By Tammy L. Hensel
His hunger for knowledge consumed him. Day and night he studied Scripture, history, and literature. But he paid a heavy price to quench this hunger. While still a young man, he lost his eyesight forever. He could have felt betrayed. Instead, he bowed to God and cried out: Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.”
Thus Irish folk legend gives us the origin of the great hymn Be Thou My Vision, ascribing the words to the 6th century monk and poet known as, Saint Dallán Forgaill, whose name meant “the blind man of eloquence.” The words of this magnificent hymn resounded in Irish churches for centuries, first as part of monastic liturgy, and then sung to an Irish folk tune called “Slane.” Although the composer remains unknown, the music originated around the 8th century. The title suggests it commemorates a famous confrontation between Saint Patrick and the High King Logaire of Tara at Slane Hill in 433. Irish linguist Mary Elizabeth Byrne translated the lyrics into the English in 1905 for the rendition we know today.
Despite his disability, Saint Dallán held a position of great power and influence as Chief Ollam (Bard) of Ireland and a church scholar. The Bardic tradition goes back to the pre-Christian days when Druid poets kept the history and genealogy of the particular king or chieftain they served. When Saint Patrick converted the nation to Christianity, he incorporated poetic forms into his own writings and encouraged its use to spread the gospel. (See my blog on Saint Patrick http://dedicatedwriter.blogspot.com/search/label/St.%20Patrick) From time to time, both before and after the nation’s conversion, disreputable bards and their followers took advantage of their positions, causing unrest among the people. This happened during Saint Dallán’s time. He worked successfully to reform the Order of Bards, which kept the king from expelling them from the country. Tradition says that Saint Dallán died during a pirate raid while visiting the Monastery of Inneskeel at Donegal.
Of course, we do not know at what point in his life Saint Dallán wrote the words to Be Thou My Vision, if he is indeed the author. But keeping his story in mind, listen to the video below. He offers every thought and emotion to the Lord—his discouragement in his blindness; his thirst for knowledge; his fears in life’s battles; and his pride at earthly accomplishments. In the end he joyously receives the victory, no longer blind, but rejoicing in the light of heaven.
Blog Copyright by Tammy L. Hensel, 2014, All Rights Reserved.
Macmanus, Seumas, The Story of the Irish Race, Old Saybroook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 1921)