Wednesday, 17 August 2016


I have not often been to Ireland, I am sorry to say, but whenever I have it has been a delightful experience. The first time was in 1984, when as a newly-graduated fresh-faced lanky youth I did a sailing trip starting and ending in Poole and taking in the Channel Islands and Brittany as well as Baltimore in the south-west of Ireland. Since then I have visited Dublin a handful of times, and visited places along the east coast including Howth, Dún Laoghaire, Wexford and the wonderful Carlingford Lough, right on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In each case I have arrived by sailing boat, which perhaps contributes to the fact that the experience was in every case a delight.

The profile picture of me that you can see on this blog was taken in Dublin. It is my first and - to date - only selfie. The expression on my face is a mixture of satisfaction with the haircut I have just had, and frustration with the fact that my friends insisted on eating at a pizza restaurant, while I hankered after a pint of Guinness in a proper Irish pub. I did later get my pint, and here it is:

Dún Laoghaire is a port to the south-east of Dublin, with a massive marina, a Royal Yacht Club (which must date from before the Republic), a ferry port and the National Maritime Musem of Ireland. Both Samuel Beckett and James Joyce have connections to the town. The name of Dún Laoghaire is pronounced Dun Leary by English speakers; it means 'the fort of Laoghaire' and is named after Lóegaire mac Néill, the 5th-century High King of Ireland.

According to the seventh-century monk and chronicler Muirchú moccu Machtheni, King Lóegaire once lit a fire on the Hill of Tara to celebrate a pagan festival. This hill (whose Irish name is Cnoc na Teamhrach) is about 20 miles to the north-west of Dublin, not far from the River Boyne; it is traditionally supposed to be the ancient seat of the High King of Ireland, and there are some important Iron Age archaeological monuments there. Muirchú describes how the King decreed that no other fires were to be lit while his festive bonfire was burning, but St Patrick defied him and lit a fire on the hill of Slane, about nine miles north of Tara, to celebrate Easter. This hill is named after the very first High King, Sláine mac Dela. Lóegaire was so impressed by St Patrick's chutzpah that he allowed him to continue his missionary work in Ireland.

Stone of Destiny, Hill of Tara
© Germán Póo-Caamaño
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Irish scholars were researching the culture of their island, their folklore and language, perhaps as part of a movement to break free of the political and cultural dominance of England. Among these scholars was Máiri Ní Bhroin (1880-1931), who also wrote under the Anglicised name Mary E Byrne. She worked on a grammar of the Irish language and did extensive research into medieval manuscripts. One of these manuscripts, from the 8th century, included a lyric beginning:

Rop tú ma baile a Choimdiu cride:
ní ní nech aile acht Rí secht nime.

In 1905 Mary Byrne published a translation of this text which starts:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.

This was subsequently turned into a poem by Eleanor Hull (1860-1935), who was born in Manchester and died in Wimbledon, but was very proud of her Irish background and education. She kept the first line exactly as Mary Byrne had translated it, and used it as the metrical pattern for the rest of her versification:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart,
Nought is all else to me, save that Thou art.

Hull's poem was published as a hymn, in slightly amended form, in The Church Hymnal, in 1915.

P W Joyce

Patrick Weston Joyce (1827-1914) was a historian and writer of books on Irish culture, including grammars of the Irish language and books about Irish placenames such as Dún Laoghaire, Slane and Tara. He also collected Irish folk-music, most notably in Old Irish Folk Music and Songs (1909), a book of over traditional 800 tunes and songs. One of these, called With my love on the road, was adapted for the music edition of The Church Hymnal (1919) and used as the melody for Be Thou my Vision. The tune was given the name SLANE, after the hill on which St Patrick defied the pagan king Lóegaire. Joyce did not print any words for With my love on the road  in his collection, and I have not yet been able to find a text to go with this tune, though the title of the song fits the last phrase of the tune so well that I am convinced that it must have had some words. These words were probably in English, unless by some good fortune the Irish for 'with my love on the road' has exactly the same rhythm; my knowledge of the language unfortunately starts and ends with sláinte, which means 'cheers' (literally 'health') and, by the way, does not seem to be related to the name 'Slane'.

Jan Struther was the pen-name of Joyce Anstruther (1901-1953), a socialite and journalist who married a Scottish landowner and impressed Winston Churchill with her series of articles about the fictional Mrs Miniver, portraying an ordinary middle-class family coping with the challenges of life in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. These articles were later published as a book and made into a successful film. Churchill thought that their propaganda value, portraying the resourcefulness and pluck of an ordinary English family, was worth a flotilla of battleships.

The Church did not loom large in Jan Struther's life, but Percy Dearmer, the editor of The English Hymnal and Songs of Praise, persuaded her for a brief while to turn her lyrical talents to hymn-writing. The results included When a knight won his spurs, which was a favourite at my primary school, sung to the tune STOWEY, based on a folk-song from Somerset collected by Cecil Sharp and named after a village on the edge of the Mendip Hills. But perhaps Struther's most enduring contribution to hymn-writing was Lord of all hopefulness, written specifically to fit the tune SLANE, and first published in 1931, in Songs of Praise Enlarged. Here is a link to a recording of the hymn being sung in St Paul's Cathedral.