This is a traditional Christian hymn that came from Ireland.  The original version, as we will see, was based on a Middle Irish poem that has been attributed to Dallan Forgaill.  

The well-known English version of the song has some minor variations and was translated by Mary Elizabeth Byrne in 1905. In 1912 , Eleanor Hull made it into verse.  The words were put to an old Irish folk tune called Slane in 1919.  It is very popular in the United Kingdom.  Let’s dig into the details.

Be Thou My Vision originated in Ireland.  It comes from an old Irish text called “Ro tu mo Baile”, and it’s often attributed to Saint Dallan Forgaill in the 6th century.  There are scholars, however, who believe it was written later.  Some date it around the 8th century, while others say around the 10th or 11th century.  A manuscript dated around the 14 century that’s attributed to Adhamh O Clanain contains a copy of the poem that’s handwritten and can be found at the National Library of Ireland.  The Royal Irish Academy has a second manuscript that dates around the 10th or 11th century.

The text of the poem reflects the life of Early Christian Ireland between 400-800 AD.  It’s a prayer that belongs to a type known as lorica, which is a prayer for protection.  The battle-shield and sword are symbolic used to invoke the power and protection of God and is referred to in the book of Ephesians, specifically Ephesians 6:16-17:

In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

This kind of symbolism was common in poetry and hymnology of what they referred to as the “High King of Heaven”.  God was always depicted as a High King in Irish literature.

The poem was translated into English in 1905 by Mary Elizabeth Byrne in Eriu, the journal of the School Of Irish Learning.  This English version was later put into verse by Eleanor Hull in 1912, who was the president of the Irish Literary Society.  It is now the text used the most.

The hymn is sung to an Irish folk tune called Slane.  It was originally written in ¾ time, but modern versions are adapted to 4/4 time.   It was first published as “With My Love on the Road” in Patrick Joyce’s Old Irish Folk Music and Songs in 1909.  The words of Be Thou My Vision were put to this tune in 1919, and the harmony was written by Leopold L. Dix.  A new harmony was written for it by David Evans in 1927, and yet another harmony was provided by Erik Routley for the English hymnal.  

It was a tradition to attribute hymn tune names to the place where they were collected by the collectors.  In this case, Slane is a village in Ireland.

The hymn has been translated into modern Irish many times  The most popular was written by Aodh O Dugain of Gaoth Dobhair, County Donegal.  Two verses of this version was recorded by his granddaughter, Moya Brennan, which was the first time any part of this version was recorded publicly.  Since that time, these two verses have been recorded by many artists including Roma Downey, Aoife, and Iona.  The translation of these verses are very close to the first two of the Old Irish text mentioned earlier.

This hymn has been translated in many other languages, and has reached many people.  This is just another example of God spreading His message to people 

I hope you’ve enjoyed the history of this hymn.  Let me know what you thought.

Have a great week!

193 Replies to “Stories Behind the Songs: Be Thou My Vision”

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