When a new song plays on the radio, it brings strong reactions out of people. Some may love the song. Others may hate it. Music divides us.
But there are certain songs that everyone enjoys. Most can’t help but love the sound of bagpipes playing Amazing Grace. Rarely do people complain about Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
The hymn, Be Thou My Vision fits in this category too. People of all faiths love the song. Its medieval melody brings images of rolling Irish hills and Scottish Highlands. Many claim they cry every time they hear it. Thousands request it for their funerals.
But the history behind Be Thou My Vision may be as mysterious as the song itself. A quick look in a hymnal offers little help. Ambiguous terms like “Irish Melody” and “Anonymous” appear where the author belongs.
So what is the true story behind this legendary song? Where did it come from? And if it's so old, how did it survive to the 21st century?
The story of Be Thou My Vision begins with St. Patrick. At sixteen years old, pirates captured and sold him into slavery in Ireland. While there, he learned the Gaelic language and customs. He also put his trust in Christ. He later escaped and returned home to his family. But instead of staying, he took a Latin Bible and returned to Ireland as a missionary!
What does this have to do with Be Thou My Vision? On Easter in 433, the local Irish king prohibited anyone from lighting a flame in order to observe a Druid festival. Patrick, wanting to honor Christ’s resurrection, risked his life and defied the king. Early that Easter morning, the Irish people woke up and not only saw a light, but a light burning on the highest hill in the area. Patrick wanted to show that God’s light shines in darkness, and that He, and He alone, deserves praise.
Several years later, an unknown composer wrote a melody to celebrate what Patrick did. He named the tune after the hill where Patrick shined his light: Slane. People still recognize the tune today. Listen.
The history of the lyrics is much more obscure. Tradition holds that Irish poet St. Dallán Forgaill wrote a Gaelic poem called Rop tú mo Baile in honor of St. Patrick. Borrowing from, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Forgaill calls God his “battle shield" and “high tower.”
Sadly, the oldest existing copy of this poem comes from the 14th century, with no sign of its author. Because of this, and because no other historical evidence exists that connects Forgaill to the poem, historians cannot verify the actual dating and authorship of the lyrics. As a result, most hymnals today attribute the song to "anonymous."
As the years went by, both Slane and Rop tú mo Baile fell into obscurity. Their authors, once known, drifted into the fogs of time.
The Song's Discovery
But in 1905, over a thousand years after its birth, the song emerged again from history’s mist. A young English woman, Mary Byrne, translated the 14th century copy of Rop tú mo Baile into English for the very first time.
It was at this moment that the hallowed lyrics, “Be thou my vision... oh Lord of my heart” sprang into the world from the pages of antiquity. Later in 1912, Irish woman Eleanor Hull set the words to music--none other than the obscure medieval tune Slane. The hymn became popular overnight and first appeared in hymnals by 1919. This is the 100th anniversary of Be Thou My Vision in America.
Why it Matters
The story of Be Thou My Vision is the story of the Gospel. In God’s timing, He took what the world ignored and made it something beautiful. As far as man knew, Rop tú mo Baile was dead. So was Slane. But God took what was dead and made it alive again. He took what was ancient and made it new.
Is Be Thou My Vision an old song? Yes. And no… just like Christians. God took dusty pages of lyrics and infused it with new life. He took the old man and his sinful flesh and infused it with His Spirit.
Be Thou My Vision is the song of new life. It’s the song of the new life of St. Patrick, who shined his light for Christ. It’s the song of the new life in Ireland, where dead paganism gave way to centuries of vibrant faith. It’s the song of new life in the singer’s heart, where God shines His forgiveness in a sinful soul. And it is the song of new life for the hymn itself, which millions now enjoy again after centuries of obscurity.
No one’s story is done whose pages rest in the hands of the Father. No song is too old that it cannot be sung again in the choir of God’s grace. Be Thou My Vision is a reminder that man’s ways are not God’s ways. The mist descends in the hills and rises to the sky. The mossy mountains crumble and groan. But the grace of God shines bright, as it did on Slane Hill in the days of Saint Patrick.
Resting in Him,