Glossary entry for
Be Thou My Vision

The words to this hymn come from the Irish monastic tradition. Some scholars argue that they may date from 700 CE. It is an example of a "lorica" or breastplate - almost a sort of incantation to be recited for protection arming oneself for spiritual or physical battle. Another well-known lorica is "St. Patrick's Breastplate" "I bind upon myself this day."

The modern prose translation by Mary E. Byrne was published in 1905. It was versified by Eleanor Hull and included in her Poem Book of the Gael. (1912)

Echoes of the following scripture may be found in the text: Colossians 1:15-23; Colossians 2:2-3; Proverbs 9:1-6; Revelation 5:12. There is also a possible illusion to the antiphon in the monastic service of Compline: "Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping . . . "

The text is set to the hymn tune "Slane." This tune is of Irish folk origin. It is named for a hill about ten miles from Tara hill in County Meath. It is on Slane hill, according to an account in the "Confessions of St. Patrick" that the Irish saint defied the command of the pagan king Loigaire by lighting the Pascal candle on Easter Eve. St. Patrick's act was done in defiance of the king's edict that no fire could be ignited before the royal fire was lit by the king's hand on Tara hill. The royal fire was kindled to celebrate the pagan Spring festival and symbolized the return of light and change of season following the darkness of winter.

The tune was first published in 1909 in Patrick Joyce's Old Irish Folk Music and Songs. The melody has several characteristics usually associate with Irish folk tune: a relatively wide range, a four phrase structure with no repetition, and a singability that gives the melody a broad popular appeal.

The tune and text may be found in the Episcopal Churches' Hymnal of 1982. #488. St. Patrick's Breastplate may be found in the same hymnal #370.

We will be singing "Be thou my vision" on Sunday, March 17 here at Grace Episcopal Church, New Orleans in thanksgiving for the great saint.

Much of the above information is taken from The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Church Hymnal Corp, New York, 1994.

Contributed by wwright@WYMPLE.GS.NET

Although the tune is known as "Slane" in the Church of Ireland (Episcopalian) hymn book, the song it comes from is known as "The Banks of the Bann". It's one of the great Northern Irish folk songs, and there's a particularly beautiful recording of it on an album called Hollywood by Irish traditional vocal group The Voice Squad.

Contributed by Sheila Hamilton

Van references in:

Part of the unofficial website