C is for Ceilidhe and Claggarnach

In the mid-sixties, I made a new friend at a youth hostel in London who, like me, wanted to hitchhike, but not alone. We joined together and hopped rides north to Edinburgh and Inverness. Nice people, easy rides, no mishaps. When my friend had to return to college in France, I had a confident thumb and two weeks to go wherever I wanted. I was enchanted by the very names of my favored destination: the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides.

A succession of people picked me up. The last driver, a friendly salesman, let me out of his little Morris Minor at the hostel’s doorstep in Portree, and said,“There’s a celidh down the street. You should go.” He pronounced it kay-lee.

I had no idea what a celidh was, but as a gamey twenty-something-year-old, I found out: a sort of Gaelic hootenanny with traditional music (fiddles, flutes, tin whistles, bodhran drums) dancing, storytelling, and hospitality that swept me in.

I was in Scotland, but cedlidhes (the Irish add an e) happen in the Emerald Isle too. They’re even held in the United States. The Irish Ceilidhe Club of Rhode Island was founded in 1956 and still holds monthly dances. The web site is current only through Fall 2016, but check it out.

I’ve remembered the word (if not always the spelling!) for almost fifty years––a symbol of Celtic and Gaelic culture and a catalyst for returning to the UK, particularly Ireland.

The “C” that you see at the beginning of this blog is from one of my wife’s 180 alphabet books: Ogham: An Irish Alphabet, written by Criostoir Mag Fhearaigh, illustrated by Tim Stampton, published in 1998 and purchased for five Euros at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, Ireland on our first trip to Ireland in 2002.

Ogham is curious: 20 letters developed around about the 4th century, mostly horizontal and vertical lines carved on stones and wood stakes (375 examples survive), and read from the bottom up. Scholars argue about whether orgham is connected to the Latin or to runic and Etruscan alphabets. The name is most likely derived from Ogmios, the Celtic God of speech and oral learning.

The derivative Irish language, a cousin to Welsh in the Celtic group, continues in Ireland. The grammar is complex, the alphabet consists of eighteen letters, and English speakers are baffled by the assignment of sounds. B+H, for examples sounds like a “V.” H+G sounds like the Y in yellow. Go to this website to see how Yes, No, and Please sound in Irish. “Is ea,” “Ni hea,” and “Mas e do tholl e,” respectively.

“Claggarnach,” even if my pronunciation is inexact, is the perfect word to describe what I am hearing outside my window: the sound of heavy rain–rain that makes we want to be in another rain-drenched country: Ireland.

And we will be…at the end of May, spending five days at The Drumalis Retreat Center  in Larne, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, listening to the Irish accents of Padraig O Tuama discussing “The Theology of Story.”

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