Bunessan/”Leanabh an Eigh”

I was Googling around for a question about “Morning Is Broken” that came up in the comments section at Confessions of a Recovering Choir Director and ended up doing more research than I intended. And none of it posted, for some reason. (Sigh.) So I’m posting it here.

The lyrics of “Morning Is Broken” (which, by the way, I like — you don’t have to sing the song syrupy, you know!) are of course by Eleanor Farjeon, a very gifted minor mid-century American poet. She was also the author of some very good fantasy books, mostly for children. I don’t know whether or not Farjeon was Catholic, but our parochial school library certainly included both her books and poems.

The music to which the lyrics are set is a 19th century Highland tune. Its composer is unknown, but it was used as the setting for “Leanabh an Aigh” (Child of Wonder), a Gaelic Christmas carol written by a poet from the island of Mull, Mary Macdonald, or to give her her full Gaelic name, “Mairi Dhughallach NicLucais, bean Neil Dhomhnullaich ann an Ard Tunna”. Which means, Mairi Dhughallach (Dhugallach’s her nickname, distinguishing her from all the other Marys), daughter of Lucas, wife of Neil Dhomhnullaich, from Ard Tunna. She would have been one of the clan of the MacDonalds, but she wouldn’t use that as a last name. (And not much point, really, given that practically everybody else thereabouts was a MacDonald, too!) The tune is called “Bunessan” (or Bun Easain for the Gaelic-ly correct) after a nearby village on Mull.

(UPDATE: Here’s a gorgeous picture of sunset at Bunessan.)

“Leanabh an Aigh” is apparently found in English hymnbooks in a translation called “Child in a Manger” and done by Lachlan MacBean (for his 1888 book Songs and Hymns of the Scottish Highlands) . This is apparently where Cat Stevens heard the tune.

As with most folk hymns, there are at least two slightly different versions of the Gaelic lyrics to “Leanabh an Aigh”. This one is online at Let’s Sing and is more complete, but also more “grammatically correct”. Which way Mairi actually sang it is anybody’s guess. There’s a shorter version online at this Esperanto site, believe it or not! The English translation is not by me and is not the same as “Child in a Manger”. I found two online translations called “Infant of Wonder”. One is by Hilda Leslie and was done in 1978. The other I found in the church history of Cambuslang Baptist Church. It was done by a former minister of the church, the Rev. D. Gunn Sutherland, back in the late 19th century. (Unfortunately, the church transcription left out the last line of the song!) Anyway, I’m doing a baaaad thing and combining the translations to better fit the Gaelic verses we have here, as well as making picky little changes which I’ve asterisked.

(‘S e) Leanabh an aigh an leanabh bh’aig Mairi,
(A) Rugadh ‘san stabull, Righ nan Dul,
Thainig do’n fhasach dh’fhulang ‘nar n-aite,
Is sona do’n aireamh bhiteas dha dluth.

Infant of wonder, infant of Mary,
Born in a stable, Lord* over all,
Came from on high to hear our transgressions,
Happy are those who may on Him call.

Is ann an Iudea chualas an sgeulachd
As binne r’a eisdeachd na teudan ciuil,
Armailt na Flaitheis is ainglean Neimh
Ag ard-mholadh Dhe ‘s a’seinn a chliu.

Town in Judea* echoes the tidings,
Sweeter than music’s trembling chords;
Armies of angels, hosts of the Highest,
Loudly are lauding God, the Lord.

Iriosal, striochdach thainig an Ti so,
‘S deacair dhomh innseadh meud a chliu;
Prionnsa na sithe a rugadh mar chiochran
Ann an staid iosal is gun mhuirn.

L: Lowly and humble He came to save us,
Boundless His power and mighty His name,
Prince* of peace, He was born of a virgin
In lowly estate without pomp or acclaim.

Eisdubh an fhuaim le sgeula nam buadh
A dh’aithris na buchaillean o thus:
“Gheibh sibh an t-Uan ‘s a’phrasaich ‘na shuain,
‘S e shaoras a shluagh le buaidh is le cliu.”

L: List to the sound and the tale of His glory
That to the shepherds there was told:*
“The Lamb will be found asleep in a manger,
He who will save us from Satan’s fold.”

‘S e teachgdaire ‘n aigh a thainig o’n airde
A dh’innis le gradh na bha ‘na run:
“Geibh sibh ‘san stabull ‘m fochar a mhathar
Naoidhean thug barr air cach gach uair.”

L: The herald of tidings wondrous and joyful
Came from on high his good news to bear:
“There in the stable next to his mother,
Your mighty savior, beyond compare.”*

“Seallaibh ged tha e ‘m prasaich ‘san stabull,
An armailt ro-laidir air a chul:
Ainglean o’n airde a’frithealadh dha-san,
Cumhachd is gras is gradh ‘na ghnuis.”

L: “Behold though you find Him asleep in a stable,*
Mighty His army stands in its place,*
Angels from heaven haste to attend Him,
Power and grace and love in his face.”*

Ged a bhiodh leanaban aig righribh na talmhainn
Le greadhnachas garbh ‘s le anabarr muirn,
‘S gearr gus am falbh iad ‘s fasaidh muirn,
An ailleachd ‘s an deabh a’searg ‘s an uir.

S: Scions of kings, though greeted with grandeur,
Festal rejoicing’s vain display –*
Swift ebbs their life’s stream, strength quickly waning*,
Beauty and form in dust decay.

‘S iomadh fear treubhach, gaisgealach, gleusda
Chaisg air an steud ‘s nach eirich dhiubh
A chaoidh gus an seidear trompaid Mhic Dhe
Ag ar-mholadh Dhe ‘s a’seinn a chliu.

L: Brave men of valour, powerful and mighty,
Go forth to war in carnage to die,
They shall arise at God’s son’s own trumpet,*
Praising our Lord, our Saviour on high.

Cha b’ionnan ‘s an t-Uan a thainig g’ar fuasgladh,
Iriosal, stuama ghluais e an tus,
E naomh gun truailleachd, cruithear an t-sluaigh
A dh’eirich a suas le buaidh o’n uir.

S: Not thus the Lamb who came to redeem us,
L: Humble and meek but mighty to save,
S: Spotless and holy, his hosts’ Creator*,
L: Ever victorious over the grave.

Seallaibh cia ard E nis ann am Parras
Ag ullacgadh aite d’a chairdean ruin;
O’n cheannaich a bhas dhaibh sonas do-aireamh,
A ghealladh gu brath cha teid air chul.

L: Now far on high in Paradise waiting,
Welcome prepared for all of His own;

S: Those by death purchased, them he has promised
Ne’er to forsake or leave alone.*

Athair nan gras, neartaich ar cail
Chum moladh gu brath thoirt dha le cliu,
Do’n Ti as ro-airde a dh’ullaich dhuinn Slanighear
A dh’fhuiling am bas ‘nar n-aite ‘s nar rum.

L: Father of grace, O strengthen our purpose
To praise Him forever, great is His name;
God from on high who sent our Redeemer
To die on the cross, from heaven He came.

Teagaisg a Righ dhuinn slighe na sithe,
‘Nad cheumaibh direach cum sinn dluth;
Thusa bha dileas dhuinne bho shiorruiddheachd,
Urras ro-chinnteach air an cul.

L: Lead us, O Lord, on life’s peaceful pathways;
Thee we would follow, close by Thy side.
Prize for the faithful, life everlasting,
Through life’s dark shadows be Thou our guide.

Neartaich ar dochas, meudaich ar n-eolas,
Cum sinn ‘nad roidean direach, dluth,
Le ola ‘nar lochrain mar ris na h-oighibh
A’seinn ann an gloir an orain uir.

L: Hope will sustain us, knowledge will guide us,
Staunch in Thy footsteps we follow Thee,
Singing Thy praises on highways to glory,
Happy and joyful, Lord, we shall be.

So leanbh an aigh mar dh’aithris na faidhean
‘S na h-ainglean arda b’e miann as sul,
‘S e as airidh air gradh ‘s air urram thiort dha,
Is sona do’n aireamh bhitheas dha dluth.

S: Infant of wonder, theme of the prophets,
Angels adore, eyes full of longing,*
Worthy of love is He and of honour,

L: Happy those who may call on the King.*

*King: Leslie has “Lord”. Well, yeah, there were a lot of kings loose in the Irish and Scottish countryside, so, yeah, you could translate it “Lord”. Except there are other words for that. “Righ” means king. Sigh. I’ll leave it be.

*That town in Judea: Sutherland has “Bethlehem’s city”, Leslie has just “Bethlehem”, and both of them obviously have some dislike for kennings. Bah. I stand with Mairi on this poetic issue.

*Prince: Mairi has “prionnsa” and Leslie goes with “Symbol”?! Oh, pleeeeease. Singing translations are one thing; nonsense is quite another.

*Leslie has this line as “Told to the shepherds there in the fold”. But once you’ve used “List”, why hold back and introduce repetitiousness?

*Leslie has “�There in the stable lies your sweet saviour,/Peerless and mighty, beyond compare.�, which completely leaves out the reference to his mom.

*Leslie has “manger”, but you can see Mairi repeated “stable” again. Again, I stand with Mairi.

*Leslie has “Mighty His army, wondrous His power;” and “Love and compassion both are His dower.�. I changed the former to make the latter closer to the original.

*Sutherland had “Festal rejoicings -vain display;”. I changed the punctuation a bit, that’s all. I also changed “waneth” to “waning” so as to fit in with the rest of the song. I feel depressed about that.

*Leslie had “when sounds the last trumpet”. Which actually sounds better in English, but yes, I’m picky about translations, darn it!

*Sutherland had “spotless and holy” in his second line. Neither Sutherland nor Leslie translates Mairi’s “Creator of the troops/hosts” straight, so I helped ’em.

*Sutherland: “Whom he hath purchased, them He hath promised” is really nice, but it left out “by death”. Sorry about the mutilation.

*Sutherland: “Angels adoring, see the king”, but Mairi had something more like “with longing in their eyes” and no King. I didn’t change Lord into King in that one verse, so I had an extra one hanging around. Unfortunately, this means the ending line of the last stanza isn’t the same as the first. But it was that or “Angels adore with longing eyeball”, and I don’t think we wanted that.


Filed under Church, Translations

6 responses to “Bunessan/”Leanabh an Eigh”

  1. Hi there. Musicnotes.com has prompted a revitalising of the tune Bunessan, but their arrangement doesn’t include lyrics. I found your site, and wish to thank you for the time you put into collating the various translations. May I post your version on my blog, and please could I have your name so I can attribute it appropriately? =)

  2. For another story of the source of the tune, “Bunessan” see my You Tube entry. at http://www.youtube.com/user/ruanich

  3. I was looking for thy lyrics for my diary, and I am so happy you shared the stories and especially the lyrics. Thank you!

  4. The third line means literally “came from the desert to suffer in our place”. I’m not sure why the translation would be so different considering it wouldn’t be so hard to fit it to the meter. “Fulang” is more than just sort of “suffering”, it’s more like suffering patiently or enduring… “fulangas Chriosd'” is “the suffering of Christ”.

    But thanks for posting this! I had no idea there were so many verses… I’ve only ever sung four.

  5. Stephanie

    Oh, this is wonderful! You have saved me hours of research. I had the same questions you did, and was following the same trail, when I found this blog post. Thank you so much.

  6. Gilbert MacKay

    The spelling in your heading should be Aigh (not Eigh). My Dad (a native Gaelic speaker) was Baptist minister in Bunessan in the 1940s, and so my affection for the tune and its history are pretty old!

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