‘I think Burns could have been a great travel writer,’ Pádraig tells us.
Broadcaster, scholar, and author of over twenty books, Pádraig is one of the foremost writers in the Irish language, and is here tonight to launch his latest work. ‘Rabbie Burns: an Nasc Le hÉirinn’ explores the connections between Robert Burns and Ireland, and follows the course Burns took around Scotland in his life, investigating the significance of time and place on the work of the National Bard, as well as mapping the relationships that formed and fell apart over the course of his travels.
Pádraig was himself travelling when he had his first significant experience of Burns, although as a young boy in Ireland he remembers seeing a then indecipherable English copy of The Works of Robert Burns on his uncle’s shelf. It was in 1952, when still learning to read English that Pádraig first bought a number of Burns’ works while on holiday in Scotland. He also knew Burns through the popularity of the poet’s songs songs and melodies, which enjoyed a significant presence in Ireland owing to the return of a number of Irish miners from Burns’ native Ayrshire over the years.
‘My book could be compared to a travel book on Burns, following in his footsteps,’ Pádraig tells us, and the first stop he made on his own tour was in Kincardineshire, to find out more about the family history that was so important to Burns in his lifetime. Pádraig was able to trace the family tree back five generations, the most significant branch of which was perhaps the Jacobite sympathies which led to a charge of treason for the family after contributing to the 1745 uprising, and which in turn led to Burns’ grandfather having to give up his highland farm and move south. ‘Burns had a great love of his ancestors,’ Pádraig tells us, and sees this affinity as one of the reasons for the Jacobitism and socialist interests displayed in Burns’ verse.
Having spent time in Kincardinshire and Alloway researching Burns’ origins, the farm labour to which he was subject for all of his life, and his unique education at the hands of his father (which you can read more about here) Pádraig followed Burns as he moved on to Edinburgh. It was in the nation’s capital that Burns had a number of love affairs, most significantly with Agnes Maclehose, or ‘Clarinda’ to use the pseudonym from her correspondence with Burns, a beautiful poetess for whom Burns wrote his famous lyric ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. While in Edinburgh Burns also joined the Freemasons, an organisation that counted among its number some of the most significant publishers in the capital, showing that Burns’ urban sojourn was significant for business relationships, as well as love affairs.
After Edinburgh Burns travelled to the Highlands, but we branched off from his footsteps here with Pádraig to investigate instead his links with Ireland. Burns’ sister travelled there with her husband in 1804, through whom Burns ended up writing for an Irish newspaper. As well as his songs being widely known, the Irishman James McGee published the first book outside of Scotland about Robert Burns’ work, and the poet has since been commemorated with several statues, and an influence that can be heard even today in the piping tradition of Donnegal.
Pádraig’s work then, which focuses uniquely not on Burns as poet or Burns as lover, but on Burns as traveller, is a text that was shaped through its author’s own travel, and the meticulous site-specific research that this made possible – research Pádraig hopes will take the works of Burns’ to a new audience of Irish Gaelic readers, and allow his poems to travel even further in the future.
Words and photographs by Scott Crawford Morrison