As a child, I was somewhat mystified why a certain hymn in our religion books was called “St Patrick’s Breastplate” but went:

Christ be beside me, Christ be before me,
Christ be behind me, King of my heart.
Christ be within me, Christ be below me,
Christ be above me, never to part.

Christ on my right hand, Christ on my left hand,
Christ all around me, shield in the strife.
Christ in my sleeping, Christ in my sitting,
Christ in my rising, light of my heart.

with no references to breastplates (or St Patrick)

Only much later did I hear a complete version and also read that this was an example of a lorica, an invocation of the divine for protection in the manner of a warrior putting on armour.

The text is first found in the Liber Hymnorum or “Book of Hymns”. It seems most dating of the hymn sets it later than the historical Patrick, who is therefore unlikely to actually be the author.

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Two translations are presented here. Here is the second of those translations:

I arise to-day
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise to-day
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise to-day
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preachings of apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise to-day
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise to day
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in a multitude.

I summon to-day all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me to-day
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise to-day
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

There have been many musical settings of this text. My own memory of the Christ Be Beside me of my school days was a rather wishy washy acoustic guitar led dirge, though I did like the words. However the piece – which as the translation above reveals has a certain narrative drive and power – has lent itself to some excellent settings. Not all the text is generally set – the reference to “spells of women and smiths and druids” gets omitted. This site presents many versions and an excellent discussion on the piece as a hymn (some of the historical background given is slightly at variance with that above) with a helpful account of the musical background.

“This hymn can be a chall­enge to sing with­out see­ing the words matched to the notes,” observe the editors of the Cyberhymnal (linked below), “but it is a mas­ter­piece ne­ver­the­less.”

They’re correct on both counts.

The hymn is complex musically. As Wikipedia notes, “In many churches it is unique among standard hymns because the variations in length and metre of verses mean that at least three different tunes must be used – different in the melody sung by the congregation.”

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Here is one of the most powerful versions from Shaun Davey’s “The Pilgrim” with vocals by Davey’s wife, Rita Connolly:

Many contemporary versions seem to owe quite a debt to Davey’s, although few come close to its power.

Here is a photo from the CD sleeve of “The Pilgrim” of Shaun Davey with some pipers. I am not sure why I find this a wonderful photo, but I do:

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Here is an austere, haunting Arvo Part setting:


The eclectic, eccentric American folk guitarist John Fahey
made an arrangement called “St Patrick’s Hymn” which sounds like an off-kilter Renaissance Fayre soundtrack:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/2Sw8D1YGU0bjWVHt3k5nzv

This isn’t on YouTube as far as I can find, but here is someone else playing the arrangement:

Here is something very different… and perhaps for those who find all the above a little too pious / inspirational / hymn-y this is a very different version by the British composer John Kenny sung by the choir of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge. Some interesting background from the John Kenny article linked to above:

At the point we actually had the three Celtic instruments – the great horns of the ancient Celtic world – reconstructed, I thought ‘yeah’, there is only one poem that I know that could combine these three cultures for real, and that’s possibly the oldest poem in old Irish that has come down to us.

The poem is called the Lorica, or ‘the Deer’s Cry’ – attributed to St Patrick himself. I’ve set the text in three languages; old Irish, ancient Celtic Latin and a wonderful English translation.

The piece features two ancient instruments – the Lochnashade horn, representing Irish culture and the Deskford Carnyx representing where St Patrick originally came from. It seemed appropriate to set with these instruments – this is a poem from the transitional period between Paganism and Christianity, between Roman culture and the hinterland culture of the Celtic Church.

Here is a whole Spotify playlist full of versions:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/aoifenichorcorain/playlist/07QE6H6nzmahWpCt233clF

One of my favourites of these is the Rites Reserved version (first on the Spotify playlist above) – cannot find a YouTube link. While the arrangement is rather familiar, there is something in the instrumentation and vocals reminiscent of Judee Sill

Finally to end with a more “traditional” choral setting, firmly in the Anglican choral tradition. Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting seems to be the canonical hymnal one, but I somewhat prefer this by the organist and composer Melville Cook. As per the info on the YouTube video below:

During his service as Organist and Choirmaster of Leeds Parish Church (as it was then known) from 1937 to 1946, Melville Cook left a number of craftsmanly hymn settings for posterity, most of which survive in manuscript in the Leeds Minster Choir Library. At least one was published and printed locally – a large-scale score of the traditional Irish hymn known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. Dr Cook’s setting is a real gem, with an organ part of considerably more interest than the ‘standard’ version by Stanford

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