St. Patrick’s Breastplate

The lyrics are a translation of a Gaelic poem, attributed to St. Patrick, called St. Patrick’s Lorica. (A ‘lorica’ was a mystical garment that was supposed to protect the wearer from danger and illness.) Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), famous children’s hymn writer and wife of the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, William Alexander (later the Primate of the Church of Ireland), wrote the words at the request of HH Dickinson, Dean of the Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle: ‘… to fill a gap in our Irish Church Hymnal by giving us a metrical version of St. Patrick’s “Lorica”.’

Most hymnals state that the poem was translated by Mrs Alexander but this is not strictly true as Dickinson explained: ‘I sent her a carefully collated copy of the best prose translations of it. Within a week she sent me that exquisitely beautiful as well as faithful version which appears in the appendix to our Church Hymnal.’

Mrs Alexander’s hymn was certainly beautiful but also unusual and virtually unsingable! Closely following the Gaelic original, the hymn had nine stanzas, the first with four lines of eight syllables and the rest with eight lines. To complicate matters, there were many irregularities and the penultimate stanza was in a different meter (trochaic [Christ be with me] as opposed to triambic [I bind unto myself today] tetrameter). This mismatch meant that it was virtually impossible to sing all the words to one tune.

The appendix to the Church Hymnal was published in 1894 and two musical arrangements were offered – neither particularly memorable. The first arrangement was called Tara, especially written by Dr Thomas RG José and embraced three melodies. José took the first five stanzas, a total of 36 lines, and rearranged them into three stanzas of 12 lines in harmony. Stanzas 6 and 7 followed (now numbered 4 and 5) to a different melody in unison. Next came the penultimate stanza (now stanza 6 – Christ be with me etc) which was labelled as ‘Quartet or semi-chorus’ and sung in harmony. The melody of the last stanza (eight lines) was a shortened variation of the first three.

The tune ‘Tara’ printed in the Church Hymnal 1894 was not a success.

Church Hymnal, 1894

The musical editor of the hymnal could not have been completely confident with Tara and added a second arrangement which would have been easier for congregational singing. The tune was a changeable chant by Joseph Robinson and was sung in the same way as a canticle or psalm, the words having pointing incorporated within them. To add variation, stanzas 6 and 7 were sung in a minor key, the others being in a major key. This approach enabled it to be sung to the one tune/chant but could not have been very satisfactory.

The Church Hymnal also set the hymn to a chant. This was not a success either.

Church Hymnal, 1894

It was going to need a composer of considerable talent to make the music fit to the irregular words. That composer was Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). He had been persuaded to edit a collection of ancient Irish music collected by George Petrie (1790-1866) and one of the melodies was called The Hymn of St. Bernard which had been submitted to Petrie by a Mr Southwell, the tune being set to St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s Latin hymn, “Jesu Dulcis Memoria.”

bernard2Petrie ed Stanford, 1903

Iesu, dulcis memoria,
dans vera cordis gaudia,
sed super mel et omnia,
eius dulcis praesentia

Stanford published the Petrie Collection in three volumes in 1903 with the original melody as No 1048 (above) though he had already published Mrs Alexander’s hymn to his arrangement of the melody.


Stanford’s arrangement, 1902

For the penultimate stanza, Stanford used another melody from Petrie which he called Gartan, after a lough in Co Donegal.

This melody in the Petrie collection was adapted as the tune ‘Gartan’, often used for stanza 8. Gartan is a lough in Co Donegal.Petrie ed Stanford, 1903

Though the snippet above shows Stanford’s St Patrick’s Breastplate sung in unison with organ accompaniment, three of the stanzas were arranged in four part harmony (with additional organ notes). The hymn was selected for inclusion in the English Hymnal (1906). The Musical Editor was Ralph Vaughan Williams, Stanford’s former pupil. Though RVW acknowledges Stanford in the preface as being the arranger, all of the hymn, except for the penultimate stanza, was sung in unison to a new arrangement (below) and the penultimate stanza was sung to another Irish tune of RVW’s harmonisation called Deidre, first published in Edward Bunting’s 1841 Ancient Music of Ireland.


English Hymnal, 1906

Stanford later made a new orchestrated arrangement of the hymn, first performed as an anthem in 1912. Four years later, the hymn made its first appearance in Hymns, Ancient & Modern in the second supplement to the Standard Edition. It used Stanford’s arrangement.

Whilst the Church Hymnal in 1894 expected the hymn to be sung through in its entirety, the English Hymnal of 1906 starred stanzas 6 and 7 and since then, the hymn has often been truncated. Many hymnals omit stanzas 6 and 7 including the New English Hymnal which also drops stanza 8, printing it as a stand-alone hymn for optional inclusion. Our present parish hymnal, Hymns Old and New (One Church, One Faith, One Lord) omits stanzas 2, 3, 6 and 7.

A difficult hymn to sing without the words printed within the music, ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ was and remains a masterpiece. It topped an Episcopalian poll of favourite hymns in the USA. No wonder.

1. I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.

2. I bind this day to me for ever,
by power of faith, Christ’s Incarnation;
his baptism in Jordan river;
his death on cross for my salvation;
his bursting from the spicèd tomb;
his riding up the heavenly way;
his coming at the day of doom:
I bind unto myself today.

3. I bind unto myself the power
of the great love of cherubim;
the sweet “Well done” in judgment hour;
the service of the seraphim;
confessors’ faith, apostles’ word,
the patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls;
all good deeds done unto the Lord,
and purity of virgin souls.

4. I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.

5. I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
his eye to watch, his might to stay,
his ear to hearken, to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach,
his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech,
his heavenly host to be my guard.

6. Against the demon snares of sin,
the vice that gives temptation force,
the natural lusts that war within,
the hostile men that mar my course;
or few or many, far or nigh,
in every place, and in all hours,
against their fierce hostility
I bind to me these holy powers.

7. Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
against false words of heresy,
against the knowledge that defiles,
against the heart’s idolatry,
against the wizard’s evil craft,
against the death-wound and the burning,
the choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

8. Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

9. I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
Of whom all nature hath creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord. Amen.

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