The Story Behind the Hymn "Be Thou My Vision"
Music has a way of dividing us. Turn on music in a car full of people and you will get a car full of mixed reactions. But there are certain songs that everyone enjoys. Most would have a hard time turning down the sound of bagpipes playing Amazing Grace or of a chorus singing Ode to Joy.
In the same way, the hymn, Be Thou My Vision fits into this category. It is one of the most loved songs of all times. The medieval melody brings images of rolling hills and Scottish Highlands, causing people to cry when they hear it, and millions more to request it for their own funerals.
But very few people know the story behind the song. In fact, the history of Be Thou My Vision is as ancient and mysterious as the haunting hymn itself. A quick look in a hymnal offers little help. Ambiguous entries like “Irish Melody” and “Anonymous” appear where the name of the composer and lyricist typically belong.
The story behind Be Thou My Vision begins with St. Patrick. When he was just sixteen years old, pirates kidnapped Patrick and sold him into slavery in Ireland. This caused him to enter adulthood knowing the Gaelic language and Irish customs. He also became a Christian during this time. Years later, he managed to escape and return home to his family in England. While most would have stayed home forever, Patrick chose to go back to Ireland and become a missionary!
What does all this have to do with Be Thou My Vision? On Easter Sunday in 433, the local Irish king issued a decree in observation of a pagan Druid festival that prohibited anyone from lighting a flame or candle. Patrick, refusing to honour anyone but Christ, stood against the king. That morning, Patrick risked his life by climbing to the tallest hill in the area and lighting a huge fire. As the ancient Irish people woke up, they could all see Patrick's defiance of the king. He could not hide his light. Patrick wanted to show the world that God’s light shines in darkness, and that only He deserves praise.
Years later, an unknown composer wrote a melody in honour of Patrick's heroism. Called, "Slane," the now-forgotten composer named it after the hill where Patrick shined his light: Slane Hill. People still recognise the tune today.
While the story behind the melody is legendary, the history behind the lyrics is much more obscure. Tradition tells us that an Irish poet from the 6th century named St. Dallán Forgaill wrote a Gaelic poem entitled Rop tú mo Baile, in honour of St. Patrick. Borrowing from another medieval poem, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Forgaill's lyrics referred to God as his “battle shield" and “high tower," phrases that still exist in the modern version today.
Sadly, the oldest existing copy of Forgaill's poem comes from the 14th century, which included no indication of its author. Because no other historical evidence connects Forgaill to the poem, it is impossible to verify the actual origin of the lyrics to Be Thou My Vision. As a result, most hymnals attribute the song to "Anonymous."
As the years passed, Slane, and Rop tú mo Baile fell into obscurity. Their authors, once known, faded away into the fogs of time.
But in 1905, nearly fifteen hundred years after Saint Patrick lit a flame on Slane Hill, the forgotten hymn re-emerged from the mists of time. Mary Byrne, a 25-year-old university student, discovered the 14th century copy of Rop tú mo Baile and translated it into English for the very first time.
It was that moment, the now-hallowed lyrics, “Be thou my vision... oh Lord of my heart” sprang from the forgotten pages of time and into the modern world. Later in 1912, an Irish woman named Eleanor Hull set the words to music. The melody she set it to was none other than "Slane," the medieval tune written in honour of St. Patrick. The hymn became famous overnight and appeared in its first hymnal in 1919. In 2019, the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of the modern version of Be Thou My Vision.
The story behind 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 was concerned, music like Rop tú mo Baile and Slane were dead--nothing more but irrelevant fragments from antiquity. But God took what was dead and made it alive again. He took what was ancient and made it new.
So, is Be Thou My Vision an old song? Yes and no. Just like he took dusty pages of lyrics and infused it with new life, He took us and our sinful flesh and infused us with His Spirit.
Be Thou My Vision is the song of new life. It is the song of the new life of St. Patrick, who shined his light for Christ. It is the song of the new life in Ireland, where dead paganism gave way to centuries of vibrant faith. It is 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.