Story Behind the Hymn
Kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16, St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, is the inspiration for one of the most loved songs of all time. Patrick was born into a wealthy family in Britain (387 AD), kidnapped when a teenager, taken to Ireland, and sold into slavery. While a slave tending sheep for a high priest of Druidism, he was in continual prayer. As a result, he devoted himself to the Lord. Patrick did escape and return to Britain, but he believed God wanted him to return to Ireland as a missionary. He did return. During his 30 years in Ireland, he became one of the most fruitful evangelists of all time baptizing over 100,000 people and establishing 100s of churches.
One Easter Sunday morning, St. Patrick challenged the king’s decree to observe a pagan Druid festival prohibiting anyone from lighting a flame or candle on this day except for the pagan gods on Tara Hill. Unwilling to honor any but Jesus Christ, Patrick risked his life by climbing the highest hill in the opposite direction, Slane Hill. He lit a blazing Paschal fire to show the world that God’s light shines in darkness. The inflamed King dispatched his executioners to seize Patrick. Upon hearing St. Patrick’s conviction and evangelistic zeal, the king’s heart turned. Rather than execute him, the king supported Patrick’s missionary efforts.
St. Dallán Forgaill, a blind monk, wrote a poem 100 years later. A poem in honor of St. Patrick’s defiance that Easter Sunday morning, imploring God to make Himself first in his heart, to be in his thoughts waking and sleeping.
Years later, the hymn was set to the tune of a traditional Irish folk song, Slane, named after the hill where Patrick shone his light that Sunday morning. Nearly 1500 years later, in 1905, a 25-year-old college student translated the poem into English for the first time.
Is [this] an old song? Yes and no. Just like he took dusty pages of lyrics and infused it with new life, He took us and our sinful flesh and infused us with His Spirit.
[It] is the song of new life. It’s the song of the new life of St. Patrick, who shined his light for Christ. It’s the song of the new life in Ireland, where dead paganism gave way to centuries of vibrant faith. It’s the song of new life in the singer’s heart, where God shines His forgiveness in a sinful soul. And it is the song of new life for the hymn itself, which millions now enjoy again after centuries of obscurity (Pastor Stephen, Bayview Bible Church).