Once in Derry city… the essence of Christmas

Surely the most famous poet with a Derry connection isn’t Seamus Heaney or even Phil Coulter but Mrs Cecil ( or Cecilia) Frances Alexander, whose personal fame is oddly far less than than the fame of what she wrote. For me and for millions Christmas properly begins at that electric moment after the Master of the Choristers of King’s College Cambridge points to a single small boy at two minutes past three on Christmas Eve to launch off into the first solo verse of Mrs Alexander’s “Once in Royal David’s City.” Although she probably wrote Once in Royal in Dublin, we Derry wans like to think her work is imbued with strong sense of the Maiden City, as in her great Good Friday hymn “There is a green hill far away without a city wall” – a very Londonderry technical term, that. Together with her husband bishop William, later Primate, she was a keen follower of the very High Anglican Oxford movement inspired by the Anglican apostate later cardinal, John Henry Newman. In those spacious days she lived in huge bishop’s palace (now the Masonic Hall) in Bishop Street, opposite my own very modest family home. Inevitably perhaps, given her personal background, while she was a keen charitable worker, Mrs Alexander had a high Victorian sense of the proper social order which she unforgettably expressed in a verse of All Things Bright and Beautiful” which is now tactfully dropped in the hymn, though is often still quoted as a paradigm of its time.

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And order’d their estate.

Her work was no doubt sentimental but with its deep feeling, vivid pictures and child-like directness, it rose above its limitations to pass into legend.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London