The Gaelic way of living in the world
When I began teaching at the Gaelic College in the late seventies, the sole Gaelic teacher there was Tena Morrison, by then in her upper years. In those days, each morning before class, an assembly was held; “O Canada” was sung and the Lord’s Prayer was recited—both in Gaelic, of course. At the time, we took the Gaelic version of the National Anthem for granted, and did not ask who had written it. But it was clear that it was not a translation of the English or French versions.
As so often happens, information may come to light years later. Thanks to Pádraig Ó Siadhail, of St. Mary’s University, for referring me to the book “Mìle mìle i gcéin” (‘The Irish Language in Canada”), by Danny Doyle (Ottawa: Borealis Press.) In it, Doyle includes the footnote: “The Scottish Gaelic version of ‘O Canada’, the basis for the *Irish translation, was composed in the Gaelic communities on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, sometime in the early 20th century…” But is that so?
Recently, the Canadian Government was intent on making the English version of the anthem more inclusive by changing the words “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command”. And so, on Dec. 6, 2016, Cape Breton’s Senator Michael L. Macdonald, who sits on the Transport and Communications Committee, rose to speak. Sen. Macdonald, born the youngest of ten children in Louisburg in 1955, “with ancestral roots to some of C.B.’S earliest settlers”, is clearly proud of his Gaelic heritage as the following excerpt shows:
“Honourable Senators, I bring to your attention that there was an earlier version of ‘O Canada’ produced in another language besides English and French. This was the Scottish Gaelic version….norman Murray of Ontario was the author….he captured the spirit of the original French version when he wrote, ‘O Ceanada! An taobh tuath treubhach còir; crùn air do cheann, de dhuilleag dhearg’s òr…’ ” (At this point some senators call out: “Hear! Hear!”) Senator Macdonald goes on: “Isn’t that beautifully expressed? …In addition, it is both gender neutral and inclusive. In short, it’s got it all. I say we go with this!”
Sen. Macdonald told me there were two variants of the Scottish Gaelic version—the one he quotes from above, and the one we’re more familiar with in Cape Breton. (See the Gaelic column.) When translated, it clearly stands apart from the English version: “O Canada! country of the gentle heroes /a crown on your head (crowned) with leaf (both) red and gold; / from ocean to ocean, with a sweet song / we will praise your fame; / under shelter of your wing, there is grand freedom / that the enemy won’t tear from us; / O Canada, desire of our hearts / (may there be) happiness (blessing) and peace with the goodness of God to our land!”
“Norman Murray of Ontario” remains elusive; but we can all learn to sing the **Gaelic version if we choose—a good resolution for this Gaelic Awareness Month!
*Translated to Irish by Aralt Macgiolla Chainnigh, leader of the Irish Language movement in Canada.
**Listen to various Gaelic renditions on Youtube.