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Songs of praise - the Ulster Scot emigrant to the US who gave us one of our most popular hymns

Musician behind one of the best-known tunes traced back to his roots in Co Tyrone, writes Nelson McCausland

Right around the world carols and Christian hymns are sung as part of the Christmas celebrations. They are sung in churches and in schools, they are sung by adults and children, they are sung by choirs and congregations, they are sung by Protestants and Roman Catholics and they are played by Salvation Army bands.

Of all the carols that are sung — and there are many — one of the best known is Away In A Manger. Less well-known is the fact that it has a particular connection with Ulster.

Many of us learned it when we were children and it has been sung by generations of kids since the words first appeared in print in November 1883 in an American magazine.

It appeared in another magazine in May 1884 and then, in 1885, in the Little Children’s Book For Schools and Families, which was published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America.

The second magazine suggested that it be sung to the tune of Home Sweet Home, and the 1885 book suggested the old tune St Kilda.

Since then several tunes have been written for the hymn, but the best-known is undoubtedly Cradle Song, which was written in 1891 by William James Kirkpatrick (1838-1921), a teacher, musician, hymn writer and fife major in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

If you refer to most internet sources, they state that he was born in Duncannon, Pennsylvania, in 1838. Indeed, that has now been repeated and reprinted in many books. But is it correct? And was he born in America?

The name Kirkpatrick is obviously Scottish and so his family were probably emigrants from Scotland, or Ulster, to America. But where was William J Kirkpatrick born — America, Ulster or Scotland?

When the Scottish author and hymn writer David Johnstone Beattie (1881-1964) wrote The Romance Of Sacred Song in 1931 he stated that Kirkpatrick “was born in Ireland in 1838, and when he was yet a child his parents emigrated to America and settled in Pennsylvania”.

But was Beattie right in what he said? And, if Kirkpatrick was born in Ireland, where was he born?

The answer seems to be that he was born in 1838 in the parish of Errigal Keerogue in Co Tyrone and his parents were Thompson Kirkpatrick (1795-1867) and his wife Elizabeth Storey (1805-1881), who were both Ulster-Scots.

The only significant settlement in the parish was Ballygawley, which was then “a small village on the main road from Dublin to Londonderry”.

Later the Kirkpatrick family emigrated from Londonderry on board the ship William And James and they landed in Philadelphia on August 5, 1840. The ship’s passenger list records his father and mother and three children, two of them teenagers and one who was born on the ship.

However, several other children in the family, including William, are not listed. One explanation is that the parents wanted to have a settled home in America before they brought the smaller children out to face a new life in a new land.

The Kirkpatricks lived for some time in Duncannon in Pennsylvania and then, in the spring of 1854, William moved to Philadelphia, where he devoted his life to music and especially writing the words and tunes for gospel songs and hymns.

He wrote many great tunes, and the one that he wrote for Away In A Manger is certainly not his greatest, but it is simple, singable and especially suitable for children. It is also immensely popular — of that there can be no doubt.

Kirkpatrick is one of the often unrecognised figures of Ulster’s cultural history, but one that really deserves to be recognised and remembered.

So, perhaps this year when Away In A Manger is sung in churches and schools, especially here in Ulster, there is an opportunity to mention that the tune was written by an Ulster-Scot and a man with a wonderful God-given talent.

Moreover, a man who was but one of the many Ulster folk who provided some of our best-known hymns.

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