Leanabh an àigh Leanabh is a Gaelic hymn rendered Child in the Manger in its English translation by Lachlan MacBean to fit the tune Bunessan (Morning has broken).
The Gaelic was written by Màiri Dhòmhnallach, well known as a poet and singer, from the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. Born in 1817 at Àird Tunna near Bunessan on Mull. She married Neil MacDonald, a local man, and Mull was her home all her life. She died in 1890 and Scottish Gaelic was her only language. As she sat spinning or performing other chores, she composed songs. Several of her compositions were hymns because she was very religious. She attended the Baptist Church in Bunessan. The lyrics were hers, but she sang them to an older tune she’d heard. Writing new words and setting them to old tunes was common, and the island was full of tunes from which to choose. Her most famous hymn was Leanabh an Àigh (Child of Joy) and it was set to a tune MacBean called Bunessan. MacBean’s English ‘translation’ with its emphasis on suffering is bleaker than the Gaelic words in the first verse. He changed the tone: no words for ‘outcast and stranger’, no ‘mighty redeemer’ in Gaelic, and àigh does not mean ‘manger’, it means ‘joy’. Màiri’s words are gentler yet more realistic. The English, below, is a better translation but doesn’t fit the tune.
Leanabh an àigh Leanabh bh’ aig Màiri Rugadh san staball Rìgh nan dul Thàinig don fhàsach Dh’ fhuiling nar n-àite Son’ iad an àireamh Bhitheas Dha dlùth.
Ged a bhios leanabain aig rìghrean na talmhainn An greadhnachas garbh is anabarr mùirn ‘S geàrr gus am falbh iad ‘s fàsaidh iad anfhann An ailleachd ‘s an dealbh a’ searg san ùir.
Cha b’ ionann ‘s an t-uan Thàinig gur fuasgladh Iriosal, stuama ghluais E ‘n tùs E naomh gun truailleachd Chruithfhear an t-sluaigh Dh’ èirich e suas le buaidh on ùir.
Leanabh an àigh Mar dh’ aithris na fàighean ‘S na h-àinglean àrd b’ e miann an sùl ‘S E ‘s airidh air gràdh ‘s ar n’ urram thoirt Dha Sona an àireamh Bhitheas Dha dlùth.
This translation is close to the Gaelic:
Child of Joy Child of Mary Born in a stable King of the universe Came to the wilderness Suffered in our place Happy are they who are close to Him.
Although the kings of the earth have children with great rejoicing and much cheer; Soon they will leave and grow weak Their beauty and appearance Fading in the grave.
There is no equal to the Lamb Who came to free us Humble, modest since he first walked; He was holy without impurity Creator of humanity He rose up Victorious from the grave.
Child of Joy As foretold by the prophets And the Archangels He was the apple of their eye; He is worthy of love And the worship given Him Happy are they Who are close to him.
St Luke 2: 4 – 7
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
I am blessed with a reasonable command of the English language but I’m perfectly dreadful at any other language I’ve ever attempted to learn. Knowing just enough French to make a fool of myself with Francophone friends I learned, early on, that some things just don’t translate well – humour and idiom in particular. Lachlan MacBean clearly wanted to spread the fame, and use, of Màiri Dhòmhnallach’s beautiful hymn wishing to pair it with the lovely tune Bunessan. Yet he lost much of its joy in his translation.
Living a simple, poor, life on the edge of Britain, in Mull, gave Màiri an insight into Jesus the king of the universe who was born on the edge in a stable. In contrast to the earthly joy and rejoicing when new princes are born, Jesus came amongst us in simplicity. Yet, unlike those princes who wither and decay, Jesus lives forever. Màiri wished to express joy in her carol; the infectious joy of a simple believer who lived on the edge.
Jesus, another who lived on the edge, who probably spoke little else beyond Aramaic (though he could read Hebrew) found ways to have joy in the simple things of life – telling us not to worry about money or food or clothes but to give praise to God in all things.
In the midst of our Christmas celebrations and reflections we remember the joy of the season – a simple, edgy, joy not based on wealth or possessions but on Màiri’s idea that “happy are those who are close to Him.”
The peace of earth to Him, the joy of heaven to Him, behold His feet have reached the world; the homage of a king be His, the welcome of a lamb be His, King all victorious, Lamb all glorious, Earth and ocean illumed to him, all hail, let there be joy!
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and a member of the Peedie Kirk, Orkney.