I have recently learned that Be Thou My Vision is a favorite of many who gather at St. David’s (or at least those who filled out the hymn survey – thanks and I’m still accepting suggestions!). I discovered that the components of this hymn all have very unusual stories, captured here in an article by Sarah McCabe:
In 433 AD St. Patrick came to the Hill of Slane in County Meath. It was the night before Easter, and concurrently the beginning of the Druidic festival of Bealtine, as well as the beginning of the Spring Equinox. High King Leoghaire (pronounced “Leary”) mac Neill had issued a decree that no fires were to be lit until the lighting of the blaze atop nearby Tara Hill that would usher in the Spring Equinox. The first fire, however, was not that of King Leoghaire. Rather, it was a flame lit by St. Patrick to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Instead of executing him, King Leoghaire was so impressed by St. Patrick’s courage that he allowed him to continue with his missionary work throughout Ireland.
Considered Ireland’s chief poet during his time, Dallan Forgaill, who was killed by pirates in 598, was known as a studious and scholarly man. It was said that he spent so much time reading, writing, and studying that he became blind. Inspired by the events on the Hill of Slane about 100 years earlier, Dallan Forgaill wrote the original words to “Be Thou My Vision” in old Irish, as a poem entitled “Rop tu mo baile.” The poem was not translated into English until 1905 when Mary E. Byrne (1880-1931) wrote a literal translation of the words in English prose. The words were made into verse and published by Eleanor H. Hull (1860-1935) in her 1913 work entitled Poem Book of the Gael.
The tune to “Be Thou My Vision” is called SLANE, an old Irish folk melody, named for the Hill of Slane. Though centuries old, the melody was first published by Patrick W. Joyce (1827-1914) in his 1909 collection, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs, under the title “By the Banks of the Bann.” The melody was first coupled with Hull’s versified words to “Be Thou My Vision” in 1919 by Leopold Dix (1861-1935) in the Irish Church Hymnal.