7. Gairm — Career and Personal Advancement

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

This word is a calque of the Latin word uocatio, which in English has been translated as ‘calling.’ In this arena we advance ourselves, our aspirations and ambitions by cultivating those skills, talents and interests and making of them a prosperous business. In this way, gairm could be considered the realm of our career, but often in today’s world many people pursue careers with marginal if any consideration as to how this relates to their own personality, life and soul. One of the most important differentiations to make with this conception of gairm is between one’s calling and one’s job. It is very easy to hold a job that has nothing to do with your career or calling. One’s gairm must be based on all the other

It is thus very possible to make nearly everything in one’s life an aspect of gairm, as the best way to cultivate one’s vocation is to pursue a career that engages one’s favorite activities: physical, mental, and spiritual. Likewise, you can cultivate gairm in such a way that it advances your family so as to allow you more time to spend with them. What differentiates a person’s gairm from the other roinnean is that it consists of individual acts that palpably, indelibly and quantifiably advance the goals and standing of your chosen calling. Training will make these steps possible but they properly fall under the roinn meanman. Creating something that people can buy, securing a contract, getting hired for your ideal work or creating a company of your own all fall under the heading of one’s gairm.

In medieval Gaelic society, there was a sense of right action that was centered on the term am fhírinn: Truth. One’s station in life, including what we would call one’s career, was bound up with how well one manifested am fhírinn relevant to one’s activity. The most well-studied example of this is what was called fír flatheamhon: the truth of lordship. Naturally it included telling the truth, pronouncing wise judgments, and securing the abundance, but it also included things like being healthy and free from physical fault. It presumed a degree of political, military, and economic success, and if any of these were lacking then the lord was in danger of losing his position.

One of the great historical examples of fír flatheamhon was an Cath Maigh Rath (Eng. the Battle of Moira) between Congal Cáech, the High King of Ireland, and the Uí Neill king, Domhnall mac Aodha. The year was 637, and Congal Cáech had suffered three strikes against his own high kingship: 1) he had lost an eye when stung by a bee, 2) he had shown false judgment at a feast with Dohmnall mac Aodha, and 3) he had been defeated in battle by Domhnall nine years previously. His fate and that of his ally, Domhnall Breacc of Dál Riata (mostly modern-day Argyll and Kintyre), was then sealed at Cath Maigh Rath.

There are two things that this anecdote (summarized here with vicious brevity) shows. First, fír flatheamhon was conceived in very demonstrable terms. Congal was demonstrably unfit for kingship because the qualities that characterized himself as a person and thus his kingship were unkingly. He was an untrue lord, a false king. Second, his untruth can be seen in seemingly happenstance circumstances, such as the sting of a bee, but the underlying pattern is that his falsity as a king helped organize events around him in such a way that he was ejected from his kingship. This idea suggests the old adages ‘a real man makes his own luck,‘ and ‘nothing succeeds like success.’ Put simply, be a true king and the world will help you be a true king. This idea is transferable to any gairm.

A Gaelic Feast
However much Derricke intended this image to deride Irish customs in the sixteenth century, it shows the interplay of professions: lord, poet, and harpist.

Brehon Law, the old Gaelic law that governed society in Ireland and Scotland until the early modern period, even went so far as to say that a king who deigned to dig a ditch would instantly lose his status as king. His offspring then would have to maintain the economic status of a king for three generations before a member of his family could have a shot at becoming a king. At first, this seems quite unfair to the modern sensibility, influenced as it has been by the very Christian idea that a good ruler must be so humble as to be willing to take up any task no matter how menial in the service of his people, but there is good reason behind the Gaelic perception. It would be absurd to imagine that the president of the United States would perform his office better if he spent his time sorting his own mail. How much more absurd is the idea of Queen Elizabeth II repairing the plumbing of Buckingham Palace. Brehon Law recognizes that in order to truly realize one’s gairm, one must be fully defined by it, body and soul.

How to reconcile this rather medieval idea of am fhírinn with the modern sensibility of employment and career may seem daunting if not impossible, but all that needs to be done is to look over the pattern of your life and see what is already there, already emergent. Cultivate that and never let yourself get drawn into envious, fearful selfishness. In Gaelic society, the worst sins imaginable were stinginess (whatever modern stereotypes of the Scots may be now), jealousy, and cowardice. The purpose of one’s persona, status, even one’s very existence was to act as an overflowing source of abundance for all those around you, so look for those things in you that simply flows out into the world unbidden. That is the source of your gairm and the guiding voice that will keep you to am fhírinn.

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