Posted by on Sep 10, 2015

My Concise Oxford Dictionary gives this definition of old:

Stepping on the past, Serpent Rock, Co. Sligo, Ireland

Stepping on the past, Serpent Rock, Co. Sligo, Ireland

“Dating from far back, made long ago, long established or known or familiar or dear….”

This summer* I am living in a place made long ago. I had thought I knew what old meant. But old, it seems, is a relative term. There’s a road here built at least three hundred years ago in a dried up river bed. It’s still called the New Road. And every day we step on creatures whose fossilized forms embed vast shelves of carboniferous limestone. These shelves, once ancient sea beds, now form a headland of the Atlantic coast. The place, known as Serpent Rock, and the ancient life forms preserved in its stone, are dated by geologists to 338 million years ago.

The profusion of fossils and the uptilted shelves put me in mind of our origins and of the upheavals that shaped and scored the earth. I am reminded of both the violence and patience of time that lay beneath the settled green land we are fortunate to inhabit today.

The entire area that surrounds us, known as Maugherow, feels ancient. In some histories it is the place settled by the first people to arrive in Ireland. But there is another kind of oldness that we are becoming sensitive to, and that is the memory of a way of life that has persisted here, for possibly thousands of years. We only get hints of it, in the language, the place names, and especially in the music.

Sean is the Irish word for old. We first heard the word in relation to a kind of singing called sean-nós, which means singing in “the old way”—unaccompanied and solo. Sean-nós singing is much cherished. But the term, sean-nós, means more than a style of singing. It is an expression that also has the past embedded in it like the coral fossils in Serpent Rock. This is how Tomás Ó Maoldomhnaigh describes it:

“Sean-nós refers not necessarily to musical terminology but to a way of life as experienced by our people who witnessed many forced changes to the old ways. It is a rather vague way of describing their routine at work and play. Songs were made to accompany the work inside and outside the home, to express many emotions—love and sadness of daily existence, to record local and other historical events and often to mark the loss of family and friends whether by death or emigration.”

Sean is also part of other words such as seanchaí, which means storyteller, or, literally, bearer of old lore; seanathair, a word for grandfather; and seanfhocail, which means wise old proverb, or, literally, old words.

Perhaps it is not going too far to say that in Ireland, the quality of oldness is valued as highly as the quality of newness is valued in the U.S.

I cannot help but imagine how different growing old in American culture would be if we redefined the word “old” as “made long ago, long established or known or familiar or dear.” It’s a simple definition. But in American culture, old too often translates to outdated. And old ways—when they aren’t objects of the fleeting fascination of a retro-trend—like the recent craze for Lindy dancing and cocktails —are at best regarded as quaint.

Perhaps the disdain for old things is connected to the pursuit of “cool.” We don’t want to be caught out with something that has been deemed passé by the trendsetters, whoever they are.

All of which is to say, old can and should be a beautiful word. Oldness can be respected and cherished. Valuing and appreciating old ways helps create a bond between generations and within communities that share a common past. With so many of us in the baby boom generation growing old, with aging becoming an issue (or, in some quarters, a threat), now’s the time for us to free old from its captivity in the pejorative camp. Now’s the time for us, with our many voices, to change our cultural lexicon so that old no longer means “outdated and quaint,” but rather long established, or known, or familiar, or dear.

*Written in the summer of 2013

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