On Tuesday, February 12, the poet and publisher Andrew McNeillie delivered a memorable lecture at the University of Glasgow, supported by the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies and the Andrew Tannahill Fund for the Furtherance of Scottish Literature. After some revision, it is published here in a new series.

THE title of this new series of essays is “Theatres in the Round” because I am inspired by the Irish playwright John Millington Synge’s great one-act tragic drama “Riders to the Sea”, which found its inspiration on Inis Meain, the middle of the three Aran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay, until relatively recently pretty well the least accessible of the islands. And after Synge, in choosing it, I also owe a debt to Louis MacNeice. In his book of poems, Autumn Journal (1939), section xvi, MacNeice asked, “Why do we like being Irish?” and answered:

…partly because Ireland is small enough
To be still thought of with a family feeling,
And because the waves are rough
That split her from a more commercial culture;
And because one feels that here at least one can
Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy
And that on this tiny stage with luck a man
Might see the end of one particular action.
Then he goes on to say at once that this is all “self-deception”.
But is it self-deception?

Read Declan Kiberd’s brilliant book Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (1995) and you’ll find it hard to agree that MacNeice’s version of things in Autumn Journal is merely self-deception, or just another footnote to the history of Romantic Ireland. We cannot say that it is a view true only to a time now long past, before the digital era, before Ireland went headlong into financial disaster on the back of the Celtic Tiger, from which it has now emerged the stronger. There’s a lasting truth in this portion of MacNeice’s poem. And insularity is at the bottom of it.

The fascinating interrelatedness to be found in Kiberd’s “invention” has everything to do with national “family feeling” (including bad feeling) and “local work” and geographical if not intellectual insularity. It has everything to do with Ireland being an independent republic too; and, also, everything to do with scale. Scale is surely the issue as far as John Bull’s island goes, and with it comes politics.

We remember the passage from Shakespeare’s Richard II, Act 2, scene 1, which I’ll abridge here:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle […]
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands, […]
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

That’s a very far cry from my comfort zone and, I guess, from that of all of us reading The National today. It’s one reason why in the founding manifesto for the periodical anthology I edited, entitled “Archipelago”, I referred to the islands of Britain and of Ireland as “the Unnameable Archipelago”.

This was not to proclaim a particular political cause but to acknowledge political complexity. Further, if you remove a name from something habitually associated with it, you shake things up a little. And since nature abhors a vacuum, meaning rushes in to stimulate thought afresh. We find new ways of looking at things across borders and over walls of sea.

No geographical feature is more clearly complete than an island. The sea goes all the way round the island, an Aran islander once explained to Tim Robinson, in a classic bull. The very idea contains and delays departure. That’s why an island makes such a compelling literary and dramatic figure. An island contains and integrates by nature and the sea renders the whole unique. Islands considered in this way are the “One” with a capital “O” created out of the opposition where extremes meet. Darwin found this on scientific grounds for natural history. Just so islands also integrate the human. Unique concentrations are formed.

Hugh MacDiarmid picks up on the idea of “completeness” in his Batsford guide book, The Islands of Scotland (1939), on page eight, in a bird’s eye view enabled by that very modernist vehicle, the aeroplane: “It is only now, with the use of the aeroplane, that the Scottish islands (I am thinking particularly of the Hebrides) can be seen effectively, at one and the same time in their individual completeness and in all their connections with each other and with the mainland.” As John Donne didn’t quite say, we can say: “No island is an island, entire and of itself” for each is part of the archipelago.

It is a special and increasingly rare thing to live out your life where you were born, to die in your birthplace, and never to have strayed far from it, and only briefly if so.

Some would say it’s a mistake not to travel, not to stray, and in our present age, in the new digital era, that all gets very complicated. But I would say that deliberately to stay on, or return to stay on, come what may, is a vocation of the highest kind, a vital service not only to islands but to humankind itself.

This feels especially true in our homogenising and polluting, ecologically disastrous times, in which Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible” no longer washes. Our islands and the lives they afford are finely-tuned barometers of both our environmental and social values. The Scottish Parliament’s “Islands Act” of July 6 2018 seems to acknowledge something of this at last and its devolutionary ambition surely must be welcomed warmly.

As you’ll have gathered, this is not an essay in moral allegory, about utopias and dystopias, in the long tradition from Homer to Shakespeare, Defoe and Swift to William Golding. I am concerned with actual islands, as far as that is possible, and works inspired by them, from the Aran Islands and JM Synge, Robert Flaherty and Tim Robinson, to Hugh MacDiarmid on Whalsay, performing his soliloquy on a raised beach.

One thing my chosen subjects all have in common beyond their obvious “nesophilia” – MacDiarmid’s preferred term for “island mania” (from the Greek) – is that they are all interlopers, or to speak pejoratively, “blow-ins”, just as I am here today, writing in The National: I am one of your diaspora, which is to say, seriously incomplete.

But my subjects are interlopers with a difference: artists who, with the exception perhaps of Robert Flaherty, expressed rather than exploited island life. So outsiderliness has a leading part to play here. I decline to get any distance into the cultural fray around the differences between the indigenous islander’s view of island life – or life itself otherwise – and that of the interloper. Of course I’m aware of it, how could anyone not be? – I was a blow-in once (I might ask to have that on my headstone, but then we’re all blow-ins when it comes to that, sub specie aeternitatis) and I’m also aware of problematic territorialisms generally, what in the old days Marxists would call the “who whom” of it.

I’m far more interested in the fact that what we might ever know of a place, whether we’re native to it or not, is a profound question. “It is not down in any map; true places never are,” says Herman Melville’s Ishmael, in Moby-Dick (1851). I’ll have more to say on this with the help later of Tim Robinson. I’m interested too in the way that writers have celebrated their passion for and acquaintance with islands, and enriched the wider culture in doing so. There are far more exemplary writers and artists in the context of my theme than I can begin to deal with here.

Islands, it seems, inspire, not just as abstract idea, but as specific material places. People fall in love with them.

Islands pare things down to essentials, to a spare beauty, that seems to appeal to a native asceticism in our souls. We feel they are places where “local work” might be done and “with luck” we might “see the end of one particular action”, punctuated by the tides and by fluctuating sea-light. The kind of tides and sea-light that enthral the eye in the work of the artist Norman Ackroyd.

But as to territory, it’s a subject made especially real and exacting in the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland and Scotland, by the vital part played by language, by which I mean not just words the non-speaker doesn’t understand but meanings he or she has never thought to find language for: that is, ways of thinking, ways of being – something marked in highly descriptive languages such as Welsh and Gaelic.

Something too that resonates and reverberates in the subconscious, in the depths where our passions are rooted. What if Irish were never to be spoken again on Synge’s Aran Islands? Suppose it were to go the way of the corncrake, that other speaker of an ancient language. The absence – no matter what Babel arose in its place, whether of seabirds solely or humans also – would be enough to silence the Atlantic.

It is of course easier to re-establish the corncrake in a place than to create a language community from scratch, from loss, from dearth. If you doubt it, see how they struggle in Cornwall. I have heard that 2019 is the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages. What that means in practice, on the Uists for example, I don’t know – but I hope it means more than words.

Next week we journey into the world of the great Irish author JM Synge and his vision of the Aran Islands, away in the wild Atlantic