4. Fine — The Family

Fineachan Gàidhealach
Na Fineachan Gàidhealach: The Gaelic Families.
In traditional Gaelic culture, the family was central, but this never prevented a strong culture of heroism and personal achievement. The ideal of the close family and individual achievement went hand in hand.

This is the description of the fourth roinn saoghail that I introduced in my post, ‘Ceud Cheuman air an Ath-thuras.’ For an overview of the entire system, see that post.

In traditional society, the family was central to a sense of identity. Marriages, wealth, and even friendships were considered family affairs. Some scholars have even gone so far as to say that the notion of the private self as an individual separate from the collective identity based in the family was a distinctively modern invention that began in the later fourteenth century, but this is almost certainly an extreme view. There certainly was a great shift during the sixteenth century in how one conceived the family and one’s relationship to it. John Donne complained in the early seventeenth century that

‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

What he means is that people were running around thinking only what was good for themselves as individuals and not what was good for the members of their community to whom they were closely related. Donne’s complaint is that people were forgetting that one’s ancestors were as much a part of who they were as their physical body. Modern society has moved away from this mentality, privileging individualism as a good in and of itself, but the trade-off is that we lose not only a sense of interconnectedness, but also a sense of who we are as individuals, possibly even a sense of purpose.

This is not to say that one’s self as an individual is to be sacrificed for the sake of one’s family, but that we need to redefine our sense of self to recognize 1) that who we are is bound up in part (and only in part) with the character of those who came before and 2) that there is an interconnectedness between the familial collective and the individual member. This second point means that as individuals, our family can be an enormous boon and resource just as we as individuals are inherently a boon and resource for the other members of our family. To blame our parents and siblings for our anxieties and negative qualities in adulthood is to abandon our responsibility to be forces for good within our family. We may have been the object of grossly unfair or abusive behavior by other members of our family, but that only places us in the position to be the most capable of enacting justice and restoring our family’s honor in the sight of the gods and ancestors. To use another member’s evil as an excuse to abandon one’s family is to give in to that evil and betray the obligation proper to every member to work for the good of the whole family.

In Gaelic society, there were several levels to one’s fine expanding out from the nuclear family. The basic unit was the geal-fhine which contained all members descended from a single grandparent. The dearbh-fhine included the geal-fhine of that grandparent along with their descendants, while the íar-fhine included the geal-fhine of that implied great-great-grandparent. To put it another way, the geal-fhine includes all your first cousins, the dearbh-fhine all your second-cousins, and your íar-fhine all your third cousins (discounting all removals, e.g. first cousin twice removed etc.). In this way, one’s fine embraces all of one’s blood relations going back six generations. In modern society this covers a period of time that could be as long as two hundred years, though in most instances six generations will cover a little less time.

To focus on fine thus means spending time devoted to the actual members of your family, starting with the geal-fhine but including the extended menders . Ideally this means playing with children, telling stories, just sitting and talking or playing board games. If any kind of planning is to be done, then it would have to be planning for family assemblies and holidays, but properly such would fall within the roinn imchogair. Likewise, helping children get ready for school, making dinner, or cleaning up the mess your children make also fall under imchogar because those necessary actions are focusing more on supporting your children’s connection to their community than their connection to you. Promoting one’s fine could just as well mean confrontations with family members over things that need to be changed. Whatever it means, though, the actions that are appropriate to fine must be working toward the most positive relationship possible. Any action that disrupts familial affection or creates bad blood in some way directly contravenes the purpose of one’s fine. This also means safeguarding or improving the reputation and status of your family as well.

A good test of this is to ask if there is anything that would be embarrassing if one’s parents or grandparents discovered it. If so, this needs to be addressed in some way. The utmost care must be taken in doing so, however, for to go against either your own conscience or your family’s collective conscience is to invite disaster and ruin on yourself. One must be true to both. It is the nature of the family that it is comprised of individuals, but it is also the nature of the family that it is itself an organic unity with every member playing a necessary and vital role. To deny yourself for the sake of your family or insist that one of its other members see things from your own perspective is like telling your stomach that it needs to see better or your foot that it should be able to hold your cup of coffee. If there is a conflict in the family, take the time to really think it through and do what is right for everyone both as an individual and a member of the whole.

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