|Vocabulary · Céilidh · Glossary · Bibliography · Lessons|
Céilidh (pronounced 'kay-lee') is one of the few Gaelic words that have come into the English language. If someone today, in English speech, mentions a céilidh, it conjures up images of a hall, pub or tavern where folks pay admission to be entertained by a 'Celtic performance', primarily by instrumental music. You go there to be entertained and not to participate. This modern connotation differs greatly from the traditional meaning of 'céilidh'. The nearest translation for it from Gaelic is 'a house-visit' and it was a lot more inclusive.
For centuries, Gaelic culture has primarily been transmitted orally. The younger generations learned and absorbed seanachas, or traditional learning, informally and virtually effortlessly from older tradition-bearers. Gaelic society was characterized by a vigorous mental life through which cultural forms were commonly shared. These cultural forms would include: tales, legends, jokes and anecdotes, humourous repartee, stories of witchcraft and second sight, fairy-lore, charms, genealogies, proverbs, local history, rhymes, riddles, songs, tunes and dances. These were learned through informal cultural training or 'enculturation' which began in childhood.
Of significant importance in the transmission of Gaelic cultural material was the taigh-céilidh or céilidh-house. Each community had at least one, if not several, of these communal gathering places where the exchange of cultivated oral culture, music, song and/or dance could take place. This practice of visiting made for close-knit communities. The taigh-céilidh would be 'the' place to go, especially on long winter nights. There was not much outdoor work that could be done in winter and, in a time before newspapers, films, radio, television, and the internet, making a céilidh or a visit was a great way to pass the long evenings.
There was a level of specialization in the céilidh-houses. One might attract those who were more interested in violin music. In others you may have a better chance to hear stories, or learn, discuss and sing songs. And yet in others you could find piping or dancing. Very often the prevalence of whatever cultural form was to be found was determined by what the host or host family was most partial to.
Although céilidhs weren't organized events but rather impromptu affairs, they were in no means lacking in sophistication. Unconscious codes of behaviour that were understood by those within the culture dictated how the night was to progress. It would be culturally incorrect, for example, to rush a storyteller or to demand a story.
With the high caliber of cultural transmission in the taigh-céilidh it could be considered a type of informal schooling where cultural information and values, tunes, songs, steps and stories were acquired and ideas were formed which helped to mold both character and conduct. It was in Gaelic that this sharing took place.
In the tradition of Highland hospitality, everyone who was visiting would be given food and drink, be it tea or something stronger, sometime throughout the evening and night. According to good manners, you would always leave a little something of the food on your plate to show that your appetite had been properly attended to. There was a welcome for all and the extension of traditional hospitality ensured that those less fortunate, who may have had no home of their own would find food, shelter and warmth as they traveled from home to home in communities. Itinerant musicians, singers and storytellers were common until the 20th century. They contributed in what ways they could to the upkeep of the homes and farms they visited and often, as word spread that they were staying in a certain house, neighbours would make a céilidh (visit) to enjoy whatever cultural talents the guest would possess.