Saturday 20 October 2018

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.

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