Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla Uí Dhónaill (Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English Dictionary)

garaíocht, f. (gs. ~a). Coll: Turns, favours, services. ~ a dhéanamh do dhuine, to do good turns for, be of service to, s.o. Bheith in áit na ~a, to be in a position to help. Ó tharla in áit na ~a thú, since you are in a position to oblige. Ag ~ (do dhuine), doing turns, odd jobs (for s.o.).

Profile PhotographyAnthony McCann, Founder and Creative Director, Hummingbird Culture Change

Would you like a cup of tea?

Imagine we’re having a cup of tea and a chat, just you and me in a kitchen. We’ve munched through a few biscuits, or cookies if you prefer, and the tea in my cup has gone a little cold. I don’t like cold tea. If pushed, I can struggle through, but you’re sitting beside the tea pot, and chances are there’s still a drop of hot tea left in the pot. You’re beside the teapot. I’m not. From my perspective, you’re in an active position to be helpful on account of your possibilities of proximity. You are here, you are now, you are with, and you are near, and in a position to help, and likely to help, I would hope.

You are in a place of garaíocht.

I came across the word garaíocht while reading the Irish-language short stories of the Donegal writer Séamus Ó Grianna from the turn of the last century. It was a simple, colloquial word that I missed the first twenty times I read the text. Lately, however, it jumped off the page and called for my attention.

The word “garaíocht” tends to be used in the phrase, “bheith in áit na garaíochta.” It roughly means, “to be in the place where you are close enough to help.” The word “garaíocht” is derived from the adjective “gar”, meaning “near”, and possibly also from the noun “gar”, meaning favour, and then by extension from the adjective “garach” or “garaí”, meaning “helpful”. The “ocht” part also signals that “garaíocht” is a verbal noun, a noun with the quality of an action, meaning that garaíocht always-already involves action, activity, happening, participation.

This term “garaíocht” resonated with me, because I realised it could reach far beyond the kitchen table and serve to encapsulate the best of what I would like to think it means to be human.

Garaíocht has become for me a way to speak of a particular quality of relationship, a particular tone, atmosphere, disposition, or texture of relationship in which the most helpful aspects of the he(art) of being human are most likely to happen. Kindness, caring, generosity, gentleness, trust, nurturing, sharing, gratitude, honesty, creativity, gentle humour. All of these feel more appropriate in an environment of garaíocht. When garaíocht is present, they tend to simply happen. It’s a quality of being human.

I have come to think that it’s not enough to be the change you want to see in the world. It’s the starting point, not the destination. You are sufficient, but your condition of withness, being with others, in the world means that your sufficiency isn’t enough without our sufficiency, the sufficiency of those with whom you share the space, the project, the organisation, the community, the dream.

I once had a friend, a professor in a university, who argued with me that the beautiful quality of atmosphere and relationship I related having experienced the night before, and many other times, and that I was now attempting to describe to her was simply a figment of my romantic imagination. Didn’t exist. Couldn’t exist. I felt sad that she felt she needed to live in a world where my experience of something lovely, what I now think of as garaíocht, couldn’t be acknowledged as possible.

Garaíocht isn’t an individual reality, but it can be a social reality. For garaíocht to happen you are not sufficient, but we are. In the words of the activist mantra, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

The helpfulness of garaíocht assumes a context of relationship that is always-already present and available, yet dependant for its quality on what people bring to it. The paradox of garaíocht is that you cannot prescribe, plan, or legislate it into existence. The harder you push to make it happen, the less likely it is to happen.

Often efforts are made within a difficult environment to perform some equivalent of garaíocht as a visible behaviour before the necessary shift in cultural climate has taken place to support it as a lived experience. This is an easy road to emotional exhaustion and burnout. In the context of the Cultural Climate Framework that forms the basis of the culture-change work of Hummingbird, garaíocht might be described as:

“A dispositional quality of relationships and environments (i.e. a particular cultural climate) in which we tend to experience as probable a willingness, desire, and ability for sensitive, responsive, and adaptive presence, thereby influencing, supporting, sustaining, and nurturing helpful change. This optimal dispositional quality for human flourishing becomes most available when the “elimination of uncertainty”, heightened intensity, and heightened directivity do not dominate as dispositional qualities in any particular situation.”

To champion garaíocht as an aspiration in relationship is by default to adopt a position of critique, resistance, and response to the structural violences and dynamic hegemonies of enclosure (the process whereby good situations go bad and bad situations get worse). Garaíocht is a way to talk about the invitation of withness, being-with, the call to a culturally sustainable future.

For me, Garaíocht is the organisational form, or rather self-organisational form of human flourishing, where every moment becomes a moment of possibility, every interaction becomes a resource for collaborative and critical imaginations.

If we try and read or understand the dynamics or possibilities of garaíocht with perspectives or frameworks not forged in the spirit of garaíocht, we will be never be able to really understand those dynamics, or the possibilities they hold for helpful transformation and the courageous task of culture change.

Garaíocht is a term I use to speak of experiences that are most helpfully human. Generosity, kindness, gentleness, presence, trust, hospitality, caring, empathy, and compassion are core elements of the cultural climate of our lives. These customary practices have been, for the most part, tacit, informal, unspoken, and learned primarily through time spent in places and among people who found them second nature.

It’s high time we put second nature first.


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