Hymns for St Patrick

Stained glass image of St Patrick, Cabinteely church, Dublin

Part 2 in our series of articles about the United Kingdom’s patron saints, and the hymn traditions they represent. See For all the (patron) saints.

Following on from Songs for St David, we reflect the marking of St Patrick’s Day with a brief skim through Singing the Faith in search of hymns with associations with Ireland, both Éire and the north. A number of these are referred to in the Irish listing within the “Country or culture” category of the StF+ search engine (on the right of every page). But there are others, too, connected to St Patrick’s island, and you may well be able to point us to more.

Inevitably, we will find our way to two hymn tunes that speak perhaps more emotively than any other of their Irish heritage: Slane and Londonderry Air. But there are texts, also – a number of which are appropriate for use during Holy Week and Easter, which in most years fall close to St Patrick’s Day. Given the background story to the name “Slane” (see below), this is more than apt.

The post-Easter hymn The head that once was crowned with thorns (StF 312), for example, was written by Thomas Kelly, an evangelical preacher who found himself effectively banished from the Church of Ireland into which he had been ordained. He was a prolific writer of hymns and musicologist Erik Routley described this one as “perhaps the finest of all hymns”.

Cecil Frances (“Fanny”) Alexander was somewhat more successfully embedded within the religious establishment. Born in County Tyrone to Major John Humphries, in 1850 she married the Revd William Alexander, later Archbishop of Ireland. She gave us some of our most popular hymns, a number of them written as ways of unpacking creedal statements for younger people. One of these was the Good Friday hymn, There is a green hill far away (StF 284).

May the road rise up to meet you - the Dingle peninsula in south west Ireland

Other Irish hymn writers and church musicians featured in Singing the Faith include Edwin Brown, raised in Northern Ireland (See the lamb of God, StF 281), and (perhaps) Bessie Head (O breath of life, StF 391), who may have been born in Belfast, though she certainly lived in Wales and South Africa and later became closely associated with the Keswick Convention.

The “traditional Irish blessing”, May the road rise up to meet you (StF 772), here set to a lovely new tune by Nicola Morrison, sits as an example of far wider Celtic traditions and might not immediately be identified as especially Irish in content. On the other hand, Be thou my vision (StF 545), though its origins are, again, not altogether clear, is certainly well imbedded in Irish tradition.

Be thou my vision (“Slane”)

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.

The English version by Mary Byrne and Eleanor Hull 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”.

Hill of Slane (by Sitomon)

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.

The tunes “Irish” (set to God moves in a mysterious way, StF 104) and St Columba, named for one of St Patrick’s successors, both make early appearances in Irish collections; the story of Londonderry Air (sometimes simply “Air from County Derry”) is more complicated.

Londonderry Air

This apparently quintessential Irish melody was said to have been collected by Jane Ross of Limavady. It was included in The Ancient Music of Ireland (1855), edited by George Petrie from whom we also receive the tune St Columba. Jane Ross was unable to name the piper that she heard play the tune, which, in any case, wasn’t in a metre suitable for any other known Irish songs of the time – which has led some to doubt its authenticity. However, it does bear a strong similarity to the authenticated tune of another Irish song, The Young Man’s Dream, included in his A Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (1840) by the pioneer collector of harp music, Edward Bunting.**

I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship, should set his love upon us

In Singing the Faith, Londonderry Air is set to two texts: Michael Forster’s Let love be real, in giving and receiving (StF 615) and the more familiar I cannot tell… (StF 350) by William Fullerton, himself raised as a Presbyterian in Ireland. His text draws much of its power from the tune, for all that you need a good set of lungs to do it full justice.

Taking as their starting point words from the Gospel of John 4: 42 (“This is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world”), each of Fullerton’s verses follows the same journey, from near-incomprehension to declaration of faith. And each time we make that move from questioning to proclaiming (“this I know…”), Londonderry Air carries us onwards and upwards, building in confidence from the tune’s halfway mark to the most emphatic, high top notes that you’re likely to encounter anywhere in Singing the Faith.

The imagery is rich and rapturous; and the tune has the ability to unite the most unconfident gathering of singers. It may be hard to remember, as the organ swells, that the melody has its origins somewhere in Irish folk song but certainly it provides a musical impetus worthy of the faith and confidence of St Patrick.

(**The story of Londonderry Air is drawn from Michael Robinson’s article, Danny Boy – the mystery solved.)

Categories: Articles, Exploring themes, People of faith, Words and music, Worship Resources.

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