Cecil Frances Alexander (nee Humphreys) was born in Dublin in 1818 and moved to the Derry/Strabane area in 1836. It was here that she began writing both poetry and hymns in the very simplistic style for which she became world famous. In 1850 she married Church of Ireland clergyman, William Alexander, who in 1867 was appointed Bishop of Derry. He later became Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland but this was after his wife’s death in 1895. Cecil Frances Alexander is buried in the City Cemetery where her husband was subsequently interred in 1911. Unfortunately I did not have time to visit the cemetery.
In 1848 Alexander published “Hymns For Little Children”, which included three of the most popular hymns in the English language: “Once in Royal David’s City,” “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away.”
Heavily involved in charitable work all of her life, a major part of her income from her hymn and poetry writing went to helping the less fortunate – including the deaf and dumb. She was also involved in the Derry Home for Fallen Women, was a frequent visitor to the sick and poor and, with her sister, she set up the Girls Friendly Society in Derry.
By 1987 nine of Alexander’s hymns appeared in the Church of Ireland Hymnal, including the three referred to above.
Like John Newton, writer of Amazing Grace, who was inspired by an unexpected visit to Derry (see my separate review Amazing Grace – Newton and the Derry Link) Alexander, also a prolific hymn writer with over 400 to her credit, was likewise inspired and influenced by Derry.
The most obvious example of how her time in the City influenced her is found in ”There is a Green Hill Far Away”. The city wall reference in verse one (below) was of course a reference to Derry City’s Walls and the inspiration for the “green hill” was the Creggen Hills, without (ie outside) the city wall, though clearly visible from those Walls (west side – pictured above – in the distance).
There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
While permanently living in Derry (1865-1995) Alexander lived in the rather grand looking building then the Bishop’s Palace though now a Masonic Lodge building (pictured above). An Ulster History Circle blue plaque affixed to the outside of the building attests to Alexander’s residence. The former Bishop’s Palace is on Bishop Street about 50 metres inside Bishop’s Gate and a short stroll from the Cathedral.
As I have stated in my St Columb’s Cathedral review there is a small exhibition in the Cathedral to the memory of Cecil Frances Alexander and her work within the Cathedral and the City. Well worth a look (photography not permitted in the Cathedral).
This entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on many trips to Londonderry/Derry. I suggest you continue with my next entry – The Courthouse – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – The City on the Foyle.