Gaels on the Chesapeake Interview with Liam Ó Caiside
Last June a small group of people wove along trails in the woods bordering the Potomac. At first blush, day hikers thought they just encountered yet another group of friends on an easy walk. But then they heard beautiful words lilting along the path from this little group. Ah, Scottish Gaelic, they thought. Well, whether they really thought that or not, Liam was one of those leading that little group of wanderers as Sgoil Ghàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhóir and Gàidhlig Photomac held their first joint outing.
Liam Ó Caiside
Liam was born in New York State, growing up mostly on Long Island. His parents were from Norwalk, Connecticut, with roots in New England and Nova Scotia. After college, Liam moved to New York City and began a career as a journalist. He moved to northern Virginia and the Washington, DC, area in 1992 and spent the next three decades there. Liam is a senior editor for The Journal of Commerce, writing about logistics.
RG: 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?
Liam: I first became interested in learning Scottish Gaelic and Irish while in college. An Irish literature course offered a few Irish poems in an English translation, which whet my appetite to learn more about the original poems. What was lost in translation?
My father’s father grew up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, so I was aware of Scottish Gaelic and its connections with Irish. I began studying Irish seriously when I moved to New York City, and spent several years looking for a Scottish Gaelic teacher. There’s a strong Gaelic learning community there now, but it was harder to find teachers and other learners back then. I eventually did find a teacher — a Franco-Russian polymath fluent in all the Celtic languages — and also attended my first Mòd on a visit to Virginia.
I also discovered the “third” form of Gaelic — Manx — while living in New York, so I’ve spent time studying all three and have visited Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
I began traveling to Nova Scotia in the late 1980s to seek out my grandfather’s surviving relations, and at the same time visited the Gaelic College in Cape Breton. I was hooked. Several trips to Nova Scotia and Scotland for immersion courses followed. It’s fair to say I’ve learned more of my Gaelic in Cape Breton, something my Scottish friends have noticed (and occasionally remarked upon).
Despite my Irish (and Scottish) ancestry, there’s not a lot of history of Gaelic language use in my family. My grandfather spoke a little bit of Gaelic, but Gaelic wasn’t the first language in his family. His father and grandfather were bilingual in English and French, living in a Francophone community in the Magdalen Islands! The original Cassidy immigrants to Canada may have been bilingual in English and Irish — they arrived in Nova Scotia around 1790, and Irish was still widely spoken in Ireland at that time.
Certainly, my ancestry sparked an interest in Irish, but that interest evolved and broadened into a passion for all the Gaelic languages and Celtic culture in general. While living in New York, I was very active in the Celtic League American Branch, which helped me see broader cultural connections among the Gaels and other “Celts,” and also helped me appreciate their incredible diversity as well as what they have in common.
After moving to Virginia, I became involved with An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach, the American Scottish Gaelic Society. I’m still involved, being a member of the ACGA board of directors. I’m also active in the North American Manx Association, and ran a Manx Gaelic workshop at their convention in 2016. We’re planning another for their next convention, in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2018.
In the mid-1990s, I was recruited to teach a monthly Scottish Gaelic class in Richmond, Virginia, my first experience as a teacher. I taught there for close to 10 years. That experience (which forced me to really work at language learning) took my Gaelic to the next level. While attending the Mòd in Scotland in 1998, I met Coinneach MacÌomhair of BBC Radio nan Gàidheal. He interviewed me for his program. Shortly afterward, I began to get calls from Radio nan Gàidheal asking for comment on breaking news from Washington and the United States. I’ve been an occasional commentator for Radio nan Gàidheal ever since. That’s also helped my Gaelic.
RG: Have your perceptions of the world and outlook changed as you walked down the Gaelic path?
Liam: I would have to say yes. Certainly, learning Gaelic reinforced ideas about cultural and linguistic diversity. Learning any language means learning new ways of thinking about the world, new ways of expressing ideas. That’s especially true, I think, for minority or lesser-used and indigenous languages, as the cultures and viewpoints expressed through those languages are likely to be further from those common in the “Anglosphere” (which itself is diverse). Simply the way Gaels use prepositional pronouns such as orm, agad, dhomh, leat (on me, at you, to me, with you) to envision the world around them and express their relationship with it is an eye-opener. Learning Gaelic also helped me better appreciate the legacy of colonialism and empire-building, in which the Gaels (in Scotland and Ireland) were both victims and participants.
RG: What has the study of Gaelic done for you? What’s changed in your life?
Liam: I’ve been enriched by the friendships forged in learning Gaelic, by the places and people I’ve come to know, by the literature that I’ve read, the songs I’ve heard and sung, the community into which I have been welcomed as a participant. Whenever I’ve spoken Gaelic in Scotland, a transformation occurs. I’m no longer just another American visitor. I’m part of the family. Doors normally shut open. And I am not just William Cassidy, I’m Liam Ó Caiside, too. My nationality hasn’t changed, but my cultural identity has grown and has been augmented and deepened by Gaelic. My sense of community has been strengthened. From Kerry to Lewis, Gaelic languages are grounded in local communities and in the actual ground people live and die on. That’s something I think many people are drawn to instinctively when they first encounter Gaelic — the strong sense of community in Gaelic tradition.
RG: 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?
Just imagine if that question were “How might a knowledge of Italian for a person of Italian descent inform their understanding of their heritage and ancestors?” Would we even ask the question? When it comes to Ireland and Scotland, however, many people in the United States don’t even know Gaeilge and Gàidhlig are living languages!
The values, perspectives and history of the Gaels (whether Irish, Scottish or Manx) is encapsulated in their languages and delivered by it. Much doesn’t survive translation. Even an appreciation of Gaelic will help make Irish and Scottish maps and place names come alive. Also, Gaelic allows direct, primary access to culture and history. The importance of that is becoming more apparent in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Too often those ancestors are “voiceless,” and their heritage defined by speakers of another language, often incorrectly and with bias and prejudice.
Learning Gaelic can help “decolonize” the mind by overturning such assumptions as “it’s a peasant language,” “they were barbarians, really,” “they were fortunate to gain a world language like English,” “they’ve got no real literature,” etc., etc. Learning Gaelic gives your ancestors and their heritage a voice they’ve been denied.
The very act of learning Gaelic, any form of Gaelic, is a slap in the face to a culture that prizes economic utility above all else. What Gaelic learner hasn’t been asked “Why learn Gaelic when you could be learning French, or Spanish, or Mandarin?” I once was asked by a Scottish Gaelic speaker “Carson a tha thu ag ionnsachadh Gàidhlig?” (More because I wasn’t linked directly to the Hebrides by family ties than any other reason). My response was “Air a son fhèin.” For her own sake.
Why should any of this matter? We define ourselves by what matters to us. Understanding how we came to be who we are today should be important to us. It won’t necessarily change who we are — but on some levels it might, and in good ways. If you’re Scottish born, speaking Gaelic won’t make you more Scottish than your Scots English-speaking neighbor, but it will make you better informed about your Scottish heritage and open new doors for you throughout Scotland (and the world).
Remember, too, that it’s not just people of Irish or Scottish birth or descent who take an interest in Gaelic. People across Europe and far beyond with no ancestral connection to Scotland and Ireland are learning Gaelic. The Gaelic (and Celtic) languages have an intrinsic value of their own that speaks to people of all backgrounds.
RG: 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, just as land reform and conservation?
Liam: Absolutely. Simply learning or studying Scottish Gaelic is an important step. The more international interest shown in the language and its intrinsic value, the more it is likely to be valued at home, where there is still anti-Gaelic prejudice to overcome.
When it comes to land reform and conservation, it’s important for Gaelic learners to realize how crucial those issues are to building and maintaining sustainable Gaelic-speaking communities.
RG: Has interest in Gaelic in the Chesapeake grown in recent years?
I think there’s always been interest in Gaelic in the Maryland-DC-Virginia area, and in Pennsylvania as well. ACGA was founded in DC in the 1980s. What’s changed, I think, is the ability of people to actually find means of studying and learning and using Gaelic in this region. When I first moved here, the only way to really learn was either self-study with a text book (and hopefully cassette tape) or a class or study group. There were few classes outside Washington itself, and really only a few there.
Today, we have access to learning resources only dreamed of in the 1980s: websites, audio files and recordings, video, distance-learning courses … the list goes on. The Internet made this possible. People still need a learning community (speaking Gaelic to yourself isn’t as rewarding as sharing it with a friend), but that learning community can be found online, through Skype or other Internet-based services. We now have Gaelic Learning Communities, as I call them, in the Baltimore area, the DC area, Central Virginia and the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area, with classes and events. Most important, people are increasingly connected.
RG: What do you see as important in fostering growth of Gaelic learning communities in the Chesapeake area?
Liam: Connection and communication. If we, as communities of learners, can build on and improve communication with each other, we can have more cooperative events. We can learn what resources we have in different communities and how we can share them to benefit others. The immersion picnic and hike held by Gàidhlig Photomac (a DC-area group) and Sgoil Gàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhòir in Baltimore was a great example.
RG: Share with us some of your projects and interests.
I’m one of the co-organizers of Gàidhlig Photomac, a Gaelic Learning Community in the greater Washington, DC, area. We call ourselves a Gaelic Learning Community rather than a study group because we believe learning is about more than studying. In fact, we don’t have regular classes at this point. We’re focused on creating an environment for learners that will encourage them to use Gaelic outside the classroom.
We’ve had a couple of successful “immersion days” with sessions for beginners and intermediate/advanced students. We’ve had a monthly song session tied to a Scottish traditional music session at Fiona’s Irish Pub in Alexandria, Virginia. We’ve had song workshops, and we’re looking at ways to share Gaelic poetry and storytelling with people too. We’ve had an occasional intermediate conversation group, and we’re looking at ways to help beginners.
One idea is to emulate the success of the Pop-Up Gaeltacht movement in Ireland, in which urban Gaelic speakers converge on a specific pub/restaurant. We’re considering a series of short courses on “situational” Gaelic too (the community in Norfolk-Virginia Beach has such classes each fall and spring).
You can find us through Meetup and Facebook. Our next event is “Oidhche nam Bàrd,” an evening of Gaelic poetry and song on Jan. 27. It will be an informal dinner with a discussion of Gaelic poetry, poets and song.
Personally, I’m a musician and writer with a great interest in Gaelic song and storytelling. I’m writing a fantasy novel in Scottish Gaelic, Sgoil nan Eun, that has been appeared chapter by chapter in ACGA’s quarterly newsletter, An Naidheachd Againne, over the past few years. Hopefully, you’ll be able to read it under one cover soon!