Gaels on the Chesapeake Interview with Rick Gwynallen
Rick was born to a military family in 1956 on Fort Ord in Monterey, California, but grew up in Japan; San Francisco, California; and Baltimore, Maryland. Rick’s mother settled in Dundalk, Maryland after his father’s death when Rick was in seventh grade. He graduated from Towson University with a major in Sociology, then did graduate studies at American University in Washington, D. C. in Macrosociology or Political Economy. Rick became involved in left political movements and social change in high school, a field that has characterized his personal and professional life since that time. At different points in his life he has worked on labor issues, forest conservation, and support for Native American struggles. Rick lived inside and outside Maryland as an adult, including twelve years in Oregon with his wife, which is where his daughter was born, but claims Baltimore and the Chesapeake region as his most consistent home. Recently, Rick worked in urban revitalization in west Baltimore for 13 years. He is at present a consultant helping progressive nonprofits, a writer with a wide range of writing interests, and a co-founder of and organizer with Sgoil Gàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhóir.
Q: What brought you to the study of Gaelic? Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into Scottish Gaelic. How does it fit into the story of your family and your personal experience and identity?
RG: I grew up with a very strong awareness of my Irish and Welsh heritage, and to some extent my Scottish heritage. My father and mother filled my childhood with storytelling and history. It was just a normal part of my childhood life but it watered the roots of both my Celtic and North Carolinian history. I was an Army brat and didn’t grow up in any of those places, but my home life left me feeling like I belonged to a culture. My paternal grandmother in North Carolina – the only grandparent I ever knew well – emphasized the Irish lines in our family particularly.
When I became old enough to express a sense of duty around those connections, one step I took was to connect myself with Irish culture through Irish politics and being at Irish gatherings. I became involved in progressive political movements in high school. At that same period in my life I was becoming more aware of the history and impacts of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. In my senior year I was invited to an Irish Northern Aid meeting. That sense of being Irish wasn’t just in my beliefs anymore, it wasn’t just superficial. The deeper I went the more I felt love for it all.
Still, it was a cultural connection, but not a linguistic one.
I spent two summers during college in the north of Ireland and got to tour around the Hebrides as well. Back in Baltimore I participated in Northern Irish Aid and other Irish activities. I was around some of the language, but never learned it past a few phrases. However, I met a lot of people from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales engaged in all sorts of activity.
In 1988 my wife and I moved to Oregon, and for many years circulated around Scottish gatherings in Oregon and Washington. My daughter was born in Oregon and that Scottish network was part of the milieu in which she grew up.
Over the course of the years a feeling that something was missing in my heritage deepened. When my now young adult daughter, Fawn, and I decided to learn Gaelic together, it did not so much matter to me whether it was Irish Gaeilge or Scottish Gàidhlig. So I left it up to her. After a childhood immersed in Scottish music, games, dance, and gatherings in the Pacific Northwest, she, not surprisingly, wanted a Scottish Gàidhlig teacher. We met Scott Morrison at the Southern Maryland Celtic Festival in 2013. Scott was a teacher of Gàidhlig and eager to both teach and build a community of learners. Eventually we formed the Baltimore Gaelic Study Group and began studying. It was just Scott, Fawn, me and Liam Flynn meeting at Liam Flynn’s Alehouse on North Avenue in Baltimore.
I am a learner, but it feels different than it has being a learner in other fields. Being a learner of Gaelic has a deeper purpose in it. It’s more reclamation than learning.
Q: Have your perceptions of the world and outlook changed as you walked down the Gaelic path?
RG: I think so. I spent six years as a child in Japan. My father spoke Japanese and loved Japanese culture, so, at a very early age, I grew up used to being around other languages and a lot of cultural diversity. After he died though I never seriously pursued becoming fluent in a language other than English. I took Spanish in high school, a year of German in college, and studied Welsh on my own because my father had spoken it somewhat. But none became a firm part of my linguistic life. I think I didn’t have the patience.
The adoption of English by our families has a long and complex history, and it’s now part of our cultural history, but the missing part for me was that I did not have a spiritual or deep cultural connection to English. Many things contribute to my sense of having a higher purpose in life – my political activity, Irish causes amongst it, my Jewish life, and time spent close to the land. Gaelic became not just a language but part of that connection to a higher purpose. It adds meaning to my life.
In learning Gaelic I came to consider how much identity is bound up in language, how language shapes our perspective of the world, and whether or not learning a new language can re-shape how one sees the world. The subtle values and worldview built into the language are part of that identity. The world is “seen” through the “eyes” of the language. For instance, Gaelic does not have a strong possessive tense. Imagine the difference between saying that you “have” something and saying something is “at” you or “in” you or “on” you. That alone is a dramatic difference from English in how the speaker views and relates to the world.
My political leanings already led me to struggle over the impacts of colonialism and empire that shaped our world as Americans, both as victims of it leading to our families arriving here, or as active or passive participants in it. Learning Gaelic deepened my understanding of that relationship. Most of us who are not indigenous to North America arrived her as victims of imperialism. Yet, if we were not an enslaved population, we ended up as part of the system and as beneficiaries of it. I think to fully understand our place here and to be part of anti-colonial resistance we need a better understanding of our own cultural roots and history.
Q: What has the study of Gaelic done for you? What has changed in your life?
On a very personal level it has made me aware that I am more capable in languages than I had thought I was.
Also, though I always regarded myself as having a strong cultural identity, learning Gaelic has deepened that experience and made me more aware of the centrality of language in the survival of minority and indigenous cultures. Identity and ethnicity are very much tied in to belonging to a people as they live today. Gaelic has deepened that sense of belonging.
As with my involvement in Irish politics the language gives authenticity to my connection to my heritage. Wearing the kilt to Scottish activities is a good thing, and I do it. But it can be more of a uniform, a garment donned and removed, more of a sometimes thing, than something that is with one every day. The language allows one to immerse every day in the living reality of a people that stretches back into time, a linguistic root to which every generation may connect and enrich. It’s a spiritual and cultural connection to a purpose greater than oneself, a purpose one hopes that one sees replicated in the generations that follow.
Then there is the network of people I’ve become part of. Those friendships, the literature I can read now, and the songs I can sing instead of just listening to them have all combined to enrich that sense of belonging. The deeper I go into the language the less I’m a tourist in the culture and more part of its landscape. You can’t really be attached to an ethnicity if you are not part of that living community.
Since my daughter helped started our first study group it has also given me a new connection to her. I hope for the privilege one day of being able to see it pass on to my grandchildren.
Q: How might a knowledge of the language for a person of Scottish or Irish descent inform their understanding of their heritage and ancestors? Why should that matter to them?
In some ways, it’s no different than what anyone’s original languages gives them. It adds meaning and depth to who you are in this world, it touches on a linguistic link back through your family. There are many ways to relate to, express and enrich your cultural heritage. But language is like the central nervous system of a people. Through it you express feelings, concepts, and values. It’s the texture of cultural life. In the music of the language is something of the soul of the people. Having the language makes you more of a participant and less a tourist or spectator in your own culture. It allows you to go deeper.
Some refer to Scottish Gaelic not as a minority language, but a “minoritised” language. A minoritised language is a language which was once the language of the majority of a given country or large geographical region, but due to political and other factors became socially marginalised. This state of an indigenous language being marginalized is not just a Scottish story. It’s the story of every culture that became dominated by another culture that spoke a different language. It’s a story playing out in North America in Native American communities coast to coast.
What gets lost when a people lose their language is not just words that are replaceable with others from a new language. The literature, history, and culture of those people and lands gets interpreted through the lens of a foreign culture and language. Yet, the history and values of a people are bound up in their language. Colonization is not just about control of land. It’s also also about control of people by reshaping their values and ways of life. Learning a minoritized language is act of de-colonizing ourselves. Reclaiming the language is thus a part of cultural reclamation. It helps give a voice to our ancestors on the one hand and ensure that future generations will have first hand access to this cultural and linguistic heritage, that it lives and thrives and does not become a relic in a museum, that the literary heritage will live and grow, that those future generations have the opportunity to add to that heritage, and that distinctively Gaelic ways of looking at the world survives.
In this context, reclamation of Gaelic represents a rejection of the cultural homogenization of commercial culture stretching around the world, and of the effects of empire and colonialism.
Particularly when your family became rooted in a former colony, or had to move anywhere for work, many cultural streams converge to make you who you are, some shape you stronger than others. Our personal identities are shaped by what we love, what matters the most to us, and what we express in the way we live and the communities in which we interact.
Learning Gaelic will not make you better than the Scot who doesn’t speak it, but it might make you more deeply connected to your history, heritage, and the life of the people today. It might also challenge you to view the world differently.
But like any adventure, the gains come the deeper one delves; in this case the more fluent one becomes. Follow the love. Pursue it with passion and you’ll reach the heart of it all. As with all things, go “all in” and your experience is richer.
Q: Do you think that it’s important for students of Gaelic in North America to contribute to the efforts to sustain Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and to support causes that contribute to aspects of life in Scotland, such as land reform and conservation?
Absolutely. First, learn the language, contribute to the reclaiming of the tongue. Become part of Gaelic speaking networks here. Remember, Gaelic is a living language in North America with a long history.
Secondly, learn what is happening in Scotland. Then contribute financially when possible to community buyouts of land, Gaelic language projects, tree planting, and more.
If you are traveling to Scotland perhaps volunteer. It will certainly give you a more intimate experience than just being a tourist, and you’ll have some of the best travel stories in your crowd.
That support from around the world will strengthen the spirits of those on the ground.
Q: Has interest in Gaelic in the Chesapeake grown in recent years?
I think there have been more ways of expressing that interest and more ways of accessing Gaelic. Whether technology and new community infrastructure has just tapped into the existing interest or is spurring new interest I don’t know. I suspect it is both.
The internet has given Gaelic advocates a method of making more resources available and those interested the ability to access those resources. As someone who has spent their life in issue and community organizing I’m a big believer in local infrastructure. With the modest growth of Sgoil Ghàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhóir (The Gaelic School of Baltimore) and Gàidhlig Photomac the means to not only teach but build community among Gaelic learners has been enhanced.
Q: What do you see as important in fostering growth in the Gaelic learning community in the Chesapeake area?
Enhancing the infrastructure, connections, and communications that exist. You need teachers, but teachers are kind of lonely without new learners. So, you needways for those interested to find the teachers. And you need infrastructure, groups like Sgoil Ghàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhóir (The Gaelic School of Baltimore) and Gàidhlig Photomac to foster communications and opportunities for learners to learn and interact as a community.
Some funds are needed for this. Teachers should have some compensation, as should organizers. And we need to fund events, food, and such. Some of these fundscan come from tuitions, but you want this as affordable as possible as well. Some funds might come from events or crowd funding. But I also think that the national organizations should invest in stabilizing these local efforts.
Q: Share with us some of your projects and interests.
Besides my Gaelic learning itself, I want to see these local institutions, Sgoil Ghàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhóir (The Gaelic School of Baltimore) and Gàidhlig Photomac grow to be sustainable for the long term. A group doesn’t have to exist forever, but it still could be the seed for what follows it. I’d like to see these groups build something for the future generations of learners and grow a real community. On that foundation I’d like to be more involved with national Gaelic activities, such as An Comunn Gàidhealach Aimeireaganach (Scottish Gaelic Society of America).
I also have several writing projects underway, which could be followed on my website, 360 Squared. I’ve written all my life, but am now starting to pursue publishing.