Sunday 16 June 2019

Fanny's Christmas legacy

The Dublin-born hymn-writer who brought a feminine sensibility to carols

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

On Christmas Eve each year there is a lovely BBC tradition of broadcasting a carol service from King's College Cambridge, and that always starts off in the same way: a young solo chorister, with a voice of perfect clarity, begins the much-loved carol Once in Royal David's City. It's always an affecting moment, summing up so much that is comforting, peaceable and aesthetically uplifting about the tradition of the Christian Nativity.

The carol also captures the paradox at the heart of the Christmas story: that the Christian Saviour was born in a cattle shed, and lived on earth "with the poor and mean and lowly". It's also, I think, an essentially feminine carol, with its emphasis on the central, maternal role of Mary in this miracle of birth.

It was written by Cecil Frances Alexander, the renowned Church of Ireland hymn-writer, in the 1840s. Sometimes described as a Derrywoman, Alexander was in fact born in Dublin, at 25 Eccles Street, and grew up in Co Wicklow. Although christened Cecil Frances (gender-neutral names like Cecil, Sydney, Hilary and Florence were then not unusual), she was always known as Fanny.

Her father, John Humphreys, was a military man - retired when he lost the use of an arm - who became the Earl of Wicklow's agent. This brought Fanny and her siblings to a childhood at Ballykean House in Co Wicklow. (This fine manor house is now listed on the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht's website as a place of architectural distinction.) When Fanny was 15, the family moved to Milltown House at Strabane, in Co Tyrone, where her father worked for the Earl of Abercorn. Fanny was her father's favourite child, which may have given her the confidence to start writing stories and verses from an early age.

It was a religious era, and Fanny was always a serious Christian. She and her sister Anne taught deaf children, which may have trained her ear for metre and cadence in verse. When she married the Derry clergyman, William Alexander - who would eventually become the Anglican Primate of All Ireland - they lived first at Termonamongan, Killeter, near Castlederg in Co Tyrone, then at Upper Fahan in Co Donegal, and then at Strabane again.

There were no district nurses, let alone health visitors, anywhere in the 1850s, and the rector's wife was expected to travel around the parish, often on foot, looking after the sick and the poor. According to her principle biographer Valerie Wallace, Fanny included Catholic as well as Protestant families in these works of corporal mercy - and with the blessing of the local Catholic priest, who "trusted her not to indulge in souperism" (evangelical conversion for food provisions). Although there are always episodes of sectarian strife in the history of Tyrone and Derry, Fanny's life as a vicar's wife in this part of Ulster also brings out the interweaving of communities and neighbourliness that existed as well.

Derry, incidentally, was usually called just that by Church of Ireland people at the time, who also claimed historic continuity with a pre-Reformation "Doire Columcille." Fanny wrote a poem based on the Breastplate of St Patrick.

Fanny gave birth to four children - through some difficult pregnancies. For medical care, she travelled to Dublin, which had parity with Edinburgh as a progressive medical centre. She attended the respected Dublin physician Dr Evory Kennedy. Fanny was "deeply stirred" by "the sensual yet selfless" maternal bond, and it reinforced her dedication to stories and hymns for children. All Things Bright and Beautiful, one of her best-known compositions, is among the sweetest of children's hymns - although the Anglican church did, eventually, delete a verse which came to be considered too class-conscious. ("The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/He made them high or lowly/And ordered their estate.")

Although they lived in Victorian times, Fanny and William seemed to have a remarkably equal marriage. She was six years older than he was, which gave her some seniority: she also had access to her own money - her father had settled a trust of £3,000 on her, which produced a substantial annual income. And she continued to earn on her own account, too, from publishing her stories and verses.

Yet even when she became the wife of a Bishop (with a seat in the House of Lords, and the entitlement to preach to Queen Victoria) Fanny herself adhered to the Irish Protestant tradition in which she was raised: "plain living and high thinking", and the idea of honouring "the poor and lowly", among whom Jesus Christ chose to live, was very much part of her outlook.

She died from a stroke, in 1895, aged 77, and her husband published more of her writings after her death. The Anglican hymnal, by the time of her death, contained 18 of her compositions. Her hymn There is a Green Hill Far Away became a particular favourite with Mormon choirs.

Strangely enough, Fanny wasn't musically gifted, but her verses had a cadence and a metre that made them specially well suited for musical adaptation. Henry John Gauntlett put Once in Royal David's City to music. It is a stunning carol, setting the tone for Christmas, and owing so much of its appeal to the palpable sincerity of the woman who wrote it.


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