• Nathaniel Harrington



(Cuan-bhriathradair a thèid còmhla ri “An Cuan” Ailein Dòmhnallaich — An oceanic lexicon to accompany Ailean Dòmhnallach’s “An Cuan”)


Cuan is probably the most common Gaelic word for the ocean, and superficially the most neutral, but it, too, brings particular connotations. In his translation of Homer’s Odyssey, it is the word Iain Mac Gilleathain chooses to render the Greek πόντος, the deep sea: “bu lìonmhor na piantan dh’fhuiling a chridh’ air a’ chuan” [1]. Ailean Dòmhnallach takes it as the title for his poem “An Cuan” (“The Ocean”), speaking of “cuan-shaoghal bith-bhuan nach taom” [2]. The compound “cuan-shaoghal” catches me off guard each time I read it. World-ocean. The world as ocean. The ocean as world. The ocean covers around 70% of the surface of the earth: we are, as Dòmhnallach says, “anamana suarach”, “insignificant souls” in comparison to its vastness. We are driven to compartmentalize — an Cuan Siar, an Cuan Sìtheil, an Cuan Sgìth; the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Minch — because not to do so overwhelms us. Nonetheless, Tongan-Fijian sociologist Epeli Hau‘ofa calls on his readers to see Oceania not as “islands in a far sea” but instead as “a sea of islands” [3]. This is what cuan-shaoghal looks like: the vast ocean that enfolds us all, however far from it we may be at any given time.


Fairge is the least common Gaelic word for the ocean today; it suggests, especially, the sea in motion: waves, swells, tides, storms. Not for nothing does Dòmhnallach speak of “cumhachd fairge”: if cuan is the ocean in its breadth and depth, timeless and enigmatic, fairge is the ocean’s power. I can’t hear the word without also hearing the chorus of Calum Màrtainn’s “Fuaim nan Tonn” — “an fhairge ag èirigh, o hò”, “the swells rising” — and then the question, echoing, “cuin a bhios ar n-eilean falamh?”, “when will our island be empty?” — and then the bridge calling out for that which has already been lost, “Eilean Hiort mo ghràidh”, “St. Kilda of my love”. But it wasn’t the ocean that drove the Hiortaich to the mainland: the ocean’s power is above and beyond us. The problem was the people and things the ocean brought with it.


Muir is frequently used, these days, as an equivalent to the English “sea” — am Muir Meadhanach (perhaps the Middle Sea, perhaps the Average Sea, a jibe at the imperial Roman legacy that lives still in the European imagination). It feels more poetic than cuan, perhaps because it brings to my mind the traditional song “Tighinn air a’ mhuir am fear a phòsas mi”, which thanks to a trick of Gaelic syntax can mean either “Coming on the sea the man I will marry” or “...the man who will marry me”. For a long time the idea of marriage meant very little to me: it was too abstract from anything in my life to be meaningful. still, though, even in high school I used to thrill a little every time I sang that line; a moment’s affirmation of my sexuality, even if I was the only one who understood it. Muir has the uncommon (but not unique) distinction of having, in many Gaelic dialects, a mixed-gender paradigm: it is typically masculine in the nominative and dative, but always feminine in the genitive — Dòmhnallach speaks of “leanmhainneachd mara sa chuan”, “the sea’s incessantness (or continuity) in the ocean”.


Tonn appears most often in the plural, “waves”, and especially in the genitive plural, as in Dòmhnallach’s “cumhachd fairge nan tonn”, “the power of the ocean of waves”. It pairs well with fairge, the swells that break as waves — the same Calum Màrtainn song gives us “fuaim nan tonn air a’ chladach”, “the sound of waves on the shore”. One of many things my mother taught me was how to love the ocean: the smell of salt air, the sound of waves breaking, the push and pull of the tide, the feeling of sand and shells covering your feet as you stand at the tideline and let the waves wash around you. When we were children she taught us how to ride waves the same way her father taught her, helping us choose the one that would carry us farthest, getting us into position, giving us that initial push, reminding us to “kick! kick! kick!”. The longer I spend away from the ocean the more I itch to get back to it, to feel waves breaking over me again.


Uisge means most commonly just “water”, or, in the expression “tha an t-uisge ann”, “rain”. “Mni Wičoni” — “Water is Life” is the rallying cry of the #NoDAPL movement that gathered around the Standing Rock reservation in North and South Dakota. Thinking through Gaelic, there is an additional — and not altogether pleasant — resonance here: the juxtaposition of uisge (water) and beatha (life) gives us uisge-beatha (whisky). As Métis writer Chelsea Vowel reminds us, “alcohol has absolutely been weaponized against Indigenous peoples in Canada” [4]; the same is true in the United States, where I am from. Uisge-beatha, then, becomes entangled in a history of Gaelic complicity in violent colonialism. Still, water is in a very literal sense our life: somewhere between 50% and 70% of our bodies — perhaps even more — is made of water. Life developed, as far as Western science can tell, in the ocean before making its way onto land. Dòmhnallach is right to speak of “sìol-uisg’ nam fonn”, “the seed-water of the earth”. (“Fonn” here suggests the airs to which traditional poetry is set, as well as simply “earth” or “land”; we might also translate this line as “the seed-water of songs”.) The ocean itself is in many ways a living organism, an assemblage of beings and landscapes, all of which taken together form a whole greater than its parts. Those who make their livelihoods by the ocean are sometimes given to speak of it as having moods, a temperament. I blocked someone on Grindr last fall for saying the ocean wasn’t conscious.

[1] Mac Gilleathain 1976, n.p. See Od. I.4: “πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὁν κατὰ θυμὸν”; “he suffered in his spirit many pains on the deep sea”.

[2] Dòmhnallach 2015.

[3] Hau‘ofa 1994, 152.

[4] Vowel 2016, 152.

Works cited

  • Dòmhnallach, Ailean. “An Cuan.” Struileag: Shore to Shore / Cladach gu Cladach. Deas. le Caoimhin MacNèill. Dùn Èideann: Polygon, 2015. 166.

  • Hau‘ofa, Epeli. “Our Sea of Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific 6.1 (1994): 147–161.

  • Mac Gilleathain, Iain. Odusseia Homair. Glaschu: Gairm, 1976.

  • Vowel, Chelsea. Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada. Winnipeg: Highwater Press, 2016.