THIS often comes near the top of British hymn popularity charts, but it has its roots in the long-distant Irish past.
The original words, entitled Rop tú mo baile, were written in Middle Irish and attributed to the poet St Dallán Forgaill (c 560-598). As a young man he lost his sight, apparently due to intensive study, and thus acquired the nickname Dallán (‘little blind one’). His other well-known work is a poem in praise of St Columba, written shortly after Columba’s death in 597. It is considered one of the most important poems from the early medieval Gaelic world and the earliest which can be dated. It is claimed that after completing the work, Dallan regained his sight. Apparently at the time it was believed those who could recite the poem from memory would receive the gift of a happy death, but this was widely abused by those who attempted to rely on their memory rather than a virtuous life.
The year after writing the poem, in 598, Dallán was beheaded by pirates raiding the monastery on Inishkeel, a small island off County Donegal. According to legend his head was thrown into the sea, washed back up on shore, and re-attached to his body by God so that he could continue to recite poetry during the attack. He was buried on the island, and acclaimed a saint in the 11th century.
His poem Rop tú mo baile was translated into English by Mary Elizabeth Byrne (1880-1931), an Irish linguist and author, and published in Ériu (the journal of the School of Irish Learning), in 1905.
The English text was versified in 1912 by Eleanor Hull, president of the Irish Literary Society.
These are the words:
1 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.
2 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.
3 Be thou my battle shield, sword for my fight;
be thou my dignity, thou my delight,
thou my soul’s shelter, thou my high tow’r:
raise thou me heav’n-ward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.
4 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.
5 High King of heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
The battle references are a reflection of life in sixth-century Ireland, when clan warfare was common. ‘Be thou my vision’ is presumably a reference to the writer’s blindness.
In 1919 it was combined with the melody called Slane, an Irish folk tune first published as With My Love on the Road in Patrick Joyce’s Old Irish Folk Music and Songs in 1909. The same tune is used for Lord of All Hopefulness, which I wrote about here.
In that article I wrote: ‘The tune is named Slane after the place where it was collected. The Hill of Slane in County Meath is where, according to legend, in AD 433 St Patrick lit an Easter fire in defiance of the pagan king, Lóegaire.’
To be honest I don’t find the tune a particularly good fit for the words, but it is the only one used. There is a different tune by John Rutter (whom I wrote about here) but it is not sung by congregations. I give it at the end of this selection of performances.
This is by the choir of Salisbury Cathedral.
Here is the American singer Nathan Pacheco.
I thought this version by Voices of Ireland had an authentic ancient feel to it.
I am not a fan of Van Morrison but I include this for its interest value.
Here is an instrumental version by The President’s Own United States Marine Band in an arrangement by David Gillingham.
Finally, the John Rutter melody by the Cambridge Singers.