How do I pronounce ‘garaíocht’?

If you’re an English speaker, it sounds like Gar-ree-okt. Here’s an audio recording:

How is the term used in the Irish language?

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 both nearby and in just the right place to be helpful.

In the Irish language, you could be described as being in a place of garaíocht – tá tú in áit na garaíochta.

I first came across the word garaíocht while reading the Irish-language short stories of the Donegal writer Séamus Ó Grianna (‘Máire’) from the turn of the last century. It was a simple, colloquial word that I didn’t pay attention to the first twenty times I read the text. Some people know of its existence, but it doesn’t tend to be widely used these days in normal conversation.

If you like knowing how words are constructed, 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, such that garaíocht  always-already involves action, activity, happening, participation.

Who came up with the Garaíocht Manifesto?

The Garaíocht Manifesto was conceived and designed by me, Anthony Thomas McCann.
Here’s a self-portrait:

About 7 years ago, the creative and entrepreneurial trickster that is Conann Fitzpatrick asked me how I might translate my work into something like the Agile Manifesto. I’m generally not a big fan of manifestos, but I have always liked the brevity of what the Agile community accomplished with theirs. It took a while, and several versions (one of those being a single statement – “Quality of Relationship Before Outcomes”). After 7 years I settled on the Garaíocht Manifesto that you can see above.

So, who am I, and what work do I do? I live with my family in Bangor, Northern Ireland. I wear a lot of hats – I lectured and researched at universities around the world for about 20 years across the social sciences and humanities, and I work as an international keynote speaker, a personal and executive coach, a translator, and a philosopher (yes, people can work as philosophers). Creatively, I’m a writer of non-fiction, a published poet, and an experienced songwriter (including songs for kids). I have also worked in Special-Needs learning support and have experience as a caregiver. Some people might think of me as a Neo-Generalist, but I find the term a little weighty for the fun that I have.

These days I generally work on issues relating to the Garaíocht Manifesto, focusing mainly on culture change and leadership challenges in the sectors of business, education, healthcare, and peacebuilding. I have an honorary position working with the Faculty of Health and Wellbeing at Canterbury Christ Church University, as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in Culture Change and Leadership with the England Centre for Practice Development. I am a founder-member of the recently-established Proximity Group, building a multidisciplinary team of specialists in work-culture and organisational transformation, based in Northern Ireland, and an active member of the Tangible Ireland leadership network.

Where did the idea for the Garaíocht Manifesto come from?

This all started, a good twenty years ago, as a study of the ethics I encountered among people in the communities of Irish traditional music and song, both in Ireland and in the United States.

I found a palpable generosity and human decency among people in communities of Irish traditional music and song that I recognised from my immediate and extended family circle. But while the ethos I found may have been distinctly and culturally Irish, it was by no means unique to the Irish.

As I came to a deeper understanding of the very ordinary ethics of generosity, good company, and mutual support in Irish traditional culture, I realised that not only had this art of being human remained largely unspoken and unarticulated, but the vibrant quality of human relationship at its heart might also be key to understanding the most human possibilities of helpfulness within organisations in areas such as business, education, healthcare, peacebuilding, and the development of communities.

In 2014 I realised that “garaíocht” might be the word I was looking for. By applying the term to this experience of ordinary ethics, it could reach far beyond the kitchen table to become a clear point of focus for tactical and strategic conversations about a nourishing, nurturing, and thriving humanity in professional life.

Could you explain your understanding of garaíocht a bit more?

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

It’s all about feel. Garaíocht is my response to what I consider the First Question of leadership and organisational practice – “How do you want it to feel for yourself and others?” To paraphrase Maya Angelou: people may not remember what you said, they may not remember what you did, but they will remember how it made them feel.

As I use it in the Garaíocht Manifesto and beyond, garaíocht might be more formally described as:

“An atmosphere in which we experience as probable a willingness, desire, and ability for sensitive, responsive, and adaptive presence, thereby influencing, supporting, sustaining, and nurturing helpful change.”

So, Garaíocht isn’t just an individual reality. It only works when it is also a social reality. For garaíocht to happen, in the words of the activist mantra, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

To speak of garaíocht, then, is to assume a quality of relationship that is always-already present and available, yet one that relies for its quality on what people bring to it in the moment. The paradox of garaíocht is that you cannot prescribe, plan, or legislate it into existence. The harder you push to make it happen within an organisation, the less likely it is to happen.

Often efforts are made within a difficult organisational environment to perform some equivalent of garaíocht or good relationship as a visible behaviour before the necessary shift has taken place to support it as a lived experience. This is an easy road to emotional exhaustion and burnout. If you’re not feeling it, you’re not living it.

What message are you trying to spread with the Garaíocht Manifesto? 

It’s more an invitation than a message, and it’s a simple one. When it comes to professional life, trust your humanity. It works. The Garaíocht Manifesto offers a human-scale and humane set of principles for sustaining the heart of being human in the art of being human in professional life.

Maybe we can be of more help in this world by trusting that the heart of human flourishing in organisations is unlikely to be the most intense, aggressive, pushy, or impatient version of humanity that we can come up with.

If the Garaíocht Manifesto provides yet another source of courage to help you craft a professional life in the way that lets you feel more human, well, that would warm my heart. I find it helpful in my own life, and hope others will find it works for them, too.

But surely this isn’t really practical?

Sorry to disappoint. The stress generated by intense, driven, urgent workplaces may provide certain short-term benefits to someone somewhere (often the people in executive management positions; funny, that), but in the long run these sorts of conditions negatively effect:

  • Leadership styles – as transactional obedience-driven, rule-bound hierarchies become normalised;
  • Quality of work culture, work product, and customer relations – as low expectations for helpfulness within an organisation become contagious through every aspect of the organisational environment;
  • Employee and customer safety and wellbeing – increasing sick days and stress leave, and increasing the risk of problems and accidents due to inattentive behaviour;
  • Worker and customer engagement and motivation – as people become obliged to maintain positivity in a chronically high-intensity work environment they tend to become emotionally estranged from their job and their purpose, and from authentic connection with their customers;
  • Fluidity of communication – one ironic characteristic of high-intensity working is that people tend to find the emotional distance that goes along with strict hierarchies, clearly divided responsibilities, and departmental silos very comforting and safe. However, this tends to make helpful collaboration, creativity, innovation, and conflict transformation very unlikely.

Typically, organisational environments that become culturally unsustainable also tend to become economically unsustainable pretty quickly in a fast-moving business environment.

What people seem to forget is that changing the feel of an organisation is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to affect truly significant culture change. It’s also one of the simplest.

Simple can also be difficult, though. The invitation to change a difficult work atmosphere by changing the quality of relationships also invites a typically unfamiliar level of transparency, accountability, and responsiveness on a personal level, throughout an organisation, whatever your pay grade. This, in turn, invites courage and an openness to vulnerability. Although times may be changing, these have not been core themes in most business and management syllabuses over the last century or so. To advocate a greater humanity in organisations is often also to go against the grain of accepted or recommended practice.

There is one key issue, however. If generosity, trust, patience, kindness, empathy, mutual support, employee self-care, and other qualities typical to garaíocht start to feel inappropriate within an organisation, or have always felt inappropriate, then the signs aren’t good. There are storms a-coming, and the likelihood of harm somewhere within or beyond the organisation is high, whether or not you have a well-developed Human Resources policy or an ambitious Corporate Social Responsibility portfolio.

The Garaíocht Manifesto brings it back to basics.

It is a simple, practical invitation to run organisations as if organisations mattered, by living professional lives as if people mattered.

What are your plans for

I will always remember the stunned faces of students in one of my Peacebuilding seminars. I had just asked the question, “How do you know that what you’re doing is actually helpful?” No one had ever asked them that question, and some of them had worked professionally in peacebuilding and humanitarian organisations around the world. The question stopped them in their tracks. They had never really stopped to consider that good intentions might not be a guarantee of helpfulness.

One thing has come around again and again in all of my explorations. Good intentions, being helpful, and helpfulness are probably implicit as aspirations in every area of professional practice on the planet.

If can become one hub among many where we can encourage people to think about what helpful helpfulness and unhelpful helpfulness might mean and why it matters, that would make me very happy.

I am currently developing content for garaí blogposts, podcasts, essays, links pages, reading lists, self-study guides, videos, workshops, and courses. I am also offering garaíocht training for  organisations and coaching and mentoring for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of what they do. There might also be the possibility of some informal garaíocht meetups in Bangor, if family circumstances allow. If you want to keep informed about any of these developments as they happen, sign up for the newsletter.

Is the Garaíocht Manifesto something you live by?

All of this is very personal for me. Because this work has emerged from my own personal quest to live a more helpful and ethically grounded life, I have approached this work maybe more as a designer than as a philosopher.

The design problem I encountered was that the lives of the gentler, quieter, wiser people I have met, loved, and learned from over the years were not in any significant way considered relevant, plausible, or sometimes even possible within the social, political, legal, and economic, and philosophical theories I encountered in contexts of institutional practice. From an academic perspective, their uninstitutional lives, and the lives of people like them over the centuries, were pretty much invisible, and constituted a large silence in scholarly conversations about what it means to be human.

I undertook to design a way of thinking about human nature and the world that allowed these people and the character of their lives to be visible. Not only visible, but also desirable and vital as powerful options for being human. In this way, I hoped, I might arrive at an ethical approach that helps me continually recalibrate my humanity in the personal and professional life that I have. If, along the way, other people might be drawn to this work, then that would be a bonus.

The garaíocht concept is a small part of this work, but the enthusiasm people have shown for the idea makes me think it’s a pretty vital part.

What I find helpful about the Garaíocht Manifesto is that it’s not a prescription – no should, must, need to or have to. It’s about priorities. Making a commitment to being more human in personal and professional life is not only worthwhile, but, in my experience, intensely helpful in so many ways. I think we know this instinctively. It is hard to listen to our most helpful instincts, though, when we are working in places where they have come to feel inappropriate.

Is this a faith-based initiative? 

The Garaíocht Manifesto is not explicitly or implicitly religious. The work leading to the Garaíocht Manifesto has come largely from my research into helpfulness across the social sciences, and from my own professional and personal experience. Nonetheless, I find the Garaíocht Manifesto doesn’t seem to run against the grain of what I have found most helpful in a number of religious or spiritual traditions.

There’s no denying I have a religious background. My father was a theologian and my parents raised me as a Catholic, placing a strong emphasis on hospitality, relationships, and social justice. That upbringing gave me my confidence that we can all make a helpful difference in this world, one that includes more than it excludes, one that helps more than it harms. I don’t practice any particular faith, although I still have a strong interest in the radical politics of early Christianity and contemporary Christian Anarchism.

Where did the image come from?

The image, “Celtic Abstract on Blue,” was designed by Jane McIlroy, a local artist and photographer.

Any other questions?

Just send an email to hello@garaí and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.