The best Gaelic song in the world—An Eala Bhan

Gur duilich leam mar tha mi
‘s mo chridhe ‘n sas aig bron

Sorrow is with me because my heart and I are full of sadness

Sounds a bit melodramatic until you realise the guy who wrote it was living through the trenches of World War One at the time. An Eala Bhan is perhaps the most beautiful song in any Gaelic language and I’d like to take some till to explore with you why that’s the case.

Let’s re-look at those two lines. When English speakers read a literal translation like that, there’s often so many things they miss. For instance, mo chridhe, my heart, is an affectionate term for your beloved. He’s playing on this double meaning to basically just say, I’m sad I’m sad I’m sad I’m sad over two lines, but he’s also setting up the whole song by outlining where his sorrow comes from: it’s not, though we shall see rather vividly, the horror of the trenches, but the separation from his beloved and the suffering it’s causing both of them.

It’s not every day I get to share the poetry of such a beautiful song with you so I’m going to indulge myself a bit by sharing some of my other favourite lines. In the verse starting tha ‘n talamh leir… he’s talking about being in the trenches with explosions all around. It’s so deeply ironic that the second and third lines read like, the piles going upwards and the clouds from the shells hitting; the words themselves are so chaotic it’s hard to make sense of them. He’s carrying the verb-to-be over 3 lines, stretching it beyond what you’d normally do. The irony continues when the first clear thing he says with normal syntax is literally, it’s not clear to me. He’s not just using visceral descriptions to give you a feel of it, he’s using language to make you feel his confusion, culminating in the intense irony of us finally understanding him when he says he’s most confused.

At times he actually plays upon our expectations of the verse itself to make multiple points. The first verse has him rattle off what he’s missing the most about Scotland. The misty mountain peaks, the romantic glens, the lochs; he misses it all. But here’s the kick. If you didn’t notice his pun on mo chridhe and therefore realise his greatest anguish is over a beloved, you’ll read this and think at the heart it’s all about homesickness. So when he mentions an eala bhan, the white swan, who lives there, it doesn’t seem to matter—he’s just being poetic, isn’t he? Why then does he wrap up that verse by saying it’s her he misses the most? If you haven’t gotten the hints by then, he starts the very next verse with a call to her directly: A Mhagaidh na bi tursach—Maggie don’t be sad. I think he’s done this deliberately though, he was homesick, by all means, but it wasn’t his greatest sorrow—his greatest sorrow was being separated from her. By keeping the ambiguity though, not only does it give you a greater kick when you realise, but it also shows what else he’s missing too.

To get incredibly deep into the finer aspects of poetry for a second, he does something beautiful at one point with assonance. One verse starts,

Ach ma thig an t-am

Is anns an Fhraing gu faigh mi bas

Now you can’t tell just by looking at this (especially without having any Gaidhlig) but there’s something almost musical in what he does here. He’s using the vowels here almost like a chord change in a song. Ach ma and an are all a short form of ‘a’ but t-am and anns are a slightly different and more drawn out form. Fhraing and faigh have the same ‘ai’ diphthong equivalent to “eye” in English. And it ends with bas similar to though longer than the initial sound like ach. To hear it out loud sounds like three chord changes ending back with the initial one and hence having a sense of completeness. It sounds incredibly sweet and lyrical, so when  you realise it’s literally saying, but if the time comes when I die in France—and that very last word bas actually means death—it becomes incredibly haunting. That someone could create something so beautiful out of something so horrifying is a mystery to me even now.

It’s all very beautiful, that’s for sure, but we can actually learn more about oral poetry from studying this song itself. See, the man who created it, Domhnall Ruadh Choruna (or, Donald MacDonald for you English speakers), never learnt to read or write in Gaidhlig (Scottish Gaelic). He grew up with the tongue but English was what was officially taught in schools. As a result, his poetry uses a lot more rhetorical techniques than many other poets I’ve encountered, by virtue of them helping him remember where he’s up to and what’s meant to come next. One thing he does is  foreshadow with the first line or two. As we saw, the first lines of the song foreshadow the whole thing (as well as the first verse), but if you look at the other verses you’ll realise most do a similar thing. Now he also uses a fair bit of enjambment—this technique of delaying the full meaning by continuing the syntax over multiple lines—which sounds like it would confuse you but it gives you a thread to keep you going. A final one I’ll point out is, beyond just playing with meaning, he plays with sound itself as a way of helping him remember. There’s a lot of alliteration and assonance within lines themselves which help them flow but where he does this especially is at the end of one line and the start of the next. Many times he uses assonance or rhyme to connect lines which, like his use of enjambment, you’d think would be confusing but it actually helps you keep the flow. As someone so taken with this song I decided to memorise it, I realised ironically how easy it was, despite not being fluent in the language. And, I put it to you, that’s because it was created by someone who was unable to write it down when he made it.

Now I’ve just scratched the surface of what this song does so amazingly. Compare how he uses words like b(h)an or c(h)eo across verses—to have a meaning at one time of something glorious or beautiful and at another to represent the horror of the trenches, and then that comparison itself making those words so loaded, makes his work even more powerful still. I guess you’ll just have to go and listen to it yourselves, get smitten with it and start learning Gaidhlig so you can fully appreciate it. I’ll give you a link to two of the best reproductions of his song, the more popular version by Julie Fowlis and the less well-known but arguably more haunting version by Karen Matheson. Go have a listen—I’m sure you’ll be moved by it and I hope you’ll also be inspired by it to grow in your own writing, I know I have.

3 thoughts on “The best Gaelic song in the world—An Eala Bhan

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