Text: Ancient Irish, translated by: Mary Byrne 1927
Tune: Slane, a traditional Irish melody
Be Thou My Vision comes to us from deep in the early years of Christianity in Ireland. While it is found in a manuscript from the 10th or 11th centuries, traditionally it is thought to come from as early as the 6th or 7th centuries. The text itself uses ideas such as “battle-shield” and “sword” which was very common for poetry found in Irish monasteries at this time. The military language reflects extensive clan warfare which was on going for centuries. They even had a name for this type of prayer; it is a lorica which is a prayer for protection. Another textual example which would indicate medieval origins is the use of the phrase: Ard Ri which can mean a chieftain or High King. This type of language would address God as the clan protector.
The tune Slane has been associated with this text almost exclusively. It is an Irish folk tune with its own story. It is named after the town of Slane and on Slane Hill in 433 St. Patrick risked his life in defiance of the king of Ireland. The king had decreed that no one but he could light a bon fire to mark the beginning of the festival of Beltane. St Patrick defied the king and lit a fire on Slane Hill which neighbored the Hill of Tara where the king was to light his fire. The Festival of Beltane was part of Celtic cultic polytheism and St. Patrick, much like the prophet Isaiah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal, challenged the local pagan cult with fire. St. Patrick’s act marked Christianity’s confrontation with the native Celtic religions. However, in St. Patrick’s case the king was impressed with his bravery and allowed St. Patrick to continue his work as Ireland’s first missionary unimpeded.
The ultimate translation of the text from Middle Irish to modern Irish then to English happened very early in the 20th century. There were a couple of English translations in free verse and then finally in metered verse for singing. Most hymnal use the 5 stanza Hull 1912 version, though more recently some have left out the 3rd stanza due to its militant language.
I have included the original Byrne translation with the Hull versification to allow for a comparison. The Byrne follows the modern Irish translation fairly closely. The Hull version combines several verses and makes the text into what the English speaking church has come to love so much.
English translation by Mary Byrne (1905)
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.
Be thou my battle-shield, be thou my sword.
Be thou my dignity, be thou my delight.
Be thou my shelter, be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels.
Be thou every good to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.
Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.
Till I am able to pass into thy hands,
My treasure, my beloved through the greatness of thy love
Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
I seek not men nor lifeless wealth.
Be thou the constant guardian of every possession and every life.
For our corrupt desires are dead at the mere sight of thee.
Thy love in my soul and in my heart —
Grant this to me, O King of the seven heavens.
O King of the seven heavens grant me this —
Thy love to be in my heart and in my soul.
With the King of all, with him after victory won by piety,
May I be in the kingdom of heaven O brightness of the son.
Beloved Father, hear, hear my lamentations.
Timely is the cry of woe of this miserable wretch.
O heart of my heart, whatever befall me,
O ruler of all, be thou my vision.
English version by Eleanor Hull (1912)
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.
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.
Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
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.
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.