Article contruibuted by historian Angela Byrne.

It’s festival season in Ireland and, despite the recent rain, people are flocking to events all over the country. One of the most iconic festival anthems of the 1990s has a surprising Donegal connection.

In July 1993, I was ten years old. Summer seethed, the heat lingering long past the evening. The Waterboys had just released their now-classic Glastonbury Song. My brother and I liked to stretch the thin black cables of my parents’ hi-fi as far as they would go from the sitting room to the back door, the clunky black plastic towers teetering on the white PVC doorframe and facing out into the garden. We would eat outside on evenings like this, typically an Irish salad of sliced ham, tomatoes, butterhead lettuce, boiled eggs and home-made chips, wobbling on weathered plastic garden furniture as the sky turned coral over Donegal Bay.

I didn’t know it at the time, as my brother and I chanted in our shrill pre-teen voices, but the iconic line from the song’s rising coda, ‘There is a green hill far away’ was drawn from a hymn written in Strabane in 1848.

Cecil Frances Alexander, or ‘Fanny’ to her family and friends, was one of the most successful Victorian hymn-writers. Her second book of compositions, Hymns for Little Children went through over 100 editions, and two of her songs remain popular today: All Things Bright and Beautiful and Once in Royal David’s City.

Cecil Frances Alexander

In 1850, at the age of 32, she married William Alexander, future Church of Ireland bishop of Derry and Raphoe. In William’s rural Tyrone parish, Fanny acted as teacher and nurse to the parishioners, while also finding time to write poems and essays.

In 1855 the couple moved to Fahan, near Buncrana, where Fanny wrote and published two more books of hymns and poems while raising her four children.

William’s appointment as Bishop of Derry in 1857 gave the couple a grand new home at the Bishop’s Palace, where Fanny would live until her death almost thirty years later.

In Derry, she devoted herself to charities that were concerned with the welfare of women and children. Dedicating the £600 in profits from her best-selling book, Hymns for Little Children to the so-called ‘Diocesan Deaf and Dumb School’ in Strabane, she became much-loved in Derry and the surrounding area.

Fanny was dedicated to charitable causes throughout her life, but her outlook was that of a conservative Christian cast in the mould of her time. Her hymns reflect her belief in British imperialism as a civilising and Christianising force – a perspective that most would now disagree with.

This is why I find it so interesting that the opening line of her Lenten hymn, There is a Green Hill Far Away was given new life by Mike Scott and the Waterboys in 1993. Glastonbury Song is an anthem to festival culture, celebrating reverence for the natural world and outdoor spaces. The verses are a roll-call of sites with ancient, sacred or medieval associations looping the Celtic fringe: the medieval Scottish town of Maybole, the Viking foundation of Stornaway, the Boyne of legend, the Gaeltacht fishing village of Carraroe, fairy forts. The prayer-like litany gives way to the promise and proclamation of a planned return to the green hill, one fine day. The synthesised choral sound propels the piece forward, while harking back to the line’s origins in a Christian hymn, intended by its composer to be sung in the communal, if formal, setting of a church service.

Glastonbury Song is one of the Waterboys’ most radio-friendly songs, but it’s no less a classic for that. It’s celebratory, evocative, and even a bit mad. Perhaps it’s easy now to dismiss it as cliched, but to me, it’s an ode to communion with music, performance and creativity; to connection with nature and collective experience. Its hazy spiritualism is a plea for a return to innocence, to self – and a celebration of the singer’s elated revelation that ‘My heart beat from the inside out / So lucky just to be alive!’ That’s the summer festival spirit in a nutshell.

Angela Byrne is a professional historian specialising in the experiences of women and migrants in the past. She has authored over 20 journal articles and book chapters in academic and non-specialist publications including History Today and History Ireland, and has contributed many pieces to the Irish Times ‘Extraordinary Emigrants’ series. For more information about her work, please visit

Dr Angela Byrne