Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: Hymn-writer Cecil enjoys eternal life through her wonderful works

By Alf McCreary

East Londonderry DUP MP Gregory Campbell and I have little in common politically, but I agreed strongly with him when he recently brought before Parliament a motion recognising hymn-writer Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander.

She was the wife of a former Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, William Alexander, and it is entirely fitting that the 200th anniversary of her birth, which takes place this month, should be suitably recognised.

Some years ago, I carried out a great deal of research on Mrs Alexander when writing a book about a famous hymn, St Patrick's Breastplate.

The last time I heard the hymn sung in full was at an historic service in St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, which was attended by all the Primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the preacher was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

St Patrick's Breastplate is a long hymn, and not easy to sing at the first attempt, even though the most popular setting is that of the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

However, Mrs Alexander's metrical setting of the words is regarded as a masterpiece.

A distinguished French composer, Charles Gounoud, once remarked, "Some of her lyrics seemed to set themselves to music".

She began writing hymns in her childhood, and by the 1840s was already well-known for her work.

She also contributed lyrics, narrative poems and translations of French poetry to the Dublin University Magazine.

Her book, Hymns for Little Children, reached its 69th edition by the end of the 19th century.

Mrs Alexander wrote more than 400 hymns, and some of these remain popular today.

They include carols such as Once in Royal David's City, and Easter hymns like There is a Green Hill Far Away.

The music for the latter was written by William Horsley, a friend of composer Felix Mendelssohn.

Mrs Alexander also had a gift for communicating directly to children.

Her All Things Bright and Beautiful hymn has also been covered by a host of world-famous singers.

Known in later life to her friends as Fanny Alexander, she was born in Dublin in 1818, the third child of Elizabeth Reed and Major John Humphreys, who originally came from Norfolk, England.

In 1850, she married the Reverend William Alexander, who became Bishop of Derry and Raphoe. They had four children.

Sadly, Mrs Alexander died on October 12, 1895, shortly before her husband became Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, a post he held from 1896 to 1911.

Mrs Alexander was much-loved by the citizens of Derry, including the many poor people she helped.

Thousands of mourners lined the streets of the city as her funeral cortege wound its way to the cemetery.

She had a strong social conscience and was actively involved in creating Sunday schools and in improving the lot of women, including unmarried mothers.

The proceeds from her writings and hymns were donated to help the deaf.

Mrs Alexander's work is well-recognised in Derry. Last summer when introducing my Australian-born grandson, Tom, to the city, we joined a guided tour of the walls.

Halfway through, the tour guide stopped and sang a verse of one of her hymns - as well as any Derry man could do - and then pointed to the house where she had lived.

The mixed group understood and appreciated what he had done, because many people from the USA, Canada and elsewhere would have known some of her hymns, particularly Once in Royal David's City.

So Gregory Campbell is absolutely right to draw attention to the life and achievements of Cecil Frances Alexander, who in her hymn-writing and in her general life crossed all barriers.

I am surprised that there is not more recognition of her in Northern Ireland during this 200th anniversary of her birth.

We go overboard to remember our heroes with feet of clay, but we should learn to cherish the literally great and good people like Mrs Frances Cecil Alexander, whose hymns live on today.

Belfast Telegraph

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