Kate Mathis: Bursary Winner Report – Medieval Gaelic literature in the Scottish Celtic Revival

Medieval Gaelic literature in the Scottish Celtic Revival: The case of Deirdre in the work of Alice C. Macdonell

Written, with gratitude, for receipt of a Women’s History Scotland Bursary 2018, which enabled presentation of the following research at the Sixth International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI

The period of the Celtic Revival (c.1880–c.1920) saw a network of writers and artists on both sides of the Irish Sea take their inspiration for wide-ranging creative endeavour from an especially rich source: the literature of medieval Ireland and the deeds of characters like Fergus, Meabh, and Cú Chulainn, the ‘Hound of Ulster’, fashioned afresh to reflect prevailing sympathy with the alleged ideals of a reimagined Celtic past.

 Sketch for Alexander Carmichael’s Deirdire by John Duncan, ca. 1905 – https://www.wikiart.org/en/john-duncan/deirdre-of-the-sorrows; (public domain)

Particular fascination, too, surrounded the character of Deirdre, Yeats’ and J. M. Synge’s ‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’, whose prominence during the Revival – as the “Helen of the Gael”,[i] their most tragic heroine and most famous beauty – far outstripped the significance of her role in its oldest-known depiction. This, a short prose text composed initially during the eighth or ninth centuries, survives from a twelfth-century copy written down as Longes mac n-Uislenn, ‘The exile of Uisliu’s sons’,[ii] an English-language translation of which was published by antiquarian scholar Eugene O’Curry (1794-1862) in 1862 (its most accessible contemporary source, since few Revivalist authors spoke Irish).[iii] Its subsequent promotion, however, as the greatest of Gaelic romances, sits uneasily beside its actual plot, in which Conchobor, the king of Ulster, decrees that a new-born baby girl – for whom only death and destruction have been foretold by his druid, should she survive – be preserved and raised in seclusion from the rest of his court until such time as she is sexually mature (‘reared according to my own will, so that she will be the woman in my company’). A ruler’s inherent duty to protect his people’s best interests pales in comparison to Conchobor’s lust for the girl’s tremendous beauty, also foretold, though her original name – Derdrethar or Deirdriu – means only ‘disruption’. When a trouble-making female poet flouts his authority and introduces the nearly-grown Deirdre to Noísiu, Ainnle, and Ardán – the three ‘Sons of Uisliu’ of the tale’s title – she compels them by invoking a geas (‘tabu’) to remove her from the king’s jurisdiction, and accompanies their fían (‘warrior-band’) from Ulster into Scotland. A briefly peaceful interlude is shattered when the brothers are betrayed by their former ally, Fergus mac Róich, and return to Ireland to meet their deaths at the king’s command. Deirdre, recaptured and forced at last to submit to his desire, but refusing to speak, grieves a full year for the Sons of Uisliu instead, killing herself accidentally whilst attempting to escape from his captivity a second time.

The basic narrative of Longes mac n-Uislenn developed gradually, with often differing emphasis placed upon the characters’ respective roles within each later version. The element of romance – implying that compulsion of love, not fear of dishonour, inspired Noísiu’s removal of Deirdre to Scotland – occurs initially in the oidheadh or marbhadh (‘death-tale’) composed during the 1630s by eminent scholar Seathrún Céitinn (c. 1569-c. 1644), its narrative woven firmly amid the sweeping chronology of his greatly influential Foras Feasa ar Éírinn (‘History of Ireland’). This more personal tone may have been inspired by a now-lost tochmarc (‘wooing-tale’), only the title of which – Aithed Derdrinne re maccaib Uislenn (‘The elopement of Deirdre with the Sons of Uisliu’) – now survives in a late-tenth-century list of stories which educated poets ought to know, though more pragmatic acknowledgement of some such liaison is implied by the claim of a twelfth-century text that Deirdre, whilst in Scotland, gave birth to two children who were fostered by the lord of Emain Abhlach (Arran, ‘island of the apple trees’).[iv] Some version of the brothers’ acquaintance with Deirdre was known also in Gaelic-speaking Scotland, as well as Ireland, from an early stage. An important fifteenth-century manuscript (‘Glendaruel’, or ‘Glenmasan’), its narrative commencing several years later than their flight from Conchobor’s court, sets the location of their temporary refuge in Argyll,[v] a detail retained by the majority of later, similar copies such as Ewan Maclachan’s compilation, in 1812, of several Scottish versions from the Highland Society’s Gaelic collection, established during their recent investigation of the so-called Ossianic Controversy.[vi] The latter, arising from James Macpherson’s (1736-96) claim in the 1760s to have rediscovered and translated three-thousand-year-old verse composed by Oiséan (‘Ossian’), son of Fionn mac Cumhaill, stimulated valuable interest in recovering genuine Gaelic poetry, story, and song – whether written, or transcribed from the oral recitation of local seanchaidhean (‘tradition-bearers’) – but had also the unfortunate effect of entangling Deirdre’s name, and her older portrayal, with the sickly heroine of Macpherson’s poem ‘Darthula’ (1762), whose contents differ wholly from all known existing versions. According to Macpherson’s own explanatory notes – in fact, an attempt to justify the contents of his “monstrous fabrication” of a poem[vii] – Darthula, etymologised as ‘a woman with fine eyes’, lived at Seláma in Ulster and was desired by its usurper king, Cairbar, whose advances she rejects. Meanwhile, three brothers, now ‘Nathos, Althos and Ardan’, are sent from their home near ‘Loch Eta’ in Argyllshire to Ulster, to learn arms from their uncle Cuchullin. Upon arrival, and discovering his recent death, Nathos assumes command of Cuchullin’s army and is seen from afar by Darthula, who falls in love with him, but their attempt to escape to Scotland is prevented by bad weather. Forced to resume battle against Cairbar, Darthula takes up arms alongside the brothers and, like them, is killed amidst a hail of arrows (‘her shield fell from Darthula’s arm, her breast of snow appeared […] but it was stained with blood for an arrow was fixed in her side. She fell on the fallen Nathos like a wreath of snow’).[viii]

‘Dun Mac Uisneach or Beregonium, at Benderloch Station’, from William Graham Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach, 1908 –  https://archive.org/details/deirdresonsofuis00grahuoft; public domain

The pervasive influence of Macpherson’s poetry throughout the nineteenth century upon monoglot English-speaking, Anglo-Highland authors – unwilling, but also unable to appreciate its numerous departures from Gaelic tradition – is apparent in the gradual establishment of ‘Darthula’ as a standard for uncriticised authority, frequent praise, and devoted imitation. William Graham, author of Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach: A Scoto-Irish romance of the first century AD (1908), rather spoils the effect of his stated intention – to present “the full narrative, embracing the wanderings of the heroes in Scotland” – by prefacing his otherwise well-informed summary of existing English-language discussions with a decorative quotation from Macpherson’s poem.[ix] The same quotation (‘Awake, Darthula, awake, thou first of women!/ The wind of spring is abroad/ The flowers shake their heads on the green hills/ The woods wave their growing leaves’) is placed in the mouth of R. Angus Smith’s (1817-84) Ossian-obsessed Lowland tourist, one of a party of quietly parodied travellers[x] whose tour of Argyllshire forms the basis of his excellent book, Loch Etive and the Sons of Uisnach (1879), arranged as a series of conversations between members of the group at each related site along their route. A visit to Dun Uisneach – a key location for Macpherson’s poem – provides the opportunity for ‘Mr O’Keefe’, an Irishman, to regale his companions with an account of Deirdre’s connection to the region (“peculiarly interesting to Irishmen”, he observes, “because the sons of Uisnach came from Ireland and lived about Loch Etive for a long time”). The medium of O’Keefe’s expository narrative provides the opportunity for Smith to correct his readers’ misconceptions, fostered by ‘Darthula’, and advise them of the existence, extent, and far greater complexity of the genuine Gaelic tradition discarded by Macpherson.[xi] When the Lowlander complains that O’Keefe has referred throughout his tale to ‘Deirdre’, not ‘Darthula’ (“a far more beautiful name”) the latter responds that “in Ireland it is never used” (p. 112). O’Keefe is also chastised for “try[ing] to remove the romance” from Dun Uisneach itself, identified by Macpherson – as well as Thomas Pennant (1726-98), citing Hector Boece – as the newer name for the ancient fortress of Beregonium (“such a city as Caesar found in our island at the time of his invasion”).[xii] In the ensuing debate between O’Keefe and another Lowlander, ‘Mr Cameron’, who declares that the topic of Ossian’s authenticity is “so dear” to his heart that he “cannot see [Dun Uisneach] without covering it with the spirits of the heroes that lived here” (p. 159), Smith disposes swiftly of the likelihood that its association with Deirdre’s alleged dwelling-place has any basis in historical fact (“I am not inclined to see anything mythical in the name when more than one [site] is called after her”), echoing the trenchant conclusion of eminent Gaelic scholar John Francis Campbell of Islay (1822-85) that “the geography [of Darthula] is entirely changed. Upon this geography learned men found theories as to ‘Selma’ and ‘Beregonium’ which the ignorant who speak Gaelic ignore”.[xiii]

‘Miss Alice C. Macdonell of Keppoch’, The Celtic Monthly 1 (1893) – https://digital.nls.uk/early-gaelic-book-collections/archive/75842630?mode=transcription; public domain

Smith’s underlying intention for his humorous, erudite, and undeservedly forgotten book was, one assumes, the procurement of better-informed Highland-bound tourists, but his efforts appear to have gone largely unremarked.[xiv] William Graham’s preface to his own book, following its Ossianic dedication, observes that an accessible version of Deirdre’s sojourn in Scotland “has not previously been made public in a united and popular form” (p. 15). He shares, however, Smith’s secondary aim – to provide a convenient guidebook for the region surrounding Loch Etive – declaring that his own interest in Dun Uisneach was roused by a family holiday nearby (p. 5). The influence of both writers’ attentiveness to named locations, but also of ‘Darthula’ and Macpherson more generally, may be discerned in a similarly discursive (and personalized) article entitled ‘Deirdre: The highest type of Celtic womanhood’, composed by Alice Claire Macdonell (1854-1938) and published in two parts in The Celtic Review during 1912-13.[xv] This important periodical was founded in 1904 by Elizabeth Catherine (‘Ella’) Carmichael (1880-1928), daughter to folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), also the founder, a decade beforehand, of the Celtic Union at the University of Edinburgh (in protest at the continued refusal of its established Celtic Society to admit women members).[xvi] Alice, alongside Skye poet Neil MacLeod, was appointed by Ella as their honorary bard – the only woman, other than Lochaber poetess Màiri Nic-Ealair, Mary Cameron MacKellar (1836-90), appointed bard to the Gaelic Society of Inverness in 1876, to hold an office-bearing role of this kind. Several of Alice’s poems composed for meetings of the Celtic Union, such as ‘The New Invasion’ (1894) and ‘Autumn winds’ (1902), appeared in a range of periodicals and later in her own substantial collections, Lays of the Heather (1896), dedicated to Prince Rupert of Bavaria (‘heir to the Royal House of Stuart’), and Songs of the Mountain and the Burn (1912).[xvii]

As one of its official poets, Alice was almost certainly present at the Celtic Union’s annual Mòd in the summer of 1906, when a series of tableaux was performed by its members – including Ella Carmichael – inspired by scenes from her father’s recent book Deirdire and the Lay of the Children of Uisne (1905). Illustrated by Scottish Symbolist artist John Duncan (1866-1945), the publication consisted of a facing-page Gaelic and English prose tale based loosely upon a version taken down in 1867 from the recitation of John Macneill, an 83-year-old cottar from the island of Barra. The performance was reviewed enthusiastically by The Oban Times (‘Tableaux Vivants at the Edinburgh Mòd’, 9 June 1906) and in the first edition of another long-running Gaelic magazine, An Deo Grèine:

Bithidh an céilidh ainmeil gu h-àraidh air son feala-dhà sonraichte a bha aig a’ chuideachd. ′S e tableaux a chanadh na Frangaich ris – ′s e sin air eadar theangachadh riochdachadh. Bha caob no dhà air a ghabhail as a sgialachd eireachdail ud a thug Mac ′ille mhicheil dhuinn air Deirdre – agus feadhainn a dol ann a’ riochd na seann laoch ′s a sealltuinn dhuinn fa chomhair ar sùl direach mar a thachair a réir na sgeoil.

(The Cèilidh will be recalled in particular for the special entertainment that those present enjoyed. The French call it tableaux – that is translated as representation. There were one or two parts from the handsome tale that Carmichael gave us about Deirdre – and some portrayed the old heroes, appearing right before our eyes according to what happened in the story).[xviii]

Alice’s discussion of Deirdre would later refer directly to Carmichael’s book, in which his informant’s original Gaelic was altered substantially (including, for example, entire sections imported almost verbatim from the ‘Glenmasan’ manuscript).[xix] Deirdre herself is reshaped by Carmichael into the epitome of a modest, gently-reared young lady, who insists that her marriage to Conchobor – no longer the “indeterminate conjugal union” imposed by the king without consent in Longes mac n-Uislenn[xx] – may not take place until she has spent a year at his court receiving instruction from “merry, mannerly, modest maidens”, since, she admits, she “had no knowledge of the duties of wife” and “had never sat in gathering or in company before” (pp. 49-51). John Macneill’s brief acknowledgement of Deirdre’s beauty is also expanded at length, with a series of similes asserting the magnificence of her idealised modesty, as well as loveliness:

Deirdire [at fourteen] was growing as lithe and fair as the stately sapling, and as straight and symmetrical as the young moorland rush. She was above comparison of the people of the world, shapely in her person, lovely in her beauty, while her skin and gait were like those of the swan of the lake and the hind of the hill. She was the blood-drop of finest form, of loveliest complexion, and of gentlest mien between earth and sky in Eirin. And whatever other colour or complexion she should have on before, no eye looked in her face but she instantly went into blushes like glowing fire on the occasion (p. 25).

Alice’s initial description of her heroine, whom she envisions – akin to Smith’s ‘Mr Cameron’ – as continuing to haunt the wooded shores of Loch Etive, adheres faithfully to Carmichael’s insistence upon the excellence of her character, as well as good looks:

The long waving tresses of golden hair reach far below her waist; her eyes are like twin stars of deepest blue fringed with long black lashes. On her delicate cheek the colour comes and goes, like unto the rays of the sun reflected in the pool below; flaming like its setting when the human eye rests upon her. On her low white brow is set the seal of knowledge, of wisdom, and of future vision. But beyond, and above all, the wealth of beauty that is hers, far surpassing the fairest of Erin’s daughters, is virtue, gentleness, and truth (CR vol. 8, p. 347);

In Deirdre we have beauty, learning, and virtue all united in one person (CR vol. 9, p. 42).

According to Alice, Deirdre’s “daring moral courage” also underlies her determination to pursue the Sons of Uisneach, a vision of whom, hunting in the hills nearby to her secluded home, she claims to have seen some time before their actual existence is confirmed. It also inspires their flight to Scotland, following the initial meeting at which Naoise, at first, hesitates to embrace the “destined bride of the king”, and whom Deirdre must persuade with the strength of her belief in their foreordained love (“the light which illumined her beautiful starry eyes was never quenched until the hour when she closed them in death”) and the gift of a single red rose (“as a Knight of the Red Branch you cannot refuse it, except for a valid reason”). Alice even disputes the accuracy of any version of Deirdre’s death not ascribed to devastation at the brothers’ murder by the king, rejecting the likelihood of:

Both Lady Gregory’s and Dr Carmichael’s accounts [which] say that she went down to the shores of the sea, and taking a knife from a man working there […] she stabbed herself, throwing the knife to the right so that no man might be accused of her death. I think this part of both narratives to be wrong. Suicide was, and is, a form of cowardice unknown to our [Celtic] race, and in direct contradiction to what we know of the character of Darthula (CR vol. 9, p. 47).

Though Alice does not engage with the accuracy of Macpherson’s claim that ‘Darthula’ took up arms and fell in battle, her discussion, like William Graham’s, betrays the clear, unquestioned influence of his poetry, especially in its second half when the action is transferred to Scotland. The choice of ‘Alba’ as the exiles’ destination is qualified by the statement that it was “the heritage of Usnach, called by Macpherson the Lord of Etha” – Etive – and his creative etymology for her own name informs Alice’s assertion that “sweet Dearshula, Darthula [was] the name they knew her by in Alba on account of her dark blue eyes”. Her poem, ‘The Motherland’, published the same year in Songs of the Mountain and the Burn, combines a number of Macpherson’s heroes from his “brave old Fingalian days” directly:

…sweet Mother land,

With thy cool delicate airs, and the songs,

The old time songs of the hills, Dearghull [sic] and Naoise sang,

In their wattle hut by the side of Etive loch:

Cuchullin sang, in the far-off Isle of the Mists,

And Ossian sang, away there by the fairy haunts of the Treig (v. 2).

Similar overlap underlies her declaration that Deirdre’s exemplary character is the equal of Ossian’s son’s, Oscar’s, ideal knightly valour, though the language of Romantic chivalry is also innate to the Deirdre-tale of Yeats’ close acquaintance Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852-1932) in her Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), which Alice also cites directly as a source for her own discussion (Gregory intended “put[ting] together the Irish legends into a sort of Morte d’Arthur, choosing only the most beautiful or striking”).[xxi] Like Graham’s, the Ossianic veneer of Alice’s prose is jumbled with a fairly well-informed awareness of recent publications – in English – concerning Deirdre, though she is clearly unaware of the extent to which the versions of both Carmichael and Lady Gregory do not represent the actual detail of the “old Gaelic manuscripts, lying neglected for ages in the Dublin archives”, which the latter is credited with translating literally (CR vol. 8, p. 350). Alice implies that her own intention, like Gregory’s, is to “give the complete story [of Deirdre] from the best sources” (p. 354), but makes no distinction between those of genuine authority, like Eugene O’Curry’s edition of Longes mac n-Uislenn, and Aubrey de Vere’s (1814-1902) fanciful poem ‘The Sons of Usnach’ (1882), attested (p. 352) as an accurate description of the infant Deirdre’s arrival into Conchobor’s court (“Thereon a little maiden-wonder lay, /Unlike all babes beside in mien and hue, /Bright as a lily bud at break of day /That flashes through the night’s unlifted dew”).[xxii] It is also clear that Alice’s occasional use of Gaelic – scattered at random throughout her discussion in a manner similar to its haphazard occurrence in her poetry – is copied directly from Carmichael’s Deirdire, as is the otherwise unattested name, Gealbhan, given to a warrior sent to spy upon the returning exiles’ first night in Ireland.

Alice does not refer directly to any other sources for the ‘Scottish section’ of her discussion, but at least one other must have lain behind her well-informed account of Naoise’s infidelities during the exiles’ time in Loch Etive, the first of which – quite contrary to her firm rejection of its likelihood for a woman of such outstanding moral fibre – leads Deirdre to cast a small boat “without sail, without oar” onto the waters of Loch Ness, “hoping that its waves might close over her pain, neither caring to live, or to return” (CR vol. 9, p. 41). The earliest-surviving version of Naoise’s liaison with ‘a daughter of the Earl of Dun Tréoin’, with whom he dallied whilst on visits to Inverness, occurs in a seventeenth-century Irish manuscript,[xxiii] but it would have been available to Alice in The Death of the Sons of Uisneach (1887), a translation by renowned Irish scholar Whitley Stokes (1830-1909) of the texts of ‘Glenmasan’ and of the Highland Society manuscript, Adv. Lib. 72.2.6, edited previously by Ewan Maclachlan, which was also translated fully in The Story of Deirdre (1894) by Rev. Alexander Cameron (1788-1872).[xxiv] It may be most likely, however, that Alice learned of the episode from Smith’s book instead – where it is taken from Theophilus O’Flanagan’s translation Derdri, or the lamentable fate of the Sons of Usnach (1808) – since her emphasis upon Deirdre’s knowledge and refinement, as well as beauty, is also reflected there. Smith declares, for example (p. 112), that if Deirdre were famed for being ‘lovely as Helen’, she was also “truer than any ideal of Greece, and wise and thoughtful. She seems to have been a very noble character”.

Whatever the actual range of published translations by which Alice was inspired, one especially significant episode in her account of Deirdre’s adolescence does not derive from an existing source, but is introduced somewhat abruptly to her description of the schooling received by the girl in the year of preparation for her marriage. In addition to being taught “all the knowledge and accomplishments fitting for her future position in life as his own queen”, Conchobor is alleged to have deployed his druid, Cathbad, to “instruct her in religious lore”, in the course of which she inquires:

‘Tell me, who made the stars, the firmament above, the earth, the flowers, both you and me?’ To which the old man, awed, replied: ‘God. But who God is, alas! no man can say.’ Upon this, Deirdre impetuously snatches his Druid wand from his hand, breaks it in two, flinging it far out on to the waters as she says: ‘Ah! there shall come One in the dim future for whom all your Druid spells and charms are nought’. Seeing a tear steal down the cheek of her friend, for the Druids knew, although dimly, of the coming of our Lord, and felt that their Druid faith would then be doomed, Deirdre flings her arms round his neck, kissing him on both cheeks (CR vol. 8, p. 352).

The claim that Deirdre’s peculiar intuition extended to include foreknowledge of the birth of Christ is utterly anachronistic to all existing versions of her life, but Alice – clearly keen to present her, in every way, as the king’s ideal bride – may have been inspired by the conclusion of Conchobor’s entirely separate Middle Irish death-tale, in which the end of his life is said to have coincided with the hour of the Crucifixion, prompting his own belief in the Christian God.[xxv] It is also the case, however, that Alice’s personal Catholicism was often transferred to the characters portrayed by her creative work. Her novel, The Glen O’Dreams (1929), describes the relationship between impoverished artist, Monica Lesmesurier, and her unhappily-married employer, Sir Archibald Graeme (‘the Chief’), owner of the fictional Dalcraig Castle in the wilds of Argyllshire.[xxvi] Monica’s modesty, sweetness, and intelligence contrast sharply with Lady Graeme’s frequent bursts of temper, distaste for her son – whom Monica adores – and the hard-drinking frivolity of the fashionable set she has installed at the castle (Alice, now in her seventies, displays commendable familiarity with the latest trends). Predictably, Sir Archibald and Monica fall in love, but the unexpected back-drop to their burgeoning affair is revealed as none other than Glen Etive, a setting enhanced by Alice with the exemplary romance of another woman said to have strolled, long ago, beneath the branches of its “silver birches and red-berried rowan trees”. On his first walk with Monica, Sir Archibald reveals its history:

“This is called ‘The Glen of Deirdré’, our famous classic heroine, famed not only for her great beauty but for her learning and her wisdom. She was the daughter of Felim, the Bard, in Ireland, but that wicked old devil, King Conor, King of High Ireland, coveted her beauty, hiding her away with a learned lady of his court until she was old enough to be his bride. But Naoise, the son of the King of Etha, here in this country, saw her and fell in love with her at first sight, as she did with him; so the long and the short of it was that he and his brothers Ainle and Ardan stole her and brought her here to reign as Queen”.

The latter part of the exiles’ tale is also recounted to her, instilling for the reader a note of foreboding which Alice will develop throughout the novel:

“I wish I could add that they were happy ever after”, Sir Archie said with a little laugh. “Were they not?” Monica asked, intensely interested. “Surely no cloud came between them?” “No, as the old saga has it: ‘He gave her the love that he never gave to any other, as she did to him’. But the course of true love is bound never to run smooth always. That wicked old Conor wiled them back to Erin under false pretences and had the brothers treacherously murdered” (p. 48).

For “the whole of that beautiful Celtic saga” he recommends “Aubrey de Vere’s wonderful version in verse”, a copy of which is presented to Monica later that evening and devoured at a single sitting. In the days which follow, the story’s most salient aspects recur, woven around the couple’s recognition of their mutual love. On a subsequent excursion to ‘Deirdre’s glen’, Monica declares suddenly: “Archie, I love you, have loved you, from the first moment I ever saw you”, receiving a similar confession in return (compare ‘he fell in love with her at first sight, as she did with him’), after which several hours are spent:

Pacing slowly along the isle of dreams and romance that had seen the loves of Deirdre, the babe of destiny, and the dark-haired son of the King of Etha before them, in the far-away ages of chivalry and daring; time stood still for them as the Chief unfolded his plans for the future (p. 134).

Carried away by the strength of his love, Sir Archibald resolves to divorce his wife, but Monica, conceding at first (“she determined to crush all doubts, and to give herself to him wholly, no matter what might betide; reasoning that such love as theirs must be, could not but be right”) is later assailed by her conscience, declaring that she cannot marry a non-Catholic and that, even as a convert, he could not take another in marriage so long as his wife should live (cf. ‘he gave her the love that he never gave to any other, as she did to him. But the course of true love is bound never to run smooth’). Taking refuge with a cousin in Paris on the eve of the Great War, Monica becomes a nurse, tormented by the memory of her love until the dramatic arrival of Sir Archibald at the same hospital, mortally wounded, reunites them. Salvaged, miraculously, by her devoted vigil at his bedside, he is baptised in the hospital chapel and Monica accepts his formal proposal of marriage (Lady Graeme having perished, off-stage, from a convenient zeppelin). The novel’s final chapter sees the newlywed couple returning to ‘Deirdre’s glen’, walking its sheltered groves in quiet celebration of the Armistice, and the happy resolution of their own brief conflict.

Alice’s suggestion in the novel that the environs of Loch Etive remain infused by the strength of Deirdre’s love for Naoise reflects the conclusion of her earlier discussion in The Celtic Review:

Do not the mists of the fair Deirdre, Naoise, Ainle, and Ardan still hover around far Glen Etive, giving a more mysterious glamour to its hills and its waters? Sweeter the bloom of the heather, and fresher its perfume; more pungent the smell of the wild bog myrtle, whiter the cotton grass, and greener the soft wet mosses for the memory of the fairest flower Glen Etive has ever seen – Deirdre, our highest type of Celtic womanhood (vol. 9, p. 48).

Smith’s ‘Mr Cameron’ would doubtless have concurred, but Alice’s reference to the ‘mistiness’ of a genuine location in the landscape of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, and her range of highly-personalized responses to a thousand-year-old Gaelic tale – or, more properly, to its Revival-era, post-Ossianic incarnation – is characteristic of the typical sentimentality of contemporary ‘Celtic Twilight’ authors like ‘Fiona Macleod’, pseudonym of Paisley-born critic and travel-writer, William Sharp (1855-1905).[xxvii] Novels such as Phàrais, A Romance of the Isles (1894), whose token smattering of Gaelic dialogue was lifted straight from the pages of Màiri Nic Ealair’s Tourist Hand-Book of Gaelic and English Phrases for the Highlands (c. 1882), served to “rarify and exoticise the Gaelic-speaking people and their culture, idealising the way of life in the Hebridean islands at a time when many islanders were experiencing severe economic hardship”. Their emphasis upon “the nature of the Celtic psyche”, which “set the characteristics of the straight-thinking, rational Anglo-Saxon against those of the spiritual, emotional Celt”, found little favour amongst actual Gaels. Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay (1859-1905) dismissed Phàrais, and its author, as “just another MacPherson’s Ossian”, while Katherine Whyte Grant (1845-1928), Appin-bred author of Dùsgadh na Féinne (1908) and Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll (1925), complained that the vogue for ‘Celtic Twilight mistiness’ threatened the dismissal of genuine Gaelic literature as similarly “shadowy and indistinct” – “[it] never lacks clearness”, she observed, “if read in Gaelic”.[xxviii]

William Sharp, ‘Fiona Macleod’ in 1894, by Frederick Hollyer – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Sharp_(writer), public domain

Use of the term ‘Celtic’ – to “imply a Gaelic authenticity” where “there was no obvious ‘Gaelic inheritance’” – was also viewed with distaste, but Alice’s regular usage in her own work probably escaped censure of the type heaped upon the likes of ‘Fiona Macleod’ due to the impeccable credentials of her family, the MacDonalds or MacDonells of Keppoch.[xxix] As the youngest-surviving daughter of their 20th chieftain, Angus (d. 1855), and sister to his heir, Donald (d. 1889), she belonged to a line of highly-respected Gaelic poets and scholars, including Sìleas (c. 1660-c. 1729), one of the most prolific female poets of the eighteenth century, and Patrick, minister of Kilmore and compiler of A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (1784), the first published anthology of Gaelic songs with musical notation (Patrick’s wife, Barbara, was third daughter to the 17th chieftain Alasdair, renowned ‘Keppoch of Culloden’ (d. 1746), from whom Alice descended on both sides).[xxx] Alice’s prolific range of poetry, fiction, and semi-factual prose combines the same mixture of publications – “romantic fictional tales set in the Highlands” and “non-fiction articles on [family-related] aspects of Highland history” – identified by Priscilla Scott as characteristic of Anglo-Highland women writers who “stressed their authentic Highland heritage, although no longer Gaelic-speaking” themselves. Her suggestion that their work, despite its occasional aura of “twilight and fairy lights”, was received with greater sympathy in consequence, reflects the positive review of Alice’s poetry collection Songs of the Mountain and the Burn (1912), printed in the same edition of The Celtic Review as the first installment of her ‘Deirdre’ (“Miss MacDonell’s poems show strongly her Gaelic inheritance, and are sure to be appreciated by Highlanders”).[xxxi]

Alice’s later years were spent chiefly in London and Sussex (she died in Hove on October 12 1938), and the volume of her contributions to Gaelic periodicals declined, though she continued to publish novels until the late 1920s. She may also have overseen the posthumous publication of An Historical Record of the Branch of ‘Clann Domhnuill’ called the MacDonells of Keppoch and Gargavach (1931), compiled by her sister Josephine Mary Macdonell (1852-1915), and continued to defend their father’s right to the chiefship of Keppoch (against a rival, US-based claimant) until shortly prior to her death, aged 83.[xxxii] Unlike contemporaries such as Lady Gregory, Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926), Eleanor Hull (1860-1935), and Ella Young (1867-1956), Alice’s published work did not engage extensively with medieval Gaelic literary characters, suggesting that her interest in Deirdre arose from personal affection for the alleged tragedy and pathos of her life – as well, of course, from a sustained affection for Macpherson’s Ossian! Though far from the greatest of the Scottish women writers active during the years of the Celtic Revival, Alice Macdonell is representative of their typical creativity, abundance of output, and sheer dedication to their work, and is deserving of wider publicity than she has hitherto enjoyed.

For more on Alice’s complex family-tree, and her siblings’ descendants, see https://descentfromadam.wordpress.com/, the excellent blog maintained by her great-great-great nephew, Justin Kirby. A useful anthology of Revival-era works concerning Deirdre and the Sons of Uisliu may be found in Tadaaki Miyake (ed.), Deirdrefrom the earliest manuscripts to Yeats and Synge (Okayama-Ken: University Education Press, 1999). For Alexander Carmichael, see Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (ed.), The life & legacy of Alexander Carmichael (Port of Ness: Islands Book Trust, 2008), and the ongoing development of the Carmichael-Watson collection in Edinburgh University Library (http://www.carmichaelwatson.lib.ed.ac.uk/cwatson/).

Kate Mathis (University of Glasgow)


[i] Fiona Macleod, ‘The Gael and his heritage’, in The Winged Destiny: Studies in the spiritual history of the Gael (London: Chapman & Hall, 1904), 207-46 (at 240).

[ii] Vernam Hull (ed.), Longes mac n-Uislenn: The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1949).

[iii] Eugene O’Curry, ‘The “Trí Thruaige na Scélaigheachta” of Erinn I: The exile of the Children of Uisneach’, The Atlantis, or register of literature and science of the Catholic University of Ireland 3 (1862), 377-422.

[iv] Whitley Stokes (ed.), ‘The Wooing of Luaine and the Death of Athirne’, Révue Celtique 24 (1903), 270-88, discussed in Kate Louise Mathis, ‘Parallel “wives”; Deirdriu and Lúaine in Longes mac n-Uislenn and Tochmarc Lúaine ocus Aided Athairne’, in Gregory Toner & Séamus Mac Mathúna (eds), Ulidia 3: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales (Berlin: Curach Bhán Publications, 2013), 17-25. A similar claim of Deirdre’s maternity is observed by the contemporary Bansenchus (‘History of the Women of Ireland’); see Margaret Dobbs, ‘The Ban-Shenchus’, Révue Celtique 48 (1931), 163-234 (at 209), and Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin, ‘The Banshenchas – Genealogy and women of the Ulster Cycle’, in Toner & MacMathúna, Ulidia 3, 75-87. O’Curry’s English-language translation of Longes mac n-Uislenn included a brief account of Deirdre’s children, Gaiar and Aebgréine, whose lives were the source of some fascination to Yeats and his closest associate, Augusta Lady Gregory; see Mathis, ‘An Irish poster girl? Writing Deirdre during the Revival’, in Willy Maley, Paddy Lyons, & John Miller (eds), Romantic Ireland from Tone to Gonne: Fresh perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 263-81 (at 270).

[v] National Library of Scotland Adv. Lib. 72.2.3, compiled c. 1490; see Caoimhín Breatnach, ‘Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach’, Ériu 45 (1994), 99-112. The popular suggestion that the manuscript was compiled in the thirteenth century is erroneous, based solely upon a note on its inside cover penned by an owner, William Campbell (1713-93), who may have been attempting to situate an even older Scottish version, now lost.

[vi] National Library of Scotland Adv. Lib. 72.3.4, Analysis of the Contents of the Celtic Manuscripts belonging to the Honourable Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland by Ewan Maclachlan; Henry Mackenzie (ed.), Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland into the nature and authenticity of the Poems of Ossian (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable & Co., 1805).

[vii] Theophilus O’Flanagan, ‘Derdri, or the lamentable fate of the Sons of Usnach’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Dublin (1808), 143. O’Flanagan’s intention in compiling the testimony of several copies of Longes mac n-Uislenn belonging to the library of Trinity College was to demonstrate conclusively the falseness of Macpherson’s claims; see Kate Louise Mathis, ‘Mourning the maic Uislenn: Blood, death, and grief in Longes mac n-Uislenn and ‘Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 29 (2013), 1-20 (at 6-7).

[viii] James Macpherson, Fingal, an ancient poem in six books: together with several other poems, composed by Ossian the son of Fingal. Translated from the Gallic language by James Macpherson (London: T. Becket & P. A. De Hondt, 1762), 155-72; Howard Gaskill (ed.), The Poems of Ossian, and related works (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996).

[ix] William Graham, Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach: A Scoto-Irish romance of the first century AD (Edinburgh: J. Gardner Hitt, & London: Marshall Brothers, 1908).

[x] The dramatic rise in literary tourism, post-Macpherson, is discussed by Nigel Leask, ‘Fingalian topographies: Ossian and the Highland Tour, 1760-1805’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 39/2 (2016), 183-96.

[xi] Smith’s basis for O’Keefe’s discussion (pp. 88-105) is the version of the oidheadh, similar in detail to the Glenmasan manuscript’s, printed by O’Flanagan in 1808 from TCD H.1.6.

[xii] Thomas Pennant, A tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772, ed. Andrew Simmons (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1998), 356-8; see also Nigel Leask and Alex Day, ‘Thomas Pennant in North Argyll – ‘in search of the lost city of Beregonium’ (http://curioustravellers.ac.uk/en/pennant-in-north-argyll-blog-in-search-of-the-lost-city-of-beregonium/).

[xiii] J. F. Campbell, Leabhar na Fèinne: Heroic Gaelic ballads (London: Spottiswoode, 1872), 19. Campbell’s summary of genuine Gaelic ballad poetry concerning Deirdre, predating Macpherson’s publication – such as Archibald Fletcher’s, collected in 1750 – remains of value; see also Derick S. Thomson, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s Ossian (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1952), 54-5, and Hector Maclean, Ultonian hero ballads collected in Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland (Glasgow: Archibald Sinclair, 1892), 34-57, 108-21. The association between Deirdre’s dwelling-place and the ‘ancient fortress’ persists into twentieth-century travel-writing, e.g. Patrick Gilles, Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its neighbourhood (London: Virtue & Co., 1909), 80 (“[it] is still known as Dùn-mhic-Uisneachan, but in the guidebooks it is called Beregonium”), and is even provided with an equally spurious derivation from the Gaelic ‘Barr-na-gobhan’ (‘place of the smith’), Latinised, allegedly, by George Buchanan into ‘Beregonium’; Alexander Carmichael, Deirdire, and The Lay of the Children of Uisne (Edinburgh: Norman Macleod, 1905), 143.

[xiv] An eminent chemist, Smith is most famous as the ‘Father of Acid Rain’, from his pioneering study Air and Rain: The Beginnings of a Chemical Climatology (1872).

[xv] Alice C. Macdonell, ‘Deirdre: The highest type of Celtic womanhood’, The Celtic Review 8 (1912), 347-56 [part i]; The Celtic Review 9 (1913), 41-8 [part ii].

[xvi] Priscilla Scott, ‘“With heart and voice ever devoted to the cause”: Women in the Gaelic Movement, 1886-1914’, PhD dissertation (University of Edinburgh, 2013), 123, 166-75 [https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/docview/1775215323?pq-origsite=primo].

[xvii] Alice C. Macdonell, Lays of the Heather (London: Elliot Stock, 1896), 187-9; Alice C. Macdonell, Songs of the Mountain and the Burn (London: John Ouseley Ltd., 1912), 76 (headed “Written for the meeting of the Celtic Union, October 30th, 1902”).

[xviii] Translated by Priscilla Scott, ‘With heart and voice’, 255.

[xix] See Alan Bruford, ‘“Deirdire” and Alexander Carmichael’s treatment of oral sources’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 14 (1983), 1-24, and Tristan ap Rheinallt, ‘Alexander Carmichael, Alan Bruford and Deirdire’, Scottish Gaelic Studies 28 (2011), 227-32.

[xx] See Cornelius Buttimer, ‘Longes mac n-Uislenn Reconsidered’, Éigse 28, 1-41 (at 27), and Mathis, ‘Parallel Wives’, 19-20.

[xxi] James Pethica (ed.), Lady Gregory’s Diaries: 1892-1902 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1996), 290.

[xxii] Aubrey de Vere, ‘The Sons of Usnach’, in The Foray of Queen Meave and other legends of Ireland’s Heroic Age (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., 1882), 1-70 (at 2).

[xxiii] That is, Royal Irish Academy B iv 1 (1671). It is possible that a similar episode once formed part of the ‘Glenmasan’ manuscript (c. 1491), but the relevant page of the text has been lost; see Mathis, ‘Mourning the maic Uislenn’, 13-15.

[xxiv] Whitley Stokes, ‘The Death of the Sons of Uisneach’, Irische Texte 2/2 (1887), 109-84; Alexander Cameron, ‘Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach’, in Alexander MacBain & Rev. John Kennedy (eds), Reliquiae Celticae: Texts, papers and studies in Gaelic literature and philosophy left by the late Rev. Alexander Cameron, Volume ii (Inverness: The Northern Counties Publishing Company Ltd., 1894), 421-61.

[xxv] An accessible translation of the text had been published by Kuno Meyer, Professor of Celtic at the University of Glasgow: The Death Tales of the Ulster heroes [Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series XIV] (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, & Co. Ltd., 1906), 9-11.

[xxvi] Alice C. Macdonell, The Glen O’Dreams (Edinburgh: Thomas Allan and Sons, 1929).

[xxvii] See Mark Williams, Ireland’s Immortals: A history of the gods of Irish myth (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016), 370-89. For Fiona’s Deirdres, versions of which were published in 1897 and 1903, and may also have been known to Alice, see Sìm Innes & Kate Louise Mathis, ‘Gaelic tradition and the Celtic Revival in children’s literature in Scottish Gaelic & English’, in Sarah Dunnigan & Shu-Fang Lai (eds.), The Land of Story Books: Scottish Children’s Literature in the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, forthcoming).

[xxviii] Scott, ‘With heart and voice’, 163 – citing Grant, ‘The Influence of Scenery and Climate on the Music and Poetry of the Highlands’, Caledonian Medical Journal 5 (1902-4) – & 171-2; for Grant, see Sìm Innes, ‘Dùsgadh na Féinne (1908): Katherine Whyte Grant’s Scottish Gaelic kinderspiel’, in Sharon Arbuthnot, Síle Ní Mhurchú, & Geraldine Parsons (eds.) Proceedings of the 2nd International Finn Cycle Conference (forthcoming).

[xxix] Scott, ‘With heart and voice’, 170.

[xxx] See Colm Ó Baoill (ed.), Bàrdachd Shìlis na Ceapaich / Poems and songs by Sìleas MacDonald (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972); Karen McAulay, Our ancient national airs: Scottish song collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era (Abingdon, Routledge, 2013).

[xxxi] Cited in Scott, ‘With heart and voice’, 170.

[xxxii] See Josephine M. Macdonell, ‘The Maidsear Mòr of Keppoch’, The Celtic Monthly (IX, 1901), 156, and An Historical Record of the Branch of ‘Clann Domhnuill’ called the MacDonells of Keppoch and Gargavach (Glasgow: The Celtic Press, 1931), 124-5. Alice’s letters defending her father’s claim were published in The Oban Times during 1935, part of the controversy re-awakened by the publication of Josephine’s book, which disputed the line taken by established Clan Donald histories such as Alexander Mackenzie’s History of the MacDonalds and Lords of the Isles (Inverness: A. & W. MacKenzie, 1881), 500-1.

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