Omnia Gaelia... Two nations, finally together

The Protestant Reformation played hob with Europe, sundering ancient ties across the continent. The medieval culture of the Gaels was one victim: Scotland embraced Protestantism while Ireland rejected it.
Five centuries later, the linguistic and cultural ties that once united the two shores of the Irish Sea have been virtually forgotten, as religious sectarianism rules the day on the Emerald Isle.
Now, (coming soon to a Dome Room near you), Leabhar Mor Na Gaeilge, or The Great Book of Gaelic, promises to solder the halves of Gaeldom back together. Or at least get people thinking about it. A modern, secular answer to the Book of Kells, the monastic scripture kept under glass in Dublin’s Trinity College, The Great Book of Gaelic is a cooperative work to be bound and treasured as a cultural artifact.
Unlike the Book of Kells, Leabhar Mor has little to offer in the way of miniature illuminations of the saints. Instead, it’s an anthology of 100 Gaelic poems, encompassing 15 centuries of Scottish and Irish mythology, ballad, and romance, each uniquely illustrated by a different artist.
Because The Great Book of Gaelic is indeed quite large, only 20 of its 25” x42” pages are being shipped to the States. Their first stop is the Rotunda, where they will be exhibited as part of the four-day “Re-Imagining Ireland” conference sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
While Irish (and to a lesser extent Scottish) music and dance are heavy-hitters in the “world music” mania and perennial favorites among folk music lovers generally, the same cannot be said for the Celtic fine arts. Ever since the carved stone crosses went the way of the Druid-stones, there hasn’t really been a unique Celtic visual arts tradition.
Now that the Gaeltacht is enjoying a resurgence, the illuminated manuscript offers the perfect vehicle for the creation of a modern school of Gaelic art.
Which isn’t to say that Leabhar Mor is either definitive or hegemonic. On the contrary, its mélange of lyrical styles-– epic, schmaltzy, and racy– is matched by a variety of artistic media, from collage and tapestry to photographs and prints. In its frontispiece, The Great Book promises “a dizzying complexity [which is] definitively a product of the fragmented aesthetics of the modern world.”
And of course, that most fragmenting of modern artistic inspiration… the Reformation.

The Great Book of Gaelic is on display in the Dome Room in UVA’s Rotunda April 18-May 16. Editors Theo Dorgan and Malcolm Maclean present “The Making of the Great Book Of Gaelic”  May 8 at 2:30pm. For more information on the exhibits and events of “Re-Imagining Ireland,” log-on to re.imagining.ireland.org. Elizabeth Kiem is the press-coordinator for the Re-Imagining Ireland conference.