St. Patrick’s Hymn
Atomriug indíu niurt trén togairm trinoit
I bind myself today
I bind unto myself today
I arise today
Text: Origins. St. Patrick’s dates of birth and death are widely contested, but he most certainly ministered in the 5th century. He was probably born in England and learned Irish during a time of captivity in Ireland as a youth. He returned to Ireland later as an adult with great missionary zeal, c. 425 or 432. Upon his arrival, he took his group of companions to the hill of Slane, about ten miles from the capital of Tara, and lit a great fire to celebrate the Eve of the Feast of Easter. In Tara, King Loégaire had issued a decree that no one would light the first fire in the area before he had done it himself, upon penalty of death. When he saw that a fire was lit on Slane, he gathered some of his men and set out to confront the transgressor. When he got close, Patrick allegedly shouted Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Then Patrick and his company sang this Lorica (hymn of protection). Some versions of the tale describe how Patrick and his companions were protected when their opponents mistook them for a herd of deer (together with a fawn, St. Benen), so this song is sometimes called “The deer’s cry.”
The hymn exists in at least two manuscripts: the Liber Hymnorum in the library at Trinity College, Dublin (MS 1441, fols. 19v-20r | Fig. 1), 11th century, and a partial text in the Bodleian Library copy of The Tripartite Life (Rawl. B. 512, fol. 7 a i). It was credited to Patrick as early as 690 in Tirechan’s Collections, where it was directed to be sung in all churches and monasteries in Ireland.
Fig. 1: Trinity College, Dublin, MS 1441, fols. 19v-20r (11th century). Images courtesy of Trinity College Digital Collections.
This Irish hymn was first published and translated by George Petrie (1789–1866) in the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. 18 (1839), pp. 57-68, with extensive annotations (HathiTrust). A more influential translation of both the Trinity College and Bodleian Library MSS was produced by Celtic scholar Dr. Whitley Stokes (1830-1909) in Goidelica: Old and Early-Middle-Irish Glosses, Prose and Verse (2nd ed., 1872 | Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. Whitley Stokes, Goidelica: Old and Early-Middle-Irish Glosses, Prose and Verse, 2nd ed. (London: Trubner & Co., 1872).
The translation by Dr. Stokes was revised and printed with extensive commentary in The Writings of St. Patrick, edited by Charles Wright (1889 | Fig. 3). Note also the detailed, line-by-line scriptural analysis.
Fig. 3. The Writings of St. Patrick, ed. Charles Wright (London: Religious Tract Society, 1889).
Cecil Frances Alexander (1818–1895) produced a metrical version of Patrick’s hymn, based on Stokes’ work, for St. Patrick’s Day in 1889; this was published in Wright’s edition (Fig. 4). Her translation is the most popular. Her versification was prepared at the request of H.H. Dickinson, dean of the Chapel Royal at Dublin Castle, who wanted a metrical version of Patrick’s hymn for inclusion in an appendix being prepared for the 1873 edition of the Irish Church Hymnal.
Fig. 4. The Writings of St. Patrick, ed. Charles Wright (London: Religious Tract Society, 1889).
Shown here for comparison is a translation by Kuno Meyer (1858–1919), a Celtic scholar, as in Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry (1911 | Fig. 5). This was republished in an abridged form the following year in The Poem Book of the Gael (1912), pp. 105-106. “I arise today” is generally considered a better translation of the first line than “I bind unto myself today.”
Fig. 5. Kuno Meyer, Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1911).
For a side-by-side comparison of the original Irish as transcribed by Stokes, Stokes’ literal translation, Alexander’s metrical version, and Meyer’s literal translation, see this PDF.
Text: Analysis. The content of the hymn is summarized well by Alister McGrath, from his book Glimpsing the Face of God: The Search for Meaning in the Universe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002 | Amazon), pp. 106-08:
This hymn sets out the richness and the depth of the Christian understanding of God. The hymn begins by surveying the vast panorama of the works of God in creation—one of the great themes of Celtic Christianity. The wonders of nature are reminders that God’s presence and power undergirds the world of nature.
The hymn then turns its attention to the work of God in redemption. It declares that the same God who created the world—the earth, the sea, the sun, moon and stars—acted in Jesus Christ to redeem us.
We are thus invited to reflect upon the history of Jesus Christ: his incarnation, baptism, death, resurrection, ascension and final coming on the last day. These powerful ideas do not displace the belief that God created the world, and may be discerned in its wonders; it supplements this, by focusing on another area of the power and activity of God. All these, Patrick affirms, are the actions of the same God who created us and redeems us through Jesus Christ.
Yet the hymn has not quite finished; there is another aspect of the activity and presence of God to be surveyed. Again, this is not to be seen as an alternative or substitute for what is already believed; it rounds off the full and authentic Christian vision of the character and power of God. The same God who called the universe into being and redeemed us through Jesus Christ is also the God who is present with here and now.
The hymn thus affirms that the one and the same God created the world, entered into our work and redeemed us in Christ, and is present as a living reality this present moment. No other account of the nature and activity of God is adequate to do justice to the Christian witness to God, and no other doctrine of God can therefore be thought of as “Christian.”
This hymn belongs to a tradition of song called lorica, songs of protection, sometimes called breastplate songs. The idea is that these songs are a weapon in times of spiritual warfare, drawing on the biblical imagery of the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-18, Isaiah 59:17, and 1 Thessalonians 5:8.
Tunes. Alexander’s hymn was adopted into the Appendix of the Irish Church Hymnal (1891), where it was set to the tune TARA by Thomas R.Gonzalves Jozé (Fig. 6) and also to an Anglican-style harmonized chant by Joseph Robinson. The editors of the Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005) said of Jozé’s setting, “It was most irregular in metre, extremely difficult to sing effectively and, worst of all, it expected its singers to reach a top G, usually producing a cacophonous result!” (p. 451). Notice in this and in other hymnal settings, the complete hymn is a lengthy production, which requires a significant commitment to sing in full.
Fig. 6. Church Hymnal … Set to Appropriate Tunes, with Appendix (Dublin: APCK, 1891).
Most hymnals set Alexander’s hymn to two tunes because eight of the nine stanzas were crafted in iambic long meter (weak-strong, 184.108.40.206.), but stanza 8 (“Christ be with me,” etc.) is trochaic (strong-weak). Some hymnals follow the example set in The English Hymnal (1906 | Fig. 7), where the editors used ST. PATRICK as the main tune and DEIRDRE for stanza 8.
Fig. 7. The English Hymnal (Oxford: University Press, 1906).
ST. PATRICK was adapted from a traditional Irish tune, as given in Charles V. Stanford’s edition of The Complete Collection of Irish Music (1902 | Fig. 8), using tunes originally collected by George Petrie. This tune apparently has liturgical roots related to Jesu dulcis memoria.
DEIRDRE was drawn from The Ancient Music of Ireland (1840 | Fig. 9), edited by Edward Bunting. In Bunting’s volume, the tune was more fully titled “Lamentation of Deirdre for the Sons of Usneach” (“Neaill ghubh a Dheirdre”). The story behind the title involves Naisi, a son of Usnach, who was playing on a harp in the plain of Eman, when the young maiden Deirdre approached. Deirdre had been promised in marriage to Conor, king of Ulster, but she loved him not, and persuaded Naisi to take her instead. They fled to the beautiful Loch Etive. In spite of his resentment, Conor offered a pardon to the pair, since Naisi was a valuable warrior. Against Deirdre’s wishes, they returned to Emania. In the end, Conor returned to his jealousy, and in the battle to reclaim Deirdre, Naisi and his brothers were slain. Deirdre stood over their graves, offered a lament, then flung herself into the grave and also died, an Irish tragedy of great renown. Bunting summarized the story in his book, pp. 83-88, and also cited a longer version of the story, as given in “Hibernian Nights’ Entertainments,” Dublin University Magazine (December, 1834 | Hathitrust), pp. 674-690.
Another melody dedicated to Deirdre appeared in Stanford’s edition of The Complete Collection of Irish Music (1902 | Fig. 10), but it has a very different, florid character.
Some hymnals pair ST. PATRICK with a different Irish tune, GARTAN. Charles V. Stanford was the first to do this, in his anthem version, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” (London: Stainer & Bell, 1913). This pairing was repeated in the Irish Church Hymnal (1919 | Fig. 11) and in the following edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern (1922). These two tunes were also included in the final movement of Stanford’s Sonata Celtica (Organ Sonata No. 4, op. 153, 1920).
Fig. 11. Church Hymnal with Accompanying Tunes (Dublin: APCK, 1919).
For more information on the tune GARTAN, see the article on “Love came down at Christmas.”
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
21 August 2018
rev. 15 March 2019
Charles H.H. Wright, “St. Patrick,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 884-885: Google Books
J.H. Bernard & R. Atkinson, Liber Hymnorum, 2 vols. (London: Harrison and Sons, 1898).
T.S. Lindsay, The Church’s Song: A Companion to the Irish Church Hymnal (Dublin: APCK, 1908), pp. 165-168.
Percy Dearmer & Archibald Jacob, “I bind unto myself today,” Songs of Praise Discussed (Oxford: University Press, 1933), pp. 279-280.
May Daw, Alec Wyton & Raymond Glover, “I bind unto myself today,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3A (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), pp. 684-686.
Edward Darling & Donald Davison, “I bind unto myself today,” Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), pp. 450-452.
Carl P. Daw Jr. “I bind unto myself today,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 7-9.
J.R. Watson, “I bind unto myself today,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
“I bind unto myself today” at Hymnary.org: