Ar n-Athair: The Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic
When I used to lecture to university students about oral tradition and memory, I would repeat a line from the textbook about how much non-literate people memorize, and how little we literate folks memorize by comparison. But then I would quote the lyrics of a Britney Spears song from memory to make the point that we actually do memorize quite a bit; it’s just not folk tales any more. What we memorize are the texts we hear repeated the most often, in relevant social contexts.
Having said that, sometimes you do set your sights on learning a text by heart that is not repeated very often in your immediate environment. For someone who is new at learning the Scottish Gaelic language, and is of Christian belief or heritage, the sacred symbolic text of the Lord’s Prayer might seem like a natural thing to learn. I’ll explain why that isn’t necessarily a good idea, and talk about when and how to learn the prayer.
The quintessential prayer of Christianity, the Lord’s Prayer appears in the New Testament of the Christian Bible in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 9-13 (it also appears in shorter form in Luke 11:1-4). It is called the “Lord’s” prayer because it is the prayer given by Jesus himself to his disciples as an example of how to pray as a Christian. Because of this, Christians all over the world, including Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox, incorporate it into their liturgies and daily practices.
Some Christian groups collect and display the Lord’s Prayer in as many different languages as possible, perhaps to show the universality of Christ’s teachings or the global reach of Christianity. These multilingual displays can be found both in sacred sites like the Pater Noster Church on the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, and online.
I first started learning Gaelic in 1989 with Dr. Rod MacLeod, a professor of cell biology and immunology. He was originally from the Isle of Lewis, with a Ph.D. from Cambridge, and had ended up in the unlikely location of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, USA, teaching at the University of Illinois. Another prof put together our little group on the prairie, the Scottish Gaelic Society, composed of students, faculty, and townies.
One member of our group, a history professor’s wife, had been asked to say the grace at a local Burns Night supper. Burns Night, held each January 25 as a celebration of the life and work of a Lowland Scottish poet who wrote in Scots, has little or nothing to do with Highland Gaelic culture. But our group member subversively chose to say the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic at the supper.
Our Gaelic teacher photocopied a handout with the words of the prayer in Gaelic, and spent an evening going over the pronunciation of the prayer with us. We dutifully, painstakingly, and painfully tried write down the pronunciation, using our inadequate English-language notation to represent the sounds.
I had only been learning Gaelic for a few months at the time, and I found it really hard to wrap my tongue around those words. I could have recorded our teacher with my clunky analog cassette recorder for practice, but it did not occur to me because that was not the done thing in Gaelic classes back then. So after the class, I gave up and tucked away the handout in my files.
Many years went by (twenty, to be exact). In fits and self-funded starts I gradually became fluent in Gaelic. I emigrated to Nova Scotia in 2010 and I encountered the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic again as a symbolic text. This tourist souvenir from the 1970s, purchased at an antique store in Cape Breton, gives us another picture of how people think about “the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic” as a talisman of sorts in popular culture.
The plaque was printed on plywood and varnished. It’s printed in a neo-Gothic typeface which has nothing to do with Gaelic culture, but looks old (in keeping with the stereotype of Gaelic as an “ancient language”).The wood grain evokes the rustic woods of Cape Breton. The title is in English for those who are not in the know, and the prayer concludes with what looks like a cheeky claim to Cape Breton authorship. To visitors and Capers alike, this souvenir symbolizes the Gaelic culture and Christian faith of the island.
Finally living full-time in a place with Gaelic heritage, I started to think again of learning the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic. We started attending Port Wallis United Church in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Our minister, Reverend Ivan Gregan from New Brunswick, may be the last native Gaelic-speaking Protestant minister in North America. Ivan speaks English, French, Gaelic, and a number of other languages, and he always lists the “Our Father” in the church bulletin in multiple languages including Gaelic.
My husband Tim, who is also learning Gaelic, copied the prayer onto a small piece of paper and put it in his shirt pocket so that he would have it on hand each Sunday morning to try to recite the prayer in Gaelic during the service when everyone else was reciting it in English. But because the prayer is recited so quickly, and in English, by the rest of the congregation, this is actually pretty tough. So we both gave up after a while.
I finally memorized the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic in 2013. How? One of our local Gaelic teachers, Kathleen Reddy, did part of her training in the Isle of South Uist in Scotland. She has started holding an annual Rosary celebration in her home with a statue of the Virgin Mary, as has been done in South Uist since the 1950s. I attended her celebration and awkwardly grappled with a rosary for the first time in my life (as a Presbyterian and Buddhist, previously I’d only had experience with Buddhist prayer beads).
As we participated in the ritual with Kathleen, a funny thing happened—I memorized the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic.
I couldn’t believe it happened so quickly, and I couldn’t believe it took so long to get to that point.
It turns out that repeating it numerous times, in a context where it “counts,” with a group of people doing the same thing, really helps. And the other reason I was able to memorize it so quickly was because I had already spent 20 years preparing. In other words, I could already speak Gaelic. I was no longer learning the text phonetically as a bunch of random sounds, the way so many people try to learn Gaelic songs. I knew how to pronounce the sounds, my tongue had the muscle memory for it, and the words finally meant something to me. With this foundation in place, memorizing the text was no harder than learning the lyrics to a stupid pop song that you hear on the radio all the time (but thankfully, far more meaningful and rewarding).
The reason it took so long is that it’s extremely hard to find a community, a group of like-minded Gaelic speakers.
The Lord’s Prayer is a highly symbolic text, and it’s both easy and hard to learn in Gaelic if you’re starting as an adult. This story points to three lessons: 1) the importance of learning the structure and meaning of the language rather than just phonetically learning symbolic texts; 2) the importance of learning Gaelic, or any other language, by using it with other people in real-life situations as much as possible; and 3) the difficulty of finding other people in such real-life situations!
UPDATE: I have written a second blog post about the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic, featuring pronunciation videos. Please feel free to check it out.