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Title Chì Mi, Bàrdachd Dhòmhnaill Iain Dhonnchaidh (The Gaelic Poetry of Donald John MacDonald)
Author MacDhòmhnaill, Dòmhnall Iain
Editor Innes, Bill
Date Of Edition 2001
Date Of Language 1950-1999
Publisher Birlinn
Place Published Edinburgh
Volume N/A
Location National, academic and local libraries
Geographical Origins South Uist
Register Literature, Verse
Alternative Author Name Dòmhnall Iain Dhonnchaidh
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 21.5cm x 13.4cm
Short Title Chì Mi
Reference Details EUL, Celtic Library: LI G MacD
Number Of Pages xxx, 386
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context Donald John MacDonald was born in Peninerine in 1919, the second youngest in a family of four. There were poets in his family on both his mother’s and his father’s side. His mother, Margaret, was Dòmhnall Ruadh Phàislig’s sister and his father, Duncan (Donnchadh Clachair, or Donnchadh Mac Dhòmhnaill ’ac Dhonnchaidh as he was known locally) was a storyteller who claimed his ancestry from the MacRuairidh bards of Clan Donald. Donald John was very close to his younger sister Ann, and as their father (a stonemason) was often away from home, partly due to his storytelling commitments, it was their uncle, Neil (a joiner, with whom they shared the house), who had the greatest influence on Donald John and his younger sister Ann as they were growing up.

Donald John first heard English at school in Howmore. He did not like school at all, and was happy to leave at the age of 14 to work on the croft. His older brother, Donald Eòin, who had gone on to further education in Fort William, unfortunately died of TB at the age of 21, before Donald John had left school. At this point, there was no pressure for Donald John to leave the island and further his education. He therefore opted to stay at home on the croft, where he learned from his uncle Neil about the folklore and songs of the island, and about the literary poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries. The work of the eighteenth century North Uist bard, John MacCodrum, greatly influenced him and he would frequently have heard MacCodrum’s works sung by his father and his uncle.

At the age of 18, Donald John and his friends joined the Militia, just two years before the outbreak of war. When war broke out, he found himself in the Highland Division and, after being taken prisoner in 1940, he spent five years in a prison camp in Germany. His recollections from this time have been published in Fo Sgail a’ Swastika (1974 and 2000, see Text 34).

After the war, Donald John returned to Peninerine and in 1948, aged 29, won the Bardic Crown (including the Ailsa Trophy) at the Glasgow Mod for his poem Moladh Uibhist (pp. 20-31). In the following years, Donald John struck up an acquaintance with Grimsay bard Mary MacLean and for a time they became romantically involved. Mary broke off the engagement, however, partly due to social pressure because Donald John was a Catholic, and partly to retain her independence. Donald John eventually married his next door neighbour’s niece Nellie (Neilina) MacNeil in 1954, and in 1955 their daughter Margaret was born.

Donald John remained at the croft in Peninerine until his death in 1986. During his lifetime, as well as writing poetry and prose, he collected folklore from the area for the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh and became quite well known as a folklorist. Of his published work, Sguaban Eòrna, published in 1973, was his first book of poetry. After Fo Sgail a’ Swastika came Uibhist a Deas, published in 1981, on the history and traditions of South Uist. In addition, some of his poetry was published in the Stornoway Gazette and in Gairm. Donald John also wrote a number of hymns which were published in the 1986 hymnal Seinnibh dhan Tighearna. He was introduced to the idea of writing hymns by Ishabel T. MacDonald who, in the late 1970s, showed him some of Seán Ó Riada’s work in Irish. Ishabel herself set many of his hymns to music, as did Fr. Roderick MacNeil, and the hymns became some of Donald John’s most popular works. Donald John also did some translation work, completing a translation of Gray’s Elegy in the late 1940s (pp. 186-93 – the editor has added a few lines that were not included in the original MS) and, in the 1980s, he completed translations of a number of well known classical arias, one of which, Nìghneagan Oga (a translation of Voi Che Sapete from The Marriage of Figaro) was sung by Mary Sandeman in front of an audience of over 5000 people at the Albert Hall in London.
Contents This volume begins with Acknowledgements (p. v) and an Introduction (pp. vii-xxiv), which includes sections on Biography (see Social Context above), The Poetry (see below), and The Translations (see below). This is followed by a table of Contents (pp. xxv-xxx), which lists the poems in the order in which they appear in the text. The poems have been presented in this volume in a roughly chronological order (with the exception of the opening poem, Chì Mi), although the editor makes it clear in the ‘Introduction’ that much of Donald John’s work was undated.

The main body of the text comprises 94 poems (pp. 2-337) and 14 hymns (pp. 339-61), many of which have short introductions. The poems and hymns are presented in Gaelic and English on facing pages. Most of the translations are the work of the editor, although he acknowledges John Campbell for the translation of Moladh Uibhist and of some of the hymns. The translations are intended to be more literal than poetic.

The poems are followed by an Appendix (pp. 362-73) containing five songs not included in the first edition of this volume (see Edition below); some brief Notes (pp. 374-83) on the poems, including notes on subject matter, people, and terminology; an Index of First Lines (pp. 384-86); and a short bibliography entitled Further Reading (p. 386). There are four pages of black and white photographs between pages 162 and 163.

The Poetry

Donald John uses a variety of metres and rhyme-schemes in his poetry, and draws heavily on the practices of seventeenth and eighteenth century Gaelic poets. He uses metres such as iorram and Standard Habbie (one of Robert Burns’ favourites), and metrical ornamentation including comhardadh ‘end-rhyme’, uaithne ‘assonance’ and aicill ‘internal rhyme’. His poetry demonstrates his intimate knowledge of rhymes and metres and shows his ability to use them masterfully. Most of Donald John’s early poetry used such complicated metres and rhyme-schemes, and his verse was generally set to music, as was common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In later life, however, Donald John began to turn to more modern forms of poetry, and stopped using traditional metres and setting his work to music. He himself noted, ‘Bha uair a bha sinn a’ dèanamh òrain airson an gabhail – tha sinn a-nist a’ sgrìobhadh na bàrdachd airson a leughadh’ (p. xx). Snaoiseabhal (pp. 294-95) is an example from the transitional period where the poet still retains the traditional metre. Donald John’s poems vary in length from around twenty lines (e.g. Chì Mi, pp. 2-3) to over 200 lines (e.g. Aig Uaigh a’ Choigrich, pp. 94-103).
Sources Some of Donald John’s poems were previously published in Gairm (e.g. 1984) and in the Stornoway Gazette, and much of his earlier work was published in Sguaban Eòrna (1973). Many of the later poems published in this volume were taken from MSS which the poet had given to Ishabel T. MacDonald. The editor states in the ‘Introduction’ that there may be unpublished poems which have been lost over time, and that some of Donald John’s early unpublished works have been left out of this volume, ‘on the grounds that he himself did not deem them worthy of inclusion’ (p. xxii), presumably the reason why he had not published them in Sguaban Eòrna. It is clear from the ‘Notes’ that the editor also had tape recordings of the poet reciting his poems and that, in some cases, the editor has used lines as they were on the tape, rather than as they were published. Where this is the case, the alternative lines are given in the ‘Notes’.
Language Donald John’s poetry contains a wealth of vocabulary from South Uist. He had what the editor describes as ‘a vocabulary encyclopaedic by today’s standards’ (p. xiii), much of which has now been lost. The editor states that, when he was translating the poetry, some of the early poems proved difficult to translate, partly because of their complicated rhyme-schemes, and partly because of the difficult vocabulary. Some of the words could not be found in any Scottish Gaelic dictionary, and had to be ‘tracked back to Irish’ (p. xxiii) to find their meaning.

Donald John’s poetry covers a wide range of topics. A number of his poems are love poems, often to his first love, Mary MacLean, such as An Rìbhinn Uasal (pp. 108-13) and Mo Chridhe fo Leòn (pp. 114-16); or to his wife, such as Chan Iongnadh Ged Bhithinn (pp. 174-79). The editor describes Thusa (pp. 122-24) as ‘one of the most passionate expressions of erotic love ever written in Gaelic’ (p. xx). In Donald John’s poetry to women, whether to a lover, a friend or a grandchild, he makes use of panegyric motifs. For example in Mairead Og (pp. 208-13), which he wrote for his niece, he describes her hair as follows: ‘Cuailean dualach, donn \ Sìos gu trom mud shlinnean; \ Cuachach, fàinneach, dlùth, \ ’S àlainn crùn na h-ighinn’ (p. 208-10). In this poem, as in others, he also talks about Mairead’s noble ancestry, stating ‘Tha thu dh’fhuil nam buadh \ Choisneadh buaidh san iomain: \ Dòmhnallaich nan lann, \ Pòr an dream nach tilleadh \ Buidheann ghlèidh gach tùrn, \ ’S lean an cliù an gineil: \ Gruagaichean bu bhòidhch’ \ Dh’fhàs bho phòr na fin’ ud’ (p. 210). He also uses the image of the tree, for example in his first love song, composed for Mary Maclean, An Rìbhinn Uasal (pp. 108-13): ‘Bha chraobh bhon dh’fhàs thu gu saor bho fhàillinn, \ Gun ghaoid am pàirt dhith bho bàrr gu bonn; \ Gu sùghmhor, blàthmhor le h-ùr-dhos àillidh \ ’S an ubhal a b’ fheàrr oirre dh’fhàs air crann; \ ’S am meas bu mhìls’ oirrre, ghlac mi fhìn e - \Bha ’m facal sgrìobhte gur mì bhiodh ann - \ ’S cho blasta, brìoghmhor chan fhacas leibhs’ e \ ’S gur tearc a’ cinntinn san tìr a shamhl’’ (p. 110).

Donald John’s strong Scottish nationalism shows through in some of his work, for example in An Clàrsair (pp. 200-09), Alba air a h-Uilinn (pp. 284-85), and in A’ Chrois-Tàra (pp. 228-31), where we find ‘Aonaichibh air riaghladh fèineil, \ geàrrt’ on bhun an teanga bhreunail, \ leam-is-leat, nach ceartaich eucoir \ ach le plàigh-ghuth \ miodalach ag imlich chreuchd a \ bheir am bàs dhi’ (p. 230).

Donald John also wrote a number of poems about war, all of which are strongly anti-war, such as An Carragh-Cuimhne Cogaidh (pp. 308-11), Flanders (pp. 304-07), Na Neòil (pp. 332-35), Poland (pp. 280-81), Cogadh no Sìth (pp. 310-13), and Uilebheist Ulaidh (pp. 318-21), where we find ‘Uilebheist Ulaidh na crostachd, \ A craos fosgailte gu feòil; \ Tart oirre gus gluasad iorghail \ ’S i ’g imlich timcheall a beòil. \ I murt ann an ainm creidimh, \ A h-altachadh an ainm Dhè, \ ’S dìosg aig a fiacail a’ cnàbladh \ A’ phàistein a mhurt i ’n-dè’ (p. 318).

In addition, Donald John wrote poetry in praise of his native island, such as Moladh Uibhist (pp. 20-31), which won him the Bardic crown in 1948, A’ Bhliadhna Uibhisteach (pp. 282-83) and the nature poem Oran na Beinne Mòire. Much of this poetry is highly descriptive and often includes descriptions of wildlife. For example in Moladh Uibhist (pp. 20-31) we find: ‘An t-eilean breac-loinneil, greannmhor \ Sa bheil a’ phailte gun ghanntar, \ ’S e torrach, beairteach le annlann a’ còpadh - \ Gu lusach, dearcagach, planntach, \ Gu duilleach, meacanach, feanntagach, \ Corrach, bailc-shliosach, cam-bhusach, frògach; \ Tha sruthain thormanach, dhranndanach \ Ruith le foirm feadh nan gleanntan, \ Tha mullaich shorchanach bheanntan fo cheò ann; \ ’S tha gàir’ aig eas-chas nan alltan \ Air feadh nan creag glas a’ dannsa \ ’S aig meud an cleas a’ cur steall feadh na còinnich’ (p. 24). Donald John’s poetry was richly expressive and he often made up compound words, e.g. gorm-bhileach (pp. 108-09), to enhance his poetry.

Donald John also frequently wrote about local events, both good and bad, such as Oran nan Tarbh (pp. 146-53), about the Howmore bull and the bull bought by the Drimsdale ‘Club’; Oran na Rocaid (pp. 232-37), about a rocket fired from the South Uist range which crashed in Loch Druidibeg; and the elegy, Màiri Dhonn - Marbhrann (pp. 180-85), composed after a fishing boat from Barra was lost at sea.

Some of Donald John’s poems are philosophical in tone and many of his later poems contemplate the nature of life, death and the hereafter. Examples include Mi Fhìn ’s a’ Bheinn (pp. 328-31) which the editor argues may be ‘his most important work’ (p. 239); Sùil air Ais ’s air Adhart (pp. 240-47); and Feasgar Beatha (pp. 254-59). His knowledge of folklore is also apparent in poems such as An Ròn (pp. 270-72) where he speaks through one of the ‘seal people’ – nighean Rìgh-fo-Thuinn.

Donald John’s hymns are in general composed in a much simpler style and with simpler vocabulary than his other poetry, as he was aware that many modern Gaelic speakers, even in Uist, might have difficulty understanding his rich vocabulary. For example, A Bhàn-righinn nan Eilean (pp. 350-53) begins ‘A Bhàn-righinn nan Eilean, a Mhoire nan gràs, \ A ghiùlain ’s a riaraich ar Tighearna na phàist’, \ Thoir dhuinne do chobhair, a Mhoire ro naomh, \ Is glèidh sinn o bhuaireadh ’s o thruailleadh an t-saogh’il’ (p. 350).
Orthography The editor provides detailed information on the orthography adopted in this volume and how it compares to that of the original MS. Donald John’s own MS spelling reflected Uist pronunciation, and while some of his original spelling has been retained in this edition, some of it has been modified. For example, Donald John spelt many words which standardly end in -ean, as -ein, which reflects Uist pronunciation, whereas the conventional spelling has been used in this book. Also dropped is his use of accents on the final a of bha and tha, where a long vowel is needed to comply with the metre of the poem. Retained, however, is the poet’s tendency to drop the final m or n of nam, nan, am and an before words beginning with the consonants f, l, r, s. Also retained is the practice of omitting accents on de-stressed long vowels in compound words, to comply with metre.

The South Uist dialect is often integral to the rhyming scheme of the poems; however this is not always reflected in the orthography. For example, on page 32, còmhla iad would be pronounced còmhladh ’ad. The editor also notes that ‘occasionally rhyme takes precedence over grammatical correctness’ (p. xvi). The South Uist pronunciation can thus be inferred from the rhyme-schemes in some poems.
Edition Second edition. The first edition was published in 1998. This edition has been revised and contains corrections, additional notes, an appendix containing five additional works, and an index of first lines. In the first edition, the pictures immediately follow the Contents. The text of the poems appears to be the same in both editions.

Around half of the poems in this volume have been published previously. Many of Donald John’s earlier poems were published in Sguaban Eòrna, while some post-1973 poems were published in Gairm and in the Stornoway Gazette. One poem, A’ Bhliadhna Uibhisteach, was published in 1981 in Uibhist a Deas. There are some orthographic differences, mostly involving accents and apostrophes, between the versions of the poem published in this volume and those published elsewhere. For example, A’ Bhliadhna Uibhisteach, published in Uibhist a Deas (1981, p. 6), uses both accents where the version in Chì Mi (pp. 282-83) uses only the grave accent. Uibhist a Deas uses ’sna rather than Chì Mi’s sna, and Bàrr rather than Barr. In the fourth line of the second stanza, however, Uibhist a Deas has ‘Gu binn a’ sruthladh air tràigh ghil;’ whereas Chì Mi has ‘Gu binn a’ sruthladh ri tràigh ghil;’. When lines in Chì Mi differ from those published previously, the editor has often added an endnote to that effect.

Having compared a number of the poems in Sguaban Eeòrna (1973) with the poems published in this volume, it is apparent that most of the differences relate to modern orthographic convention. However, there are many occasions where accents are shown on words in Sguaban Eòrna but not in Chì Mi, and vice versa. For example, in the poem An Clàrsair, Sguaban Eòrna (pp. 70-75) has ìnntinn and bhà where Chì Mi (pp. 200-209) has inntinn and bha. Sguaban Eòrna also has ’s an rather than Chì Mi’s san, calltuinn rather than calltainn, eisd rather than èist, and also gleachd and dhiùchd rather than Chì Mi’s gleac and dhiùc. In this poem, the layout has also been changed. In Sguaban Eòrna, the introductory part of the poem is printed in one stanza, beside Chì Mi’s six stanzas of eight lines plus a final stanza of four lines. Also, the last part of the poem is printed in three stanzas of eight lines in Sguaban Eòrna, whereas Chì Mi has four stanzas of four lines and a final stanza of eight lines. Most of the other poems in the volume seem to correspond in layout to those published in Chì Mi. Other differences can be seen in the presentation of h’uallach and h’uile in Sguaban Eòrna, as opposed to h-uallach and h-uile in Chì Mi. Sguaban Eòrna also contains some idiosyncratic spellings, e.g. ar ’n òige rather than ur n-òige in the poem Feasgar Beatha.

Differences in those poems published both in Gairm (1984) and in Chì Mi are also mainly orthographic. For example, in Mi fhin ’s a’ Bheinn, Gairm has t’aodainn where Chì Mi has d’ aodainn. Gairm also has muillean rather than millean, bho d’ rather than bhod, mus rather than mas, and ri d’ rather than rid. Gairm also has do fhear whereas Chì Mi has do dh’fhear.

It has not proved possible to locate a copy of the 1986 hymnal Seinnibh dhan Tighearna in any Scottish Library.
Other Sources
Further Reading MacDhòmhnaill, Domhnull Iain, Sguaban Eòrna, 1973.
MacDhòmhnaill, Domhnull Iain, Fo Sgail a’ Swastika, 1974.
MacDhòmhnaill, Domhnull Iain, Uibhist a Deas, 1981.
MacDhòmhnaill, Dòmhnall Iain, ‘Dorlach Dhan’, Gairm 127, 1984, pp. 262-66.
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