Away in a Manger is one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time. At some point in the days leading up to Christmas, children in almost every church, Sunday school or primary school in Northern Ireland, sang the carol and it has been sung in countless church services.
The first two verses appeared in 1885 in America in a Lutheran Sunday school collection and the third verse was added in 1892. It can be sung to a number of tunes but in the United Kingdom it is usually sung to the tune Cradle Song, which was composed by William James Kirkpatrick in 1895 for Around the World with Christmas.
I wonder then, how many people in Ulster know that the man who wrote the tune was himself an Ulsterman and that he was born in county Tyrone in 1838.
William James Kirkpatrick was born on 27 February 1838 in the parish of Eerigal Keerogue in county Tyrone and his parents were Thompson Kirkpatrick (1795-1867) and his wife Elizabeth Storey (1805-1881), who were both Ulster-Scots. The only significant settlement in the parish was Ballygawley, which was then ‘a small village on the main road from Dublin to Londonderry’.
Later the Kirkpatrick family emigrated from Ulster to America and lived for some time in Duncannon in Perry County, Pennsylvania. In the spring of 1854 William J Kirkpatrick settled in Philadelphia where he devoted his life to composing the words and tunes for gospel songs and hymns.
The tune has no great musical merit and much of Kirkpatrick’s other work is far superior but it is immensely popular. Of that there can be no doubt. Here is another of the little gems of Ulster’s cultural history but unfortunately it is a gem that has lain hidden and out of sight for many, many years.