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A KILDARE LINK TO A WELL-LOVED HYMN

Leinster Leader 13 December 2007 
 
Enigmatic Kildare link to one of the world’s best-loved Christmas hymns
by
LIAM KENNY
 
 
The weeks before Christmas are associated with a seasonal fuss and rush. The increasing grasp of the consumerist build-up to the festive season is a source of  bewilderment as each year brings an ever more ferocious onslaught of consumption. However time can also be made for a more reflective approach to the season symbolised by that lovely word ‘advent’ or the sense of a new arrival. This more measured approach to Christmas finds a stirring echo in the hymns and carols which have been associated with the season through generations.
 
The origins of the familiar hymns are many and varied, some of relatively modern composition and others with unknown origins going back centuries in the Christian tradition. The remarkable feature of the Christmas carols is that despite great changes in the way we speak and communicate, their lyrics and melodies have remained constant, truly a rock of seasonal stability amidst the manufactured clamour and confusion.  It may come as a surprise to learn that there is at least a hint of an Irish connection to the earliest renderings of one of the best-loved hymns ‘Adeste fidelis’ or ‘ Come all ye faithful’ which is sung in churches of all Christian denominations throughout the world..
 
The connection has been highlighted by Kilcock historian Jim Rochfort who in researching the story of carols and hymns came across an article in a learned church journal written in the early 1920s which indicated that the earliest script of the ‘Adeste Fidelis’ melody, dating to about 1745, was to be found in the museum of Clongowes Wood, the well-known Jesuit college near Clane in Co. Kildare.
 
The account which appeared in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record was written by one William Grattan Flood who, as Jim Rochfort points out, was an authority on church music history and wrote extensively on the topic in the early 1900s.
 
Grattan Flood made a case for an Irish origin to Adeste Fidelis and usee the evidence (available to him at the time of writing his article in the 1920s) of the musical script in Clongowes College as one of the assets to his argument. He wrote that there was at least a ‘floating theory’ that the Adeste was first heard in Dublin, in the Convent Chapel of the Dominican nuns in Channel Row, about the year 1748. Some time previously the nuns had been presented with a beautiful new organ by Dame Mary Bellew and the gift may have been accompanied by a collection of musical scripts.
 
Whatever about the Adeste’s origins in manuscript the perfection of the printing technique facilitated its circulation to church communities in many parts. The first appearance in print of the Adeste melody, according to Grattan Flood, was in the earliest English volume of Catholic Church music published in London in 1766. Eight years later it was published in the first hymn book for American Catholics. The original was of course in Latin and it was not until 1789 that an English translation was printed – ever since it has become one of the most universal Christmas hymns being sung in churches of all denominations in all continents.
 
The Irish connection to its origin remains an enigma. Unfortunately the 18th century melody script which Grattan Flood inspected at Clongowes in the 1920s is no longer to be found there and its whereabouts, like the origins of the words and music of the hymn, will most likely always remain a mystery.  But Grattan Flood, as a leading church musicologist of his day made a strong case for an Irish echo to Adeste’s enduring musical cadences. He finishes his article with the declaration: ‘There is an unmistakable Irish flavour about the melody that cannot be considered accidental, and the oldest existing manuscript copy can be traced to Ireland. Anyhow, from 1746 to 1776 the hymn came into general use for the Christmas season, and has so continued ever since.’
 
 
  • My thanks to Jim Rochfort of Kilcock, and Brendan Cullen of Clongowes, for their assistance with this seasonal content.
 
Series No. 45

A Kildare link to one of the most popular hymns - Liam Kenny in his article for 13 December 2007 from his regular feature Nothing New Under the Sun in the Leinster Leadrer. Our thanks to Liam. 


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