It is unknown who wrote this beloved hymn. Some scholars believe it to be St. Patrick, some an 8th century Monk Dallan Forgaill. Hymn historian Dr. Hawn believes it to be a collaborative effort as it was found in poem form with 16 original couplets in two Irish manuscripts of the library of the Royal Irish Academy.
It was Irish scholar Mary Byrne who took the poem and translated it into prose in 1905. Then the text changed hands again and was set to verse by Eleanor Hull in 1912 and published in Ireland in Hull’s Poems Book of the Gael.
Hull’s verses for the hymn were paired with traditional Irish folk melody SLANE in 1919 for the Irish Church Hymnal. It spread to Britain and following World War II traveled the Atlantic to the US.
SLANE’s composer is also unknown, though it was associated with a ballad in a folk music collection in 1909.
Slane is the name of a Hill where St. Patrick defiantly lit an Easter fire against the commands of pagan King Logaire. King Logaire was impressed by St. Patrick’s devoutness that he allowed St. Patrick to continue his work as the first Christian missionary to Ireland.
Irish liturgy scholar Helen Phelan explains how the imagery and language of “Be Thou My Vision” is pulled from traditional Irish culture. She writes:
“One of the essential characteristics of the text is the use of ‘heroic’ imagery to describe God. This was very typical of medieval Irish poetry, which cast God as the ‘chieftain’ or ‘High King’ (Ard Ri) who provided protection to his people or clan. The lorica is one of the most popular forms of this kind of protection prayer and is very prevalent in texts of this period.”
Hawn, C. Michael. “History of Hymns: ‘Be Thou My Vision.’” Discipleship Ministries. The United Methodist Church. Web. 19 July 2016.
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