A Christmas Hymn: A Solis Ortus Cardine

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29 June 2021

A hymn by Fr Allan MacDonald (1859-1905) Researched and sung by Fergus Munro

Lyrics

Afar from where the son doth rise
To lands beneath the western skies,
Homage to Christ our King we pay,
Born of a Virgin’s womb this day

Blessed Creator, thou didst take
A servant’s likeness for our sake,
And didst in flesh our flesh restore
To bid thy creature live once more.

Chaste was the womb where thou didst dwell
Of heavenly grace the hidden cell –
Nor might the blessèd Maid proclaim
Whence her dread Guest in secret came.

Down from on high God came to rest
His glory in a sinless breast;
Obedience at his word believed,
And virgin innocence conceived.

Ere long that holy Child she bore
By Gabriel’s message named before,
Whom, yet unborn, with eager pride,
The swift forerunner prophesied.

Fast doth he sleep where straw doth spread
A humble manger for his bed;
A Mother’s milk that strength renewed
Which gives the birds of heaven their food.

Glory to God, the angels cry,
Earth hears the echo from on high;
Mankind’s true Shepherd and its Lord
By shepherd hearts is first adored.

Jesus, of Virgin Mother born,
Praise be to thee this holy morn
Praise to the Father endlessly
And his life-giving Spirit be.
(Translation by Ronald Black)

Why I chose this hymn

Songs and poems with religion, Christ or Church as their subject rarely appear at the Mod or at Fèisean or their like. Even in Church! I wish to remedy that because there are many examples of excellent writing on these subjects. So I have been collecting Christian songs. I intend to create a resource for the Gaelic church, but also for those who have or do not have any faith.

Father Allan created many hymns and this one is a good example of religious writing from a great poet from my own area. (more on Father Allan below). His new words and the ancient tune come together in a lovely manner - old and young at the same time. In my opinion the tunes the old monks had are not so different from the traditional Gaelic tunes. And the Gaelic world needs more carols at Christmas time.

The author

Allan MacDonald was born in Fort William in 1859. His people belonged to the MacDonalds of Keppoch, known for great poets. Sìleas of Keppoch is still famous for her poems and hymns. Fr Allan served as a priest in Daliburgh, South Uist, and in Eriskay for nearly twenty years. He collected a lot of history, songs and tales as a hobby and he composed songs and poetry as well.

His strong faith is evident in his writings. He often meditates on Mary, God, Christ and the Catholic Church. He wrote much about the day of judgement as did other hymn-writers such as Peter Grant and Dugald Buchanan. He died in Eriskay in 1905.

The hymn

This is a translation of a song older than Gaelic! The song was written in Latin around the year 450 by Coelius Sedulius. The tune is about 1500 years old. It is one of the first ‘carols’ in any language. Father Allan’s version is a very good example of his poetic skills. Ronald Black praises it:
‘[T]he Gaelic text is very skilfully constructed to match the stresses of the Latin chant [...] It is hard to think of anyone today who would have enough knowledge of Gaelic, Latin and music to do anything similar.’

This is how the tune appears in Eilein na h-Òige:

Acknowledgements

I would like to say thankyou to Ronald Black who helped me with my research.

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