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Thursday, 20 February 2014

A Fundraising Ceilidh for Fr John MacMillan of Barra

By 1946 Fr John MacMillan was living in retirement in Allasdale, a short distance from his place of birth, Craigston, in the northern part of Barra. Due to a heart condition, MacMillan had been suffering from ill health and, so, in September of 1946, the community decided to organise a fundraising ceilidh in order to give financial relief to the ailing priest. Calum Maclean writing in Irish Gaelic gives a brief description of the event in his diary:

Diardaoin, 26 Meadhon Fomhghair 1946 [NFC 1111, 98]
Bhíos a’ sgríobhadh ar a’ nós céadna ar maidin indiu. Leanas do’n sgríbhneóireacht go dtí sé a’ chlog tránóna. Bhí céilidhe ann anocht le airgead a bhailiú do’n Athair Iain MacGilleMhaoil, nach bhfial a shláinte aige chor ar bith. Bhí sluagh mór annsin, amhránaidhthe, píobaírí, rinnceoíri an-mhaith. Tá neart amhrán aca nach gcuala mise aríamh. Thugas cupla amhrán Gaedhilge (Éireann) dhóibh. Casadh an sagart paráiste orm an oidhche seo, fear deas é féin. Bhí rinnce ann tar éis an cheilidhe. Anois seo e an darna h-uair dhom-sa ag rince ó tháinig mé annseo. Tá cailíní breaghtha ins an oileán seo, is cosula go mór le cailíní Éireannacha iad na cailíní Alban. Bhíos a’ rinnce le caílin amháin a bhí rí-dhathúil ar fad. Bhí sí einéal cosúil le Florrie Fitzsimmons. Cloisim gurab e Rónán is sloinneadh dí. Rugadh í I mBarraidh ach Éireannach a b’ athair dí. Goirim í, an cailín is deise dár casadh orm le fada, fada.

Thursday, 26 September 1946 [NFC 1111, 98]
I transcribed this morning as usual. The transcription work continued until six o’clock in the evening. There was a ceilidh on tonight in order to raise money for Father John MacMillan who is not at all in good health. A big crowd attended, and there were exceedingly good singers, pipers and dancers. There were a great many songs that I’ve never heard before. I sang a couple of Irish songs for them. I met the parish priest tonight who seems like an affable fellow. There was a dance on after the ceilidh. This is now the second time I have danced since I came here. There are beautiful lassies on these islands and they’re far more like Irish than Scottish lassies. I danced with a lassie who was altogether very nice. She was very similar to Florrie Fitzsimmons. I heard he surname was Ronan. She was born in Barra though her father is Irish. I’d call her the nicest girl I have met in a long, long time.

Three days later, Maclean notes in his diary the following:

Dia Domhnaigh, 29 Meadhon Fomhghair 1946 [IFC 1111, 101]
Bhí an lá go h-an-bhréagha ar fad indiu. Chuadhas ar Aifreann a h-aon déag. Bhíos a’ cainnt le Iain MacGill’Eathain, Brudharnais, agus le Séamas Iain Ghunnairigh ar an mbealach abhaile. Bhíos a’ súil le Séamas Iain Ghunnairigh tar éis dinneara, ach nuair nár tháinig sé, thosaigheas a’ sgríobhadh. Tháinig sé ar a seacht a’ chlog, agus fritheadh an Eidifíon do. D’ innis sé leagan áluinn de’n sgéal Ridire na gCeist. Thosaigh sé air ar a cúig tar eis a h-ocht agus ní raibh sé críochnaighthe aige go dtí a deich tar éis a naoi. Buidheachas le Dia go bhfuil sé ann fós. Nuair a d’ imthigh Séamas, chuadhas sall go dtí an Coddie, leis na litreachaí chuig na páipéirí. D’ fhanas tamall a’ cainnt leis annsin. Bhí an oidhche go h-áluinn. Chuadhas a’ siubhal tamall roimh theacht abhaile.

Sunday, 29 September 1946 [IFC 1111, 101]
Altogether it was a beautiful day today. I attended Mass at eleven. I talked with John Maclean, Bruernish, and with James MacKinnon on the way home. I expected to see James MacKinnon after lunch but as he didn’t turn up I began transcribing. He arrived at seven o’clock and I set up the Ediphone for him. He told a beautiful version of Ridire nan Ceist (The Knight of the Questions). He began at five past eight and he didn’t finish until ten minutes after nine. Thanks be to God that he’s still alive. When James finished, we went over to see the Coddie [John MacPherson], with letters for the newspapers. I spent a while talking with him. It was a beautiful night. I went for a short walk before going back home.

The letter that Maclean mentioned duly appeared in The Oban Times (and perhaps in other local newspapers as well) in which all those that took part in the ceilidh are give a mention:

NORTHYBAY (BARRA).―The sum of £33 was raised at an enjoyable Ceilidh held in St Barr’s Church Hall, Northbay, on September 26, under the chairmanship of Rev. Fr. Malcolm Morrison, parish priest, to collect funds for a presentation to Rev. Fr. John MacMillan, the noted Barra priest, who had been in poor health for some time. The Ceilidh was opened with bagpipe selections from Mr Muroch MacNeill, a veteran piper of the Cameron Highlanders in the 1914–1918, and Mr Padruig MacKinnon, who served also through the 1939–46 war as a piper in the Scots Guards. The whole parish was well represented, and singers, dancers, and story-tellers from the various townships gave of their best to make the functions an outstanding success. Songs were contributed by Mrs Ronald MacNeill, Miss Mary MacKinnon and Master Alick MacNeill, all from Earsary; Mr J. Maclean, Bruernish; Mrs M. MacDonald, Arisaig; Mrs Galbraith, Mr Buchanan, and Mr Hugh MacKinnon, Eoligarry; Miss Veronica MacDonald, Ardmhor, and Mr C. I. Maclean, Ardveenish, the latter contributing songs in Irish Gaelic. Stories were told by Mr Neil MacKinnon and Mr Donald MacDonald, Eoligarry. Songs and Puirt-a-Beul were contributed by the Ardmhor Gaelic Choir. By the special request of the chairman a Scots Reel was danced by Mrs J. MacLeod, Ardmhor; Mrs Galbraith, Eoligarry; Mr Neil MacKinnon, Eoligarry, and Mr Gilbert MacLellan, Bogach. Rev. Fr. Morrison moved a vote of thanks to the artistes, and Mr John MacPherson, “Coddie,” proposed a vote of thanks to Rev. Fr. Morrison, who had conducted the Ceilidh so admirably. An equally enjoyable dance followed.

Although Fr John MacMillan survived for another five years his health didn’t really improve as he eventually succumbed to a series of heart attacks and passed away in 1951. The funds raised at the ceilidh would have helped him throughout his remaining years. On his return to Barra the following hear, Maclean fondly remembers his time with Fr John MacMillan:

I did return again to Barra, for one rarely fails to do that. I came at the request of Father John MacMillan…He is now almost seventy, but he still sings well and is also a veritable mine of traditional lore. It was a short visit, but in one day alone I recorded over thirty songs from Father MacMillan. One was a very beautiful song addressed to Prince Charlie, a song which tradition ascribes to Flora MacDonald. Many of Father MacMillan’s songs are now known to him alone. He heard them in Barra, Uist, Benbecula, and in Eigg over forty years ago from people who have longs since returned slowly to dust. Barra has many people of whom it can feel justly proud. Father John MacMillan is certainly one of them.

Calum I. Maclean, ‘In Search of Folklore in the Western Isles’, Scotland’s S.M.T. Magazine, vol. 40, no. 6 (1947), pp. 40–44
Calum I. Maclean & John MacPherson, ‘Northbay (Barra)’, The Oban Times, no. 4789 (12 Oct., 1946), p. 6
NFC 1111 [Calum Maclean’s diaries from 1945 to 1948]

Fr John MacMillan of Barra, c. 1946, Barra


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