Mary Elizabeth Byrne and the Irish

St. Pat’s is a-comin’ and the Irish in our hymns is featured today.  Sure, other women wrote hymns to traditional Irish tunes, such as Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830 – 1894) in her beautiful noel, “Love Came Down at Christmas” and Margaret Clarkson (1915-2008) in “God of Creation, All-Powerful”.  But Rossetti was born in England and of Italian heritage.  Clarkson was a Canadian teacher in Ontario.

Our Irish star was Mary Elizabeth Byrne (1880-1931), Irish through and through.  Born Irish, she was educated at a Dominican convent in Dublin and the National University of Ireland where she graduated in 1905.  As an educated Irish linguist, she contributed to the Old and Mid-Irish Dictionary and the Dictionary of the Irish Language. She worked for the Board of Intermediate Education and helped compile the Catalog of the Royal Irish Academy.  Her translation of the poem “Rob Tu Mo Bhoile, A Comdi Cride” was later versified by Eleanor Hull in Poem Book of Gael in 1912.  The old Irish text had been part of the monastic tradition for centuries before it was ever a hymn.  Byrne’s translation first appeared in the journal Erin in 1905.  Hull was founder and secretary of the Irish Text Society and president of the Irish Literary Society in London.  The poem was set to the traditional Irish tune “Slane”.  “Slane” was originally used with a secular text, “With My Love on the Road”. It was inspired by Slane Hill in County Meath where St. Pat is said to have challenged King Loegaire and the Druid priests by lighting the Paschal fire on Easter eve.   Today, we know the tune mainly for Byrne’s translation and Hull’s versification, “Be Thou My Vision”.    Why not wear green and sing it on St. Pat’s?

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