Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Source: Singing the Faith: 545
Words: Irish 8th C. trans Mary Elizabeth Byrne versified Eleanor Hull
Music: “Slane” Trad Irish harmonised Erik Routley adapted Martin V Clarke
Ideas for use
Read the story of St Patrick on Slane Hill (below) and consider using this hymn as part of your Easter celebrations. The final verse is especially apt:
High King of heaven, thou heaven’s bright Sun,
O grant me its joys after victory is won…
Some congregations or ecumenical groups hold early morning Easter services on nearby hills. Consider re-telling the story of St Patrick and lighting an Easter flame while singing this hymn unaccompanied.
Early versions of this hymn appear in two eighth-century manuscripts, beginning with the words “Rob tu mo bhoile, a Comdi cride”. These words were part of Irish monastic tradition long before they were set to music and sometimes are attributed to Dallan Forgaill, a 6th century poet and scholar. They were translated into prose in 1905 by Maire ni Bhroiin (Mary Byrne), an Irish research worker, and published in Eriú, the journal of the School of Irish Learning. Later, Dr Eleanor Hull made a metrical version of the text and published it in her Poem Book of the Gael in 1912.
Older singers will be familiar with phrases that were still current in the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book but which have since been changed for a number of reasons e.g. “be thou my great Father; I thy dear son” (v.2); “Be thou my battleshield, sword for the fight” (v.3); “May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun” (v.5).
Be thou my vision was brought together with the tune Slane in the Irish Church Hymnal in 1919. Slane itself is a slightly altered form of an Irish folk tune sung to the ballad, “With my love come on the road”. However, the adjustments to the tune that had to be made in each verse in order to accommodate the irregular metre led to a “smoothing out” of both words and tune in the 1950s. (cf. the versions in 3-4 time used for Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy (StF 526) and Lord of creation, to you be all praise! (StF 449).
In its hymn form, the tune was named after Slane Hill in County Meath. St Patrick is said to have arrived here on the night before Easter, which that year also coincided with the beginning of the spring equinox. High King Leoghaire (pronounced “Leary”) mac Neill had issued a decree that no flame should be lit until the lighting of a fire on nearby Tara Hill, ushering in the equinox. However, St Patrick pre-empted the king by lighting a fire to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Leoghaire is said to have been so impressed by Patrick’s devotion that, despite his defiance (or perhaps because of it), he let him continue his missionary work in Ireland.