Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Celtic Stereotype: A Rant


It's the end of February and Chicago is still buried in snow. But recently I've seen a certain kind of green plant popping up in various places--usually on windows or walls of homes and storefronts, or plastered on posters and event announcements. It's the clover, and it's been making its annual appearance as the United States (prematurely, as usual) prepares to celebrate its absurd version of St. Patrick's Day.

I know St. Patrick's Day is still weeks away. And I know I should be used to how our secular culture trashes real holidays. But the diluting of this particular holiday touches one of my pet peeves--the romanticization of the Celtic.

I've always had a vague interest in Celtic culture, given my heritage. My grandmother's maiden name was Gallagher, and there is a family legend (mostly a joke, but who knows?) that our ancestors were Irish horse thieves. However, my family never put special emphasis on our Celtic background, so it wasn't until I read Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped that I began unearthing the Celtic riches for myself.

Kidnapped, of course, is set in Scotland, so the book left me obsessed with all things Scottish. Having quickly depleted the list of Scottish stories by Stevenson, I turned next to Walter Scott. In books like Waverly and Rob Roy I discovered more adventure, more romance, more delicious Scots dialect. Soon after I found myself writing a short story (very much inspired by Rob Roy) which featured an 18th century Highland village. Now, in Scott's story, the stereotypical Highland peasant, along with being ragged and uneducated, spoke an unintelligible language called Gaelic. So for fun, I thought I'd translate bits of my story's dialogue into Gaelic. It would give it that more foreign, romantic atmosphere, wouldn't it?

An internet search revealed no automatic translations tools for Scottish Gaelic. But it did turn up a truckload of resources for learning Scottish Gaelic. Curious, I tried out a few websites. (The first thing that boggled me--not surprisingly--was the phonetics. "You mean, mh sounds like v? And th sounds like h?? And what's with dh--it sounds like g???")

Despite my bewilderment, I was hooked. My study of modern Scottish Gaelic launched me into a whole new consideration of Celtic culture. It was more than romance. It was real. Its language was more than unintelligible babble--it was a poetic, expressive tongue, both liquid and edgy. Its people were more than the nostalgically uncivilized peasants portrayed by Scott--they were human beings, who lived, worked, prayed, loved, sang, mourned, rejoiced. Their lives were harsh and often primitive by our standards, but that did not reduce their humanity.

After discovering this nugget of true Celtic culture through the Gaelic, I found I could not return to my old obsession with romantic Scotland. Scott's portrayal of the primitive Highland life irritated me. On the other hand, movies like Brigadoon, with its over-idyllic Highland village (not to mention its Highland villagers who speak in Lowland Scots), annoyed me as well. The truth lay deeper than the bagpipes and plaids, the thatched roofs and hairy cattle. I don't mean to say that these things were not a real part of Highland culture. They were--but not in the picture-postcard way they're often presented.
Brigadoon, the musical
Perhaps I split hairs. But I insist the deeper study of a culture reveals beauties far more engaging than any romantic stereotype, because it reveals real human personalities. To prove it, I here share the English translation of an old Gaelic song, once sung by real Highland women while milking real Highland cows.

Come, Mary, and milk my cow,
Come, Bride, and encompass her,
Come Columba the benign,
And twine thine arms around my cow.
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
My heifer dear, generous and kind,
For the sake of the High King take to thy calf.
 
Come, Mary Virgin, to my cow,
Come, great Bride, the beauteous,
Come, thou milkmaid of Jesus Christ,
And place thine arms beneath my cow.
Ho my heifer, my gentle heifer.
 
Lovely black cow, pride of the shieling,
First cow of the byre, choice mother of calves,
Wisps of straw round the cows of the townland,
A shackle of silk on my heifer beloved.
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer.
 
My black cow, my black cow,
A like sorrow afflicts me and thee,
Thou grieving for thy lovely calf,
I for my beloved son under the sea,
My beloved only sun under the sea.
 
(From "Carmina Gadelica" Vol. 1, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael)
 
This song is chock full of reality. It reflects the deep Christianity of the old Highland peasantry. It reveals their poetic love of nature and animals. And it hints, in that mournful last stanza, of the harsh and tragic side of their lives. No Broadway writer could have reproduced the glinting nuance of joy and sorrow in such a song. Only a real woman, who had prayed and milked cows and lost a son to the sea, ever could have composed it.


In this country St. Patrick's Day is primarily an excuse for a party, featuring small three-leafed plants, small green-clothed men, and green beer. But I challenge my readers this year to treat it as a chance to explore real Celtic culture. Read the prayer of St. Patrick. Listen to a traditional Gaelic song. Never mind the cute cartoon leprechauns--read one of the ancient Irish myth cycles, like The Cattle-Raid of Cooley (a warning, though: Cu Chulainn and company are not for the faint of heart!).

Enjoy a bit of this true heritage. I bet you won't be able to go back to the stereotypes, either.