqueness of our languages.
You will continue to be involved?
It was a huge honour to be nominated as Gaelic Singer of the Year in 2022 and to be on the shortlist for Scottish Poetry Book of the Year. I am encouraged by these things and continue to surround myself with my tribe who have a similar approach to creativity and the language as I do. I hope to keep fostering those links and those collaborations. I am acutely aware that the best work that we can do is work that we achieve together. You know, there are benefits to being a minoritized community. You don’t often see it framed that way, but it is a highly networked group and there is a real sense of solidarity there, a desire for collaboration. So, what I would say is to take inspiration from that and ride the crest of the wave, because the time is now. And if we look back 20 years, it has never been better than it is now. And by engaging now we can show that there is a need and a worth in what we are doing – ensuring the future growth of both the language and the culture.