In The Musical Spotlight: Women Hymnists

When my husband asked me after church if I had picked "Be Thou My Vision" for St. Patrick's Day, I had no clue what he was talking about. I had picked the hymn because it fit into my theme of women hymnists for March. Then he pointed out the tune was a traditional Irish tune, little did we know that wasn't end of the Irish connections! The traditional Irish tune Slane is named after the hill where St. Patrick lit an Easter fire in rebellion against the pagan king. David Evans set the text of "Be Thou My Vision" to this tune in 1927. The text of "Be Thou My Vision" has a long twisting history that was fun to dive into.

The original text is an Irish poem, "Rop tú mo baile," dating back to somewhere between the 6th and 11th centuries. Some believe it was written by Dallan Forgaill after he lost his vision. Others believe it was written earlier, and others later. One thing most agree on is the strong use of Irish traditions with God being portrayed as a hero and military symbols. The poem was translated by Mary E. Byrne who was born in Ireland and studied at the National University of Ireland and helped compile the Catalog of the Royal Irish Academy. She published her translation of "Be Thou My Vision" in the academic journal of Irish language studies, Eriu, in 1905. That translation is not the hymn we are familiar with today however. For that version, we turn to Eleanor Hull.

Born in Manchester, England, Eleanor was another large contributor to Irish culture. She studied Irish folklore, co-founded the Irish Texts Society, and was the President of the Irish Literary Society. She published several books on Irish folklore and in her book, Poem Book of the Gael, she took Byrne's translation of "Rop tú mo baile" and created the verse, "Be Thou My Vision." And now we catch up to David Evans, and our whirlwind history is all caught up.

While reading about the hymn and all the people who were involved in it, it was noted all the words for God that are used in the hymn. It reminded me of a woman hymnist I neglected to write about at the beginning of the month, Ruth Duck, who is known for her work in using and promoting non-gender specific representations of God. And in the version of "Be Thou My Vision" in our hymnal, there are few gender-specific mentions of God. Our version also reduces the amount of the hero/military symbolism to a mention in the last stanza. Instead the words paint a more prayerful picture. Instead we ask God to be our vision, Lord of my heart, my best thought, Thy presence my light, my wisdom, my true word, ever with me, my soul's shelter, my high tow'r, Pow'r of my pow'r, mine inheritance, first in my heart, my treasure, Light of my soul, heaven's Sun, Heart of my own heart, Ruler of all. A beautiful reflection for Lent and also, now I know, a rich representation of Irish heritage for St. Patrick's Day.


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