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.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    Thamnks Brian, for this bit of local information.

  • Harry Flashman

    Indeed a great and largely forgotten talent in the place where she once lived.

    The old historic town of Londonderry finally gives way to “Derry City”, a bright shiny shopping mall with a short memory.

  • darth rumsfeld

    I seem to recall that Mrs Alexander was also a convinced Unionist and very staunch supporter of the annual celebrations of the burning of the traitor Robinson-oops Lundy- not necessarily with the wholehearted approval of her husband.
    She even apparently helped protect the effigy one year from the military who were endeavouring to impose a ban on the cremation by preventing the constables from accessing the church property on which the late Governor’s likeness had been concealed.Can’t see the current Bish’s American missus doing that

    She also wrote the greatest Easter hymn-“There is a green hill far away”, which some will tell you was inspired after looking out the window of rhe Masonic Hall-presumably towards Inishowen.

    I could be wrong, but even in the days of the “Faceless men” of the Corporation there was no street named after her, tho’ there may be something in the Guildhall.
    There’s a recently published book on the musical contributions of the people of Londondery to the world, where she’s mentioned. But then so’s Baltimora…..

  • Harry Flashman

    ‘ “There is a green hill far away”, which some will tell you was inspired after looking out the window of rhe Masonic Hall-presumably towards Inishowen. ‘

    Not unlike Jimmy Kennedy’s “Red Sails in the Sunset” Darth, written as he watched the wee fishing boats sailing out from Greencastle. But like you say who remembers boring old farts like them when we could listen to D’Ream or Nadine Coyle?

    The Brave New World of Derry started sometime around 1985 when they planted the big awful “O’Doherty’s Fort” within the Walls and the Maiden was finally breached.

    In ‘New Derry’ nothing worth knowing about the city existed prior to 1968; Derry’s Year Zero.