When asked what his favorite hymn was, late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins replied, “Be Thou My Vision — Because it’s Irish.” It’s one of my favorite hymns, too. I love the traditional Irish melody and the heartfelt words of longing for Christ’s total lordship. The 8th century words have been attributed to Saint Dallan Forgaill, although there is some debate about that; regardless, the old Irish text has been a staple of Irish Monastic worship for centuries. The English version also has that centuries-old feel, probably because of the timeless Irish folk melody the text is set to, but it didn’t get an English translation until 1905, when Mary Elizabeth Byrne translated it for Ériu (the journal of the School of Irish Learning). That version is quite different from the one most of us know:
Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.
Be thou my meditation by day and night. May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.
Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding. Be thou with me, be I with thee
Be thou my father, be I thy son. Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine.
The poem continues in this manner, with several couplets — in form, closer to the original Old Irish (which you can read, here, along with the rest of Byrne’s translation.)
The version of the song that most of us know came along in 1912, when Byrne’s version was versified by Eleanor Hull:
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart, Be all else but naught to me, save that thou art; Thou my best thought in the day and the night, Both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.
According to Wikipedia, more changes were made in 1964 in the Methodist Hymnal, to get us to the familiar lines many of us know: “Naught be all else to me, save that thou art…” and other well-known phrases, tightened so as to fit the song’s poetic meter more smoothly.
The latest version of this beloved song comes from Rend Collective Experiment, who returned to the Old Irish text to write a new translation:
You are my vision oh King of my heart Nothing else satisfies only You Lord You are my best thought by day or by night Waking or sleeping Your presence my light
When I first heard this version, I thought it was one of those “dumbed-down” versions of hymns that merely replaced the ‘thous’ with ‘yous’ so the modern listener could understand. But as it turns out, the band was intentional about reviving the sentiment of the original Irish version in language that resonates with today’s listener. In an interview with HM magazine, bandmember Gareth Gilkinson explains:
As we translated the song from the Irish and the old English, we soon realized the true meaning of the words were starting to get lost in our culture. […]This is not a song of longing and asking God to ‘be our vision,’ but it is a song of declaration and faith…A confidence that we are his true sons and daughters and that He is dwelling inside us. […] While our culture moves faster than ever, we want to remind people of our deep past as God’s people…and that is why instead of taking the…English version, which is only 100 years old, we have gone back to the original Irish, which is 1,400 years older. (read the whole article here)
Listen to Rend Collective’s joyful rendition of their modern translation in the video below, and have a very happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Christine Hand Jones is a singer-songwriter, a college English professor, and the Director of Music Ministry at Highland Baptist Church. She has a PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned, in large measure, by listening to the collected works of Bob Dylan and writing about what she heard. When she's not playing music or fascinating her students with stunning lectures over comma splices, Christine can be found drinking coffee, playing devoted cat mom to Desmond and Molly, and roaming the shelves of Half-Price Books.