Most scholars of Irish literature believe the text for this ancient Irish hymn dates back to the sixth century and was written by the blind poet Eochaid Forgaill. He was known as Dallán, a nickname meaning “little blind one.” Education, poetry, and literature were quite important in Irish culture at that time, and Dallán was known as the most excellent scholar in Ireland. He died in 598, suffering a martyr's death at the hands of pirates. Since the language of some of the early Irish manuscripts suggests a later time period, these were probably copied and didn’t indicate authorship. As a result, some hymnals simply state the origin as anonymous or ancient 8th-century Irish.
It wasn’t until 1300 years later, in 1905, that Mary Elizabeth Byrne made an English translation into thirty-two lines of literal prose. It was published in “The Journal of the School of Irish Learning.” In 1912 Eleanor Hull, an Irish scholar discovered the prose, put it into singable verse, and published it as a prayer in her “Poem Book of the Gael” in 1912. It first appeared as a hymn in the “Irish Church Hymnal” of 1919. The hymn tune “Slane” is based on a traditional ballad and was named for a hill where it is believed that St. Patrick challenged the Druid priests.
During this time in history, the Irish people lived with a strong faith in Christ. The country was known for its interest in missionary work, spreading the gospel wherever they went. Evidence of the spiritual richness of that day is obvious in this hymn. It’s difficult to imagine that a blind man wrote the prayer-like poem that would become “Be Thou My Vision.” The words beautifully express an early Celtic understanding of the Person of Christ and His attributes. At the end of the second stanza, Forgaill rejoices in this truth: “Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.” I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:5) The hymn ends anticipating the joy of heaven and being eternally with the Lord: “May I reach heaven’s joys.”
This hymn text is typical of medieval Irish poetry, describing the Lord as the “Chieftain” or “High King” who protected his people or clan. It is written in the style of a prayer of protection which was used at that time. It was said of Dallán that he was blind to the things of the world, but he had excellent spiritual vision. This ancient hymn has been a source of help and encouragement for many and is as meaningful today as it was over one thousand years ago. Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. (Proverbs 29:18)
Naught is all else to me, save that thou art.
Thou my best thought by day and by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.
I ever with thee, and thou with me, Lord.
Thou my great Father, I thy dear son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.
Be thou my dignity, thou my delight.
Raise thou me heav’nward, O pow’r of my pow’r.
Thou mine inheritance now and always.
Thou, and thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure thou art.
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.
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