A recent and surprisingly decent article about Gaelic has been floating around the interwebs about why a little bit of funding for Gaelic isn’t a bad thing, why people so obnoxiously persist in speaking it in this modern day and age, and why it’s probably a good idea for them to continue to do so.
As I said, overall not a bad article, but a couple of people on twitter commented on rural idyll trope.
Rooted in close-knit rural communities, these original languages also tend to place people.
As someone on twitter commented,
Urban Gaels, by contrast, tend to disappear in a puff of smoke.
While the article was right in saying that one of the first questions asked when you meet another Gaelic-speaker for the first time is, “Who from are you?” (Cò às a tha thu?), and honestly it’s driving me crazy to continually have to explain that no, I’m not from Scotland to people who can’t grasp the idea that someone can speak Gaelic and be not from Scotland, I don’t think it’s an exclusively Gaelic habit. After all, I’m asked “Where are you from?” in English all the time. Especially by the aforementioned people who can’t understand how I can speak Gaelic and be not from Scotland, who are almomst always not Gaelic-speakers. And that the introductory habit was brought up to imply that Gaelic is an exclusively rural language is annoying.
Which isn’t to say that I’m not a rural person, because even though I’m sitting in the middle of a massive city right now as I type this, the place I continue to call “home” is essentially a croft, especially when it’s our turn to have the communal lawnmowers (ahem, sheep).
But not all Gaelic-speakers are teuchters and country people, and it’s not even a recent “Gaelic is the new fad and I the urbanite will learn it” thing. Case in point, Màiri Bhàn.
Now, while a quick google has just told me that Màiri was, in fact, an actual person, I’m not talking about Màiri herself, but rather the song. If you’re a Gaelic-speaker, you probably do know it as Màiri Bhàn. If you’re Australian, your only exposure to it may well be the Wiggles cover. It’s known in English as “Mairi’s Wedding”.
The song was written in 1934 in Glasgow, by John Bannerman, who was born in South Uist but raised from the age of seven in Glasgow, through Gaelic. The words of the song, in Gaelic, talk about how wonderful Màiri is in every way, from her voice to her looks to the fact that she won the gold medal at the Mòd.
The English translation, quite apart from completely ignoring the achievement and any skill or personality Màiri herself may or may not have had, and focusing entirely on her looks, the celebration of her wedding reception, and her future life as a wife and mother, are very, very, entirely rural.
Previously I’ve been annoyed by the lack of acknowledgement of her singing achievements in the translation, but after a discussion of the song yesterday, I begun to be annoyed by the rural-ness of it.
Because it’s a stereotype: Gaelic is the language of crofts, and it’s not spoken in the city. The Irish edition of the language faces the same stereotype. And while it’s true that Gaelic is a language spoken by rural people, it’s also true that Gaelic is spoken by thoroughly urban people (again, not me, not yet and hopefully never), and it has been for a while.
Maybe – just maybe – we can give all those sensationalist news-article writers at the BBC and elsewhere the benefit of the doubt and think that maybe they just didn’t know that there are urban Gaels, although that would imply an alarming inability to do any research into the topic being written about. But we can’t give Roberton, who translated “Màiri Bhàn” into English, the same benefit of the doubt, given he had worked with Bannerman on various other songs before.
And yet he still countrified the lyrics and gave it the title “Mairi’s Wedding: the Lewis Bridal Song”.
It’s either a fetishization of Gaelic culture as being quaint and back to nature, or a deliberate forcing of the Gaelic language out of the urban sphere and back to the crofts where it can be dismissed and ignored.
But both tropes seem to be still part of even the most well-intended news articles today.
Here’s the Wiggles cover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByCLxPTA9AM
And here’s the Wikipedia article about the song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mairi%27s_Wedding