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Hymn History: Be Thou My Vision


"Be Thou My Vision", arr. Joel Raney, from one of our church services with myself on flute.


Be Thou My Vision” has a very long history and, in order to understand it, we need to talk about a story about Saint Patrick, whose holiday is quickly approaching. Our church has a large Celtic celebration every year around this time, so be sure to join us in person or catch our livestream on Facebook for an entire service inspired by the patron saint of Ireland.

 

St. Patrick became a saint for his missionary work in bringing Christianity to the pagans of Ireland. Around 433 A.D., St. Patrick was well into his work, and one of his largest hurdles was King Laoghaire, who the Irish annals refer to as King of Tara or High King of Ireland. He is often portrayed as a great adversary to St. Patrick and there are many stories of their various clashes, one of which served as inspiration for “Be Thou My Vision.”

 

As the story goes, the king made a decree that no one could light a fire before he lit the fire that signaled the start of the pagan spring festival. He was to light this bonfire on Tara Hill, a place that many could see from any direction. This spring festival was sometime around the spring equinox, which also made it around the time of Easter.

 

In direct defiance of the king’s order, St. Patrick went up the Hill of Slane and lit his own fire on Easter Eve. This Paschal Fire was visible not only from Tara Hill, but for miles around all of the people could see St. Patrick’s defiance, and bravery. He wished to show the king and his subjects that he bowed to no authority except God’s.


Picture of modern Hill of Slane (Anthony Murphy, mythicalireland.com)


This bold move impressed King Laoghaire and he permitted St. Patrick to continue his missionary work. There are differing accounts on whether St. Patrick ever got the king to convert to Christianity himself, but clearly, he swayed the general population.

 

Whenever “Be Thou My Vision” appears in hymnals, the tune is always credited as Slane, as it is said that this tune was inspired by St. Patrick’s actions that day. As is the case with many folk tunes, the true origins are unknown, but the tune had been passed down generation to generation until Patrick Weston Joyce notated it (and many other folk tunes) in his book, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs: A Collection of 842 Airs and Songs hitherto unpublished in 1909.

 

In 1905, Mary Elizabeth Byrne found an old Irish text called “Rop tú mo Baile.” The text reflected early Christian life in Ireland, the times that St. Patrick brought about. The text was once again so old that its origins are not confirmed, though many attribute it to another saint, St. Dallan Forgall. Byrne translated this text into English, which was further turned into hymn verses by Eleanor Hull, the president of the Irish Literary Society, in 1912, which are the most common lyrics still used to this day.

 

Hull’s versification of the translated text was paired with the old Irish tune Slane in The Irish Church Hymnal in 1919. From there it spread across the world and cemented itself as one of the most popular Christian hymns.


Image of the original "Be Thou My Vision" from The Irish Church Hymnal


The text of the song shows its influence by Old Irish Christian traditions, like being a lorica, or a prayer for protection in battle. (Such as another famous prayer associated with St. Patrick, Christ beside me.) You also might notice that the text calls God the High King of heaven in the last verse, which echoes one of King Laoghaire’s titles – High King of Ireland. The usage of High King (especially how it appeared in it’s original Gaelic) was very intrinsic in Old Irish culture and they are ideas that carried over into their budding Christianity.


Lyrics

1 Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;

Be all else but naught to me, save that Thou art;

Be Thou my best thought in the day and the night,

Both waking and sleeping, Thy presence my light.


2 Be Thou my Wisdom, be Thou my true Word;

Be Thou ever with me and I with Thee, Lord;

Be Thou my great Father, and I Thy true son,

Be Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.


3 Be Thou my Breastplate, my Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my whole Armor, be Thou my true Might;

Be Thou my soul’s Shelter, be Thou my strong Tow’r,

O raise Thou me heav’nward, great Pow’r of my pow’r.


4 Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise,

Be Thou mine inheritance, now and always;

Be Thou and Thou only the first in my heart,

O High King of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.


5 High King of heaven, Thou heaven's bright Sun,

O grant me its joys, after vict'ry is won;

Great Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,

Still be Thou my Vision, O Ruler of all.


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