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It's worth singing the praises of our fine hymn writers

By Nelson McCausland

Published 16/04/2015

Elizabeth Porter Head
Elizabeth Porter Head

Some of the most aggressive and offensive nationalist commentators claim that Protestants and unionists have no culture. They say that there are great Irish authors and poets, but that Ulster Protestants have produced little of cultural value.

Their claim is, of course, untrue and says more about those who promote it than it does about the community at which it is directed. It betrays a certain smugness and a sense of cultural superiority and is designed to cultivate a "cultural inferiority complex" among Protestants and unionists.

For that reason, among others, I enjoy identifying aspects of Ulster culture which are not so widely recognised, including the Ulster contribution to hymn writing.

We live in a more secular age, but many people in Ulster and elsewhere still appreciate the message of hymns and enjoy singing them.

Moreover, with our rich evangelical and Christian heritage, it is not surprising that some Ulster folk have penned remarkable hymns.

Mrs CF Alexander, wife of a former Bishop of Derry, is remembered for her beautiful hymns and there is scarcely a hymn book anywhere in the English speaking world that does not include at least one of her hymns for children.

All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once In Royal David's City and There Is A Green Hill Far Away are classic hymns.

She wrote secular poetry, such as her great poem about the Siege of Derry, but her hymns are also part of our cultural wealth.

The tune of the Londonderry Air is known around the world and various writers have produced words to match it. The best known of them is probably Danny Boy, written by an English lawyer named Frederic Weatherly, but I would argue that a hymn written by a Belfast-born minister named William Young Fullerton is of much greater merit:

I cannot tell why He, whom angels worship,

Should set His love, upon the sons of men,

Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,

To bring them back, they know not how or when.

But this I know, that He was born of Mary,

When Bethlehem's manger was His only home

And that He lived at Nazareth and laboured,

And so the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is come.

The first half of each verse begins with the words "I cannot tell", because there are things we cannot comprehend and the second half responds with the confident "but this I know". This change of mood matches the words to the tune perfectly.

Charitie Lees Smith was also an Ulster-born hymn writer. The daughter of the Rev George Smith, a Scot who had become minister of a Church of Ireland parish in Fermanagh, she wrote a famous hymn which is sung in many churches around the world:

Before the Throne of God above,

I have a strong and perfect plea,

A great High Priest whose name is Love,

Who ever lives and pleads for me.

In recent years, it has been matched with a new tune and is one of the most popular hymns in churches today. However, I suspect that most people who sing it are unaware of the fact that it was written by an Ulster woman.

The lack of recognition for Ulster authors struck me recently when I was researching the author of the powerful hymn "O breath of life, come sweeping through us, Revive thy church with life and power".

Her name is usually given as Elizabeth Porter Head. With the surname Head, I was not expecting an Ulster connection, but Head was her married name. Her maiden name was Elizabeth Porter and her father was the manager of a flour mill on the Falls Road in west Belfast.

Whether it be the poetry of our hymn writers, the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson, or the scientific genius of Lord Kelvin, Ulster has a rich cultural heritage and one that deserves to be recognised and celebrated.

Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

Belfast Telegraph

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