The Gaelic way of liv­ing in the world

The Victoria Standard - - Culture/Heritage -

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.

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