Tha Gàidhlig agad co-dhiù | learning through loving, healing through connecting
By Cailín Laing | Colleen Lynk
On May 30th, 2016 I attended an event at one of my local libraries for what is known here in Nova Scotia as Mìos nan Gàidheil, or Gaelic Nova Scotia Month. The event was a talk given by Gaelic Affairs head, Lewis MacKinnon, in which he spoke about cultural stereotypes and the Gaels, providing a great deal of historical context and information. After listening to the presentation, as I was still processing everything that I had learned, I asked a question of Lewis that I couldn’t have truly understood at that time: What does it mean to be a Gael?
Subconsciously for me, I believe that this question was an attempt to understand my own identity. I had learned so much about the places that my family had come from and who they were at the core of their Gaelic identities, and it had left me wondering what that meant for my own. What words could I use to refer to someone in my situation, having grown up with vague cultural traditions in place but a lack of meaningful language to describe them? My father’s mother was certainly a Gael. A handful of my mother’s great grandparents were Gaels. But what was I? And what could I become if I were to channel this confusion and curiosity into breaking the chain of colonization and shame?
I asked one follow-up question that evening: where could I begin to learn Gaelic in Halifax?
My first class through Sgoil Ghàidhlig an Àrd-Bhaile, the local Gaelic Society in Halifax, took place in January 2017 at the home of Laura Stirling, who has since become a dear friend and my greatest mentor. The class was quite small and it was done through total immersion in the language, involving lots of repetition and hands on learning. This was a stark contrast to the formal language learning that I had been used to. However, as I sat there with nine years of French education and yet not a word of French coming to mind, I decided to commit myself to the experience. At the end of the winter session I was feeling quite comfortable with what I had learned.
I was somewhat dismayed, however, when it turned out I would not be able to take a beginner class in the next session. Laura assured me that she had faith in my ability to move forward and added that, should I feel uncomfortable during the first couple of classes, I could always pull out until the Autumn session.
When I arrived to the first class of the following session, I immediately felt overwhelmed. There were quite a few people there and they appeared to already be quite familiar with one another. As Laura went around the circle asking each student how they were to start off the evening, I also noticed that each person seemed to be worlds ahead of where I was with my Gaelic at that time.
I had three major worries: Would I be accepted as a newcomer? Would my lack of Gaelic hold others back in their learning? And would I truly be able to succeed if I already felt so unprepared? Despite these questions, I didn’t want to give up so easily. It wasn’t long before I knew that I had made the right decision. One evening, during some friendly banter between students, one of the women placed her hand on my shoulder and exclaimed that, well, I was one of them now. I can distinctly remember the feelings that I had had upon hearing those words. I felt accepted, I felt supported, and I felt the roots of true community as they began to plant themselves firmly into my life.
My efforts started small and continued with the help of Laura and many of my fellow students. I knew that I would be asked how I was at the beginning of class, so I would use that opportunity to practice a different phrase each evening. When I would leave class, I would go home and speak to my cats in Gaelic using the new words and phrases that I had learned that week (they hardly ever answered). I would spend the days in between classes attempting to narrate my life with my limited yet growing vocabulary and listening to milling songs and puirt-à-beul while doing housework, cooking, and traveling. I followed every resource for Gaelic in Nova Scotia on social media. This small, final step proved to be a true catalyst to my learning.
In November of 2017 I took a leap of faith and signed up for a weekend immersion at the Gaelic College. I arrived ‘Glace Bay early’, which is entirely the opposite of what I now know as ‘Gaelic Time’(!) I was nervous to be away from home and to try to build connections with so many new people in the community. All of the worries that I had experienced previously began to come back in this new environment. I once again continued on, though, having some lengthy conversations in English and a few scattered chats in Gaelic. It wasn’t until the second night that I had experienced my second ‘one of us’ moment. I was sitting in MacKenzie Hall with a handful of other young women, chatting exclusively in Gaelic and trying my best to keep up. They were all encouraging and supporting me as I fumbled through the conversation. I didn’t think I could really have an unscripted, colloquial conversation in Gaelic with only ten months of learning under my belt, and yet there I was. I wasn’t speaking perfectly, I couldn’t say everything that I would have been able to in English, but that was no longer a worry: I had some Gaelic, I was using it, and people were understanding me.
Shortly after arriving home, I was inspired to commit myself to doing more than just one class a week. I signed up for an intermediate class with Beth-Anne MacEachen during Sgoil Ghàidhlig’s Spring session while still continuing to do a weekly class with Laura. During this time I also participated in my second immersion weekend at the Gaelic College and attended the Gaels Summit in Mabou, which involved six hours of travel and spending most of two days alone (outside of the event) in a place that I had never been to before. I believe this is where I truly started to build my reputation as someone dedicated to, and passionate about, what I was starting to consider my language and my community.
In the last year or so, I have truly devoted myself to growth: attaining a higher level of fluency, gaining wider cultural knowledge, and building strong connections to others in the community. I have attended various sessions at the Gaelic College, social immersion weekends, a handful of one-day immersions, a variety of cultural events and workshops and two Gaels Jams. I have had the opportunity to participate in the creation of a Gaelic film, and most recently completed An Cùrsa Bogaidh, a month-long immersion course offered by The Gaelic College, living on campus for the entirety of the course. I realize that I am blessed to have had access to so many wonderful, enriching experiences. It is through these that I have discovered what I consider to have been the most integral part of my learning: the transmission of language and culture through community and the development of a meaningful connection to my people. Being able to read tha gaol agam oirbh feels little in comparison to having so many people that I could say it to, and hearing the songs that pour passionately out of the mouths of my friends at a céilidh will always surpass even the most pristine professional recording.
The roots that had begun to plant themselves into my life over two years ago are now steady and growing. I am ‘at home’ wherever I hear the sweet sounds of fiddle music accompanying a chorus of ‘’s fhada bhon uair sin!’ and ‘ciamar a tha thu?’. I am a Gael. And I am forever grateful to everyone that has played a role in leading me to this answer since that day on May 30th, 2016.