A (new) psalm for St Patrick

St Patrick and his multiple psalms
St Patrick and a snake
Saint Patrick and a soon-to-be-banished snake

I should probably start with an apology.  I didn’t realise until this year that the feast of St Patrick had a different Psalm during Mass depending on whether you were in England, Wales or Scotland, or Ireland. This is actually quite unusual, and I thnk it’s because the Saint’s day is classified differently in the different countries. In Ireland, it’s a Solemnity, and a Holiday of Obligation; in England and Scotland, it’s a Feast; in Wales, it’s an Optional Memorial (that might be St David getting his revenge in first, see below).

Missing person
Saint David
Saint David getting the respect he deserves

I only discovered this because of the Mass books at our church, The Parish Mass Book (McCrimmons, 2013 edition), which does the three year cycle in nine conveniently slim volumes, three to a liturgical year, and has a collection of saint’s days in the back. I am, incidentally, shocked to discover that they do not include St David (March 1st) at all, but luckily my Sunday Missal always has, so we’ve had a musical setting for his psalm (Psalm 1) on the website for many years. I think any parish Mass book ought to include all the national saints; how could you leave St David out?  What nation better deserves a sung Psalm?

A plethora of psalms

So we’ve had the English/Welsh/Scottish psalm for St Patrick (Psalm 116) available on the website (and two different ones for the US, and one for Australia and New Zealand) for several years already, but the one for Ireland turns out to be a completely different psalm. Luckily, it is one where we already have the verses, but it’s from an area in the Psalter where the numbers go haywire. Confusingly, it’s also just next to the British etc. Patrick psalm. This new one is Psalm 115 according to one set of numbers, 116 according to another, and 116B in the new Grail translation. It comes up elsewhere (not all the same verses) as the Psalm for Second Sunday of Lent, Year B, and also Corpus Christi Year B. Each of those has a different tune, but I thought the 2 Lent B one was the one I wanted here; and of course, the Response (when it’s being used for St Patrick) was quite different.

A special Response?

Writing a new Response for an established psalm is something I find myself doing quite a lot, especially with the Australian weekday settings, and I enjoy it.  It’s one of the easier ways to differentiate between the various versions of the same psalm (because there can be quite a number).

When you come to write a new Response, there are various technical issues. How long is it (will it fit into the same number of bars of music)?  Does it start with a stressed or unstressed syllable?  That affects how you write the first couple of bars.

questions in all shapes and sizes

St Patrick’s one is fun and unusual, though, because it is a question.  I’ve written before on questions in the Psalms generally, but it’s rare to have a Response that is a question, even a rhetorical one. I can’t think of any others offhand, although with the psalms, you never say never.

Apart from being a question, it’s quite straightforward; a good, standard length (four bars), no really awkward words like ‘Melchisedek’ or ‘ordinances’, and it starts on a stressed syllable, which always simplifies the rhythm for the congregation.  That’s important, because if a Response starts with ‘The’ or ‘A’, everyone needs to engage before the first beat of the next bar, and that has a knock-on effect.  It also means the verse before each Response  has to end a beat early to allow for the unstressed syllable; and in addition you want everyone (including the cantor or choir, and any emotional- support recorder player) to be able to breathe, without jiggering the sway of the rhythm.  But here this is not a problem.

Sea monster in waves
pirates and monsters and bears, oh my

Indeed, I decided to put a strong stress on that first word, because of the sense. Not ‘How can I…?’, but ‘How..can I?’, to show how hard the puzzle is. Of course this is a rhetorical question, because the sense is that there is no way for us ever to repay the Lord for his goodness. There is also an irony here, however, because although Patrick became a great saint, he had a very tough time in his youth, and I imagine there were many times when he was hanging on to God by his fingertips and begging for rescue, rather than counting his blessings.

once they start circling, you’re in trouble

This is a cheerful and confident psalm, so the Response is a celebration.  But what about the question mark? I wanted to acknowledge it, because it’s such a rara avis in a Psalm Response, but I didn’t want the words to sound at all dark and questioning.  It is a rhetorical question, after all.  At first I just came back down to the tonic for the last word, but the question mark nagged at me, so I let the bass and the recorder do that and I made the voice go up, just a major third (no minor, no threat, no darkness). It’s like an Australian rising inflection, or a teenager one, and you hear it a lot in young Irish voices too, so I reckoned that was just about right for St Patrick’s psalm.

So here it is, with its compact and its lead sheet versions (it’s a Holiday of Obligation, so I’ve treated it like a Sunday psalm), and I hope someone will find it useful. If anyone ever needs a special psalm for a feast (or even just a new Response), just email the website, and we’ll do our best to help.  Hail, glorious St Patrick, and have a happy feastday with your multiple psalms.

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Spring saints and their psalms : David, Patrick and Joseph

Springing into action

Everything seems to burst into activity in the spring, from beetles to bushes. Everything and everybody is busy. Church-music writers are no exception. There’s all the Lent music to sort out, all the Easter music to spruce up (and there’s so much of it, and people get through it all in one night! It’s just like when you spend ages cooking and the family wolfs it in ten minutes); – and then there are the special feasts for spring saints which need music as well.

wild flowers by path to Saint Non's spring
Spring flowers on the path that leads to St Non’s spring (St David’s mother)

St David, first saint of spring

So March is a busy month anyway, and it starts with a bang with St David having his feast day on March 1st. The old weather proverb says of March, ‘In like a lamb, out like a lion’, or the other way around, depending on whether it starts with gales or with gentle breezes. It’s hard to say whether Saint David is more of a lion than a lamb, as we know not much about him.   And he is from a long time ago, the sixth century, which means we have very little solid information, except that we know he was an archbishop and Welsh.   He was living in turbulent times (true of all three of these saints), and he was a man of authority, so he must have needed lion qualities as well as the lamb-like ones which his preserved words suggest.  We have his last words, from an eleventh-century account, which means they are respectable, if not guaranteed, and they are worth noting : “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”  He sounds like a good man, humble and cheerful (and he includes women in his audience, which is very good to hear, and not to be taken for granted).

Welsh cakes : the link in the text even has a recipe!  Brilliant food for travellers

There are surprisingly few pious legends attached to Dewi Sant (hooray, not being part of the Counter-Reformation or female a great help here), and he is the patron saint of Wales, so he can represent all the good things about that country, personifying Welshness for many of us.  You can wear daffodils or leeks on St David’s day : one lifts the heart, the other makes wonderful soup for the still chilly weather.  You can bake welsh cakes to mark the day.   If you get the chance to visit St Davids in Pembrokeshire you will find the smallest cathedral in Britain, in a most beautiful setting, nestled in a little dell.

Psalm for St David (1)

tree like Saint David
See where your Celtic roots can lead you

What psalm does the Church offer us to celebrate Saint David?  It’s Psalm 1, which introduces the whole Psalter, describing the contrast between the good man and the wicked (with a certain amount of glee, it has to be admitted).  The good man is like a tree planted by flowing waters.  This feels entirely appropriate for the Welsh patron saint, with Wales being honeycombed by beautiful brown flowing waters (one of the things which fascinated Gerard Manley Hopkins about the countryside near St Beuno’s, which is further north but still Wales).  The setting I’ve done for this psalm for England and Wales has a little quotation from The Ash Grove in it, because it’s a beloved Welsh folksong.  I haven’t specifically set St David’s psalm for the other Lectionaries (because he’s a national saint only for Wales and England technically) but it’s the same psalm as for Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C, so in fact everybody has it if they need it.

St Patrick was actually British

Saint Patrick is the next national patron saint to come by in March, on March 17th, and this year he gets bumped by the Second Sunday of Lent.  I don’t imagine that will stop anyone celebrating Saint Patrick’s feastday, however, but the specific Mass will be held on another day!  Saint Patrick is even further back in time than St David, in the fifth century, and there is an enormous amount of information available about him,  some of it popular rather than necessarily reliable.  The basic facts appear to be that he was British, captured as a boy and enslaved in Ireland among the pagans but God looked after him.  Some years later he escaped and studied to become a priest, eventually discerning a vocation to return to Ireland as a missionary, and spent the rest of his life there, founding and building churches (and performing miracles, like ridding Ireland of snakes).  No flowers for Patrick (or vegetables), but there’s always the shamrock.

the trouble just one snake can cause

Psalm for St Patrick (116/117)

What psalm is assigned to him?  It’s psalm 116/117, a really short psalm, with the emphasis on St Patrick as a missionary :’Go out to all the world and tell the good news’.  Two things make this especially appropriate.  One is that the Irish diaspora has done precisely that;  and the other is that because of the Irish diaspora, lots of countries celebrate this feast day, and it’s in both the UK and the OZ Lectionaries.  The same psalm is used for Ninth and Twentyfirst Sundays in Ordinary Time Year C, so everyone else also has it available.   It’s so short (two two-line verses) that I’ve simply set it as a rollicking rise and fall, and you don’t even need a compact version as it takes up so little space.  And it’s snake-free.

St Joseph, who always comes third

Saint Joseph has more than one feast day, but his two main ones are March 19th (the Church’s celebration of his feast) and May 1st (feast of Joseph the Worker).  He is the patron saint of all sorts of places and people, including Canada, and everybody has him in their Missal, as his feast is classed as a Solemnity and everyone celebrates it.  He is a fascinating and surprisingly elusive figure, figuring in only two of the Gospels and not in any of St Paul’s epistles.  When God needs to tell him something, he sends him an angel in a dream, to warn, to advise or to reassure, and Joseph always acts with great promptitude and efficiency, leaving for Egypt immediately in the middle of the night, for example.  The focus is never on him, but despite his permanent third position, by date of feast and in the popular imagination (‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’, which you only ever hear said in one very particular rhythm and cadence),  he’s a very important saint.

Saint Joseph with Mary and Jesus
Mary knitting, Saint Joseph talking to the baby

He is portrayed as an old(er) man, but this seems to have arisen mainly out of the Church’s hang-ups over sex, and there’s no textual justification for it at all.  It’s always fun to check what he’s doing in any portrayal of the Holy Family.  Sometimes he’s asleep (worn out because he’s so old), sometimes he’s just standing guard (leaning on a staff, because he’s so old).  I like the pictures where he’s looking after the baby because Mary’s asleep, and there are a couple of wonderful illustrations of the journey into Egypt where he’s carrying the sleeping baby  and leading the donkey, while Mary grabs a quiet fifteen minutes with a book.

Saint Joseph at work at home
everybody usefully occupied

March 19th has been his feast day since the tenth century, but it’s not a very good date really as it often falls in Lent, which casts a damper on the day and means you can’t have any alleluias. I’ve set his Acclamations for US and CAN with the new top-and-tails that sound more celebratory.  Like St David, he has a flower, the lily for purity, sometimes sprouting from the staff he needs to hold him up (because he’s so old).

Psalm for St Joseph (88/89)

The psalm, like the readings, emphasizes Joseph’s descent from David and Abraham, which technically isn’t relevant as ancestors of Jesus.  It is a celebration of God’s love and the promises of the covenant.  This psalm does come up on other Sundays, but there always with a Response along the lines of ‘Forever I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord’.   However, for St Joseph, we have ‘His line shall continue forever’.  I feel that this is either emphasizing something we should be skating over,  or concentrating on celebrating David rather than Joseph.

Saint Joseph holding baby
Time for a cuddle

I like the slightly grumpy Joseph who appears in some of the older poems and carols, notably the Cherry Tree Carol, where when Mary asks for some cherries as they travel through an orchard and Joseph (who is too bent to reach, because he is so old)  snaps that whoever gave Mary the baby can get her the cherries.  A miracle occurs, and there are various different versions (it’s possibly a composite of three old ballads) but Mary gets the cherries, the unborn baby makes a prediction about his birthday, and Joseph apologises.

Saint Joseph with tree
Same legend, different tree; this is a palm tree

It often seems to be possible to make a case for a different (possibly more appropriate) psalm on particular feast days.   Saint George’s feast day (in April) doesn’t use any of the psalms that dragons feature in, which is a shame;  we don’t sing the Magnificat at the Annunciation, though surely it would be apposite, and we don’t have one of the (few) sea-going psalms for Sea Sunday, which I regret every year.  Joseph’s psalm is a good one, but I think I would have given him one of the more ‘craftsman’ psalms, like Ps 89/90, with its double iteration of ‘Give success to the work of our hands’, or possibly better 133/134,  which starts ‘O come, bless the Lord,/all you who serve the Lord, /who stand in the house of the Lord’  and goes on ‘Lift up your hands to the holy place/ and bless the Lord through the night’, because it always makes me think of Joseph, standing so patiently watching and protecting in all those Nativity scenes, but awake and alert to do whatever God asked him in the night.

Three great saints; three cheerful psalms.  They come up on our journey through Lent like primroses in our path, encouraging us and lightening the heart.  They aren’t always Lent saints, because of dates shifting around; but they surely are saints for spring.

flowers on a piece of medieval embroidery
blossoms and leaves sprouting even outside the box

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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