Friday, 11 November 2016

‘Thou my high tower’:
The Celtic Revival and hymn writers
in the Church of Ireland

Fig 1. The Great Round Tower at Glendalough. Photograph by Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford

Celtic Christianity is such a popular and marketable lifestyle choice that it is now a fashionable commodity from the shop in the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, to the duty-free shops in Dublin Airport. But much of what passes as ‘Celtic’ has little to do with the remote past and owes more to the Celtic Revival at the end of the Victorian era that complemented a similar revival in political and artistic circles.

I spent a recent Saturday afternoon in Glendalough, searching for photographs to illustrate a lecture on Celtic Spirituality. To my surprise, I found that the most prominent Celtic High Cross – beneath the Great Round Tower – was a gravestone erected in the late nineteenth century. A few more Celtic myths were shattered that afternoon. I realised the Great Round Tower was capped in the late nineteenth century, so that the tower we see today stands not as it once was. The so-called ‘Priest’s House’, with its Romanesque arch, was also largely rebuilt by the Board of Works in the 1870s, using an eighteenth century drawing by Gabriel Beranger of Rotterdam.

Many of our images of Celtic spirituality are shaped by Victorian romanticism and hymnody. The most popular English-language version of ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’, Cecil Frances Alexander’s ‘I bind unto myself today’ (Hymn 322 in the Irish Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland) was first published as late as 1889. ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’, as we know it today, is based on a late eleventh century manuscript in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. It was first published as late as 1897 by John Henry Bernard (1860-1927), later Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin (1915-1919) and Provost of Trinity College Dublin (1919-1927).

The popular English-language version of ‘Be thou my vision’ and versified by Eleanor Hull (Irish Church Hymnal, No 643), which refers to God as ‘my high tower’, was translated by Mary Byrne (Máire Ní Bhroin) as recently as 1905 and was versified by a member of the Church of Ireland, Dr Eleanor Henrietta Hull, and first published in a hymnal in 1915. As these translators and hymn writers were working, the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884, and the Gaelic League was founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector.

The quest for Celtic Christianity – although shared with Roman Catholics – can be seen as a search by members of the Church of Ireland for a foundational identity in midst of the crisis created by Disestablishment in 1869. The Preamble and Declaration of 1870 describe the Church of Ireland as ‘the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland’ – a token acknowledgement of the primacy of Celtic Christianity, but ignoring the influences of the Christianity of Vikings, Anglo-Normans, Scots, Huguenots and others in Ireland.

There are at least 20 hymns from the Irish language in the Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland, and many more tunes with a Celtic air. Hymns mentioning high towers were written in the same decades in the late 19th century as the Round Tower was restored and capped in Glendalough, a Round Tower was erected at the grave of Daniel O’Connell in Glasnevin, and, as part of the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement, my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902) decorated the top storey of the Irish House, a public house that stood beneath Christ Church Cathedral, which was then being rebuilt.

With its series of Celtic harpists and rising round towers pointing towards the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains behind Christ Church Cathedral, which was being restored on the hill above at the same time, and at the expense of a distiller, the Irish House illustrated the way in which the revival in Celtic Spirituality in hymnody and poetry had been appropriated too for the working class of Dublin in the fashionable pubs of the day.

Yet, during frequent visits to Lichfield I am reminded that the adjective ‘Celtic’ applies to a church life far beyond the shores of this island and that is of the same antiquity. St Chad was the founder of the Diocese of Lichfield, and the Lichfield Gospels, or the Book of Chad, now one of the great treasures of Lichfield Cathedral, predates the Book of Kells by almost a century. The recent discovery of a large Anglo-Saxon horde near Lichfield points to an interesting interaction between the Saxons of Mercia and the Celtic church in Northumbria, long before the arrival of St Chad.

The Celtic revival in the Church of Ireland was less an expression of the new Gaelic nationalism of the day and more an antiquarian reaction to Disestablishment. But who among those great hymn writers, poets, antiquarians, and architects could have realised that the Celtic Revival in literature, church architecture and hymnody would also lead to a narrow definition of Irish identity that excludes our Irish neighbours, a modern industry that has a niche income from shops at tourist hotspots, or that in years to come it would be forgotten that the Celtic Revival sought a spiritual heritage that was common to all Christian traditions on this island.

Fig. 2. ‘Be thou my high tower’: A high tower, Celtic cross and Irish wolfhound on James Comerford’s victorious pediment at The Oarsman in Ringsend. Photograph by Patrick Comerford

Biographical Note:

Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, where he also teaches Church History. He is a priest of the Church of Ireland, a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, and a former Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.

Select bibliography

Edward Darling and Donald Davison, eds, Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005).

Michael Rodgers and Marcus Losack, Glendalough, A Celtic Pilgrimage (Dublin: Columba Press, 1996).

Geraldine Walsh, et al, The Irish House, An Teach Galeach, Public House 1870-1968 (Dublin: Dublin Civic Trust, 2009).

The List of Contributors includes this note:

Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Liturgy and Anglicanism, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.


This was first published in Treasures of Irish Chrstianity, Volume II, A people of the Word, Salvador Ryan and Brendan Leahy (eds), (Dublin: Veritas, 2013), pp 203-206.

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