Once In Royal David’s City’ is one of the most beautiful of Christmas hymns. Once heard, who can ever forget the perfect voice of a young soloist performing the first verse?
But did you know the woman who wrote it was born in Ireland and spent a lot of her life close to and indeed in Donegal too?
Cecil Frances Alexander (nee Humphreys) was born in 1818 at 55 Eccles Street, Dublin. James Joyce fans will know this street because of course 7 Eccles Street was the home of Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’.
Her family moved to County Wicklow and lived there until Frances was 11 when they moved to Strabane in County Tyrone, just over the border from Donegal.
She began writing verse as a child and by the 1840s when she was still in her twenties, she was known as a hymn writer and had her works included in Church of Ireland hymnbooks. She was a prolific writer and ultimately wrote approximately 400 hymns over the course of her life.
She was a much admired talent and indeed the likes of Alfred Lord Tennyson and Mark Twain were admirers of her works.
Frances lived with her family in a property called ‘Milltown House’ in Strabane which is now Strabane Grammar School. It was in Strabane that she married an Anglican clergyman called William Alexander who later became the Bishop of Derry and then Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland.
They lived for time in Fahan, County Donegal in the early days of the marriage.
Frances raised funds for various charities throughout her life including donating the money from her first publications to help build the ‘Institution for the Deaf and Dumb at Strabane’ which was founded in 1846 and later renamed the ‘Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb’. Frances and her sister Anne taught deaf children too. In 1856 the Institution was destroyed by fire and sadly, six children perished in the fire. There is a memorial to these lost children in the cemetery in Strabane.
THE DONEGAL CONNECTION
Apart from Frances at one time living in Fahan, County Donegal for a time there is another Donegal connection.
Frances’ husband, Dr. William Alexander who was born in Derry and became Lord Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, consecrated St. Augustine’s Church in Derry on the 11th of June 1872. This small church is just beside the City Walls which earned it its nickname, ‘The Wee Church on the Walls’.
This church is built on the ground where previously stood a monastery built by Donegal’s saint, Colmcille (Columba) who was born in 521 AD at Gartan, County Donegal. Built it in 543 AD , it was his first monastery in Ireland.
Colmcille’s cousin who was King of Cenel Conail, Aed, gave him the site in Derry. Colmcille loved nature and the site had many oak trees which he did not want to harm to build his monastery so instead he found a clearing and it was there the monastery was built.
In order to fit his monastery into this clearing Colmcille had to build it running north/south rather than the usual east/west and indeed the present day St. Augustine’s keeps this footprint. Incidentally, the gaelic or Irish for oak is doire which is where Derry got its name because the oak wooded area where Colmcille built his monastery was known as ‘Doire Cholm Cille “Colmcille’s oak wood”.
Frances had many verses and hymns published but probably the best known of her hymns is ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful. Another of her works is ‘There Is A Green Hill Far Away’.
A year or so after Frances penned the words to ‘Once In Royal David’s City’, they were discovered by an English organist named Henry John Gauntlett who set them to music and the hymn we all know today was born.
Frances died in the Bishops Palace in Derry in 1895 and is buried with her husband in their family plot in Derry City Cemetery.
ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S CITY
Each year, since 1919, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge has used ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ as its opening carol and you can listen to it by clicking HERE.
Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed:
Mary was that Mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.
He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable,
And his cradle was a stall:
With the poor and mean and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
And through all his wondrous childhood
Day by day like us he grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew:
And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see him
Through his own redeeming love,
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And he leads his children on
To the place where he is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall we see him: but in heaven,
Set at God's right hand on high,
Where like stars his children crowned,
All in white shall wait around.
We Love Donegal
We Love Donegal is a site dedicated to bring the beauty of County Donegal on the north west coast of Ireland to the world.