The Gaelic way of living in the world
A student at the recent Gaelic College immersion course gave her reason for learning Gaelic as the “beauty and logic” of its structure. How best, in short space, to give you a sense of this? T.D. Donaldson, in his book “Gaelic Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings”(1926), writes: “If there is one medium more than another that will perpetuate for us the wit and wisdom of our forefathers…. that medium is the proverb”. So let’s examine a few Gaelic proverbs to see if both beauty and logic are found in their structure.
For example, take Finn Maccumhail’s advice to his son Oscar: “Na dìobair caraid’s a’ charraid!” (‘Forsake not a friend in the fray’). It captures beautifully the true ethos of the Gael, doing it pithily and pointedly, with the poetic play on the words ‘caraid’ and ‘carraid’. Or take one in similar vein, again emphasizing how Gaels should conduct themselves: “Fear nach cuir cùl ri ’charaid no ri ’namhaid!” (‘A man who will not turn his back on his friend—nor on his enemy!’) Faithfulness in friendship and courage in battle are given emphasis by how “turning one’s back” takes on different meanings in reference to ‘friend /enemy’. Or this one (as though the sword is speaking): “Na tarraing mi gun aobhar,’s na pill mi gun chliù!” (‘Don’t draw me without cause, and don’t return me without honour!’) This proverb has elegantly balanced negative commands, each echoing the other in structure and rhythm.
Angus Macgillivray, in his book “Our Gaelic Proverbs: A Mirror of our Past” (1928), writes that “these old Gaelic sayings reflect a high moral standard, an intelligence shrewd and searching, a singular sense of propriety and grace….” The following proverbs illustrate these traits, e.g. “’S fheàrr a bhith bochd na bhith briagach” (‘It’s better to be poor than be a liar’). Note that the Gaelic words reflect the poetic use of alliteration (the same initial consonant) in the contrasting adjectives ‘bochd/briagach’. Now consider “Thoir tlachd do’n mhath ’us math an t-olc”. (‘Delight in the good and forgive the evil’). In Gaelic, the word for ‘forgive’ (usually spelled ‘maith’ in the imperative) is rooted in the meaning of the word for ‘good’; so this emphasizes that we must not only ‘forgive’ the evildoer but turn the evil into something good!
An apparently more mundane saying, “Is cuinge brù na biadh”, is packed with meaning in a 5-word phrase (again with alliteration). Literally ‘A stomach is narrower than food’, this proverb suggests two things: don’t eat more than your stomach can handle; but also it implies hospitality, another characteristic of the Gael, from whose table no-one is sent away hungry.
Whether or not you’ve been convinced by a few proverbs of the beauty and logic of Gaelic structure, the hope is that you will become well acquainted with these and other Gaelic proverbs and even sprinkle your Gaelic conversation with them. You will enjoy the process and come to understand more about the Gaelic mind. Let me leave you with one often quoted proverb: “Anail a’ Ghàidheil—air a’ mhullach!” Lit. ‘The Gael’s breathing space—on the top (of the mountain)!’ Meaning? The Gael aims high and only rests when he achieves his goal.