It took almost 1,500 years for the hymn Be Thou My Vision to come together as we know it today. Irish poet, scholar of Latin scripture and Christian saint Dallán Forgaill (ca. 530–598) is believed to be the author of early Irish poem “Rop tú mo baile,” the basis of the modern English hymn Be Thou My Vision. As the author of a poem with so many references to vision and sight, it is interesting to note that while Forgaill’s given name was Eochaid, his nickname Dallán means “little blind one”. The story goes that he studied so much that it cost him his sight.
Fast forward to 1905, the year that Irish-born Mary Elizabeth Byrne, M.A. (1880-1931) graduated from the National University of Ireland. She was well-known in her chosen field of linguistics. She received many honors, wrote scholarly papers and even contributed to dictionaries of the Old and Mid-Irish languages. It was also in 1905 that Mary translated Forgaill’s old Irish hymn into English, and published it in the journal of the School of Irish Learning.
In 1912, Eleanor Hull (1860-1935) took the old Irish hymn a step further by creating the verses and form of the song we know today as Be Thou My Vision. Hull was born in England of an Irish family. She was a journalist, scholar of Old Irish and author of many published works of the history, language and culture of Ireland.
An unknown Irish person, some time during those 1,500 years, composed the tune we know as SLANE. And folks, that is about all we know about that. The first known printing of the Irish folk song was in 1909, but to a different set of words. It first appeared in print with the text Be Thou My Vision in 1927.
Now, about that tune name, SLANE. Slane refers to Slane Hill, in Ireland. The story of what occurred there is most likely a mix of truth and legend, but this story is as Irish it gets. The hill is called Slane because it is the burial site of “Slaine,” one of the very ancient kings. There are many stories associated with the region, but of particular interest to us today is one about St. Patrick (exact dates unknown, but second half of the fifth century). Yes, *that* St. Patrick. Ireland of Patrick’s day was a place of tribalism, war, suspicion, violence, chieftains and their druid priests. One of the pagan rituals of the time was to mark the spring equinox festival by lighting fires on a hill called Tara. No other fire was allowed within sight of the fire at Tara, where pagan High King Loegaire resided. As the druids prepared their feast day on Tara Hill, Patrick prepared the Easter feast on nearby Slane Hill. He lit his paschal fire at Slane as the druids lit their sacred fire at Tara.
Loegaire summoned Patrick to appear in court for this act of defiance. Patrick had come to Ireland tell the Irish people there was only one God, and this was a God who loved them. He explained to the king he was bringing the new light, the light of Christ, the Savior of the world. Have you heard the story of how St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the trinity? It is said this is when and where it happened. Loegaire and others had tried to kill Patrick in the past but now Loegaire was warned that he must accept the faith or he would die. Loegaire finally submitted and was baptized. Patrick was allowed to go free and continue to preach the gospel. His ministry lasted 29 years. He baptized over 120,000 Irishmen and started 300 churches.
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.