I know. The word looks unpronounceable. And after you’ve been to one, pronouncing anything becomes nearly impossible, so no one cares how you end up slaughtering the Gaelic. I’ve been to a few in Scotland and thought the experience worthy of sharing.
A céilidh (pronounced kay-lee) is basically a Gaelic social gathering. A party. With booze. Copious amounts of it. But more importantly, it’s one with singing, dancing and a whopping dose of camaraderie.
The term céilidh derives from an old Irish word that translates into “companion,” though you cannot have a céilidh with only one companion (although it’s not that people haven’t tried). The Scots have ears like an owl, who can hear a mouse pass gas from three hundred yards away, which makes it impossible to pop the cork from a bottle of whisky or draw the bow across a fiddle string without fifteen people showing up within thirty seconds, rubbing their hands together in anticipation.
I think what I like about these gatherings more than anything else is the spontaneity. No one sends out invitations. There are no dreadful e-vites piling up in your inbox. It’s more the sound of the opening of the pub door that brings folk running.
I’ve witnessed these get-togethers in both the middle of the night and the middle of the day. If you’ve got a distilled spirit, a cup and someone who can whistle in time, you’ve got yourself the makings of a grand event.
Now, if you’re thinking this jamboree sounds no more involved than your average backyard BBQ, you might find yourself a little surprised when attending one. Normally, our bog-standard parties are more drink in hand, stereo on, bowls of chips and guac and folks milling about in the kitchen or living room and checking your bathroom cupboards for info to spill or goods to filch. A céilidh is a drink in each hand, unless you’re one of the musicians (in which case you balance one on your knee), a shouting match over the music, recitations of your favorite poetry (the musicians need a couple of minutes to enjoy their drams), tales told, ballads sung and marriages made. How many people have come to your village shindig with the intent of finding a mate and announcing their nuptials—all in one night?
Maybe it’s old fashioned, maybe it’s quaint, but I find it—when it’s truly done right and not sold as part of a “Gaelic experience tour”—to be as close to perfect as possible. The language is bawdy, the women ripe and the clocks hidden. And no one sits for longer than it takes for someone to tell a story. Okay, yes, if you’ve met a Scotsman then you may come to the same conclusion as me. I’m pretty sure they’ve got a third lung.
So, in fact, there might be time to recover from the last reel or strathspey, but don’t get comfy. Musicians get itchy and the publican knows that dancing people are thirsty people. You will dance. You will be made to dance. And you will love it. And you will love the fact that you can’t remember any of it the next day.
Except for the part of your body that relentlessly reminds you of what you’ve done. It shouts at you as a constant reproof, striking a jarring chord in your head: idiot idiot idiot! It sucks to wake up the next morning with a beer pull tab on your left ring finger.