Worship Without Words

The Star of County Lake

The Star of the County Down,” written by Cathal McGarvey in 1920, is an Irish ballad about a man who, for the life of him, can’t get a beautiful girl out of his head. A popular topic (aside from, say, whiskey) in traditional Irish lyrics, the elusive female–in this case, a “sweet colleen” with “two bare feet” and “nut brown hair”–mesmerizes a man so strongly, he’s planning on shining his shoes, heading to the Harvest Fair, and, if he gets the courage, proposing.

I can’t get the tune itself out of my head. But it’s about so much more than a barefoot girl.


The oldest copy of the tune is known as “Gilderoy,” named for a highwayman reputed to have robbed a cardinal and killed his mother, sister, and mistress. It’s hard to imagine how a blood-stained scoundrel could inspire such a dignified melody—which might explain why the tune eventually attached itself to more savory characters, like Jesus.

Ralph Vaughan Williams heard the tune in Kingsfold—the tune would actually become known as “Kingsfold”—and later set it to Horatius Bonar’s “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” Voila, a hymn was born:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary, and worn, and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down, and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in Him.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s Light;
Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise,
And all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
In Him my Star, my Sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk,
Till trav’ling days are done.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“My Father’s house above
Has many mansions; I’ve a place
Prepared for you in love.”
I trust in Jesus—in that house,
According to His word, Redeemed by grace, my soul shall live
Forever with the Lord.

I love the resiliency of tunes throughout the centuries, the way they travel the brackish waters of “sacred” and “secular,” where highwaymen and impish girls and resurrected guys all splash together in the same estuary.

Jesus murders my sin, drenches my parched tongue, and delights me with natural wonders.

After playing this hymn—aka “Kingsfold” aka “The Star of the County Down”—on both my fiddle and mandolin, I found my steps matching the rhythm of “da-da DA DA DA; da-da DA DA DA.” I would walk the tune as a prayer for a half-hour or so, the goldenrod, fading coneflowers, and lilac-ice asters of September casting breezy shadows over my dog. Esther is a beagle-Chihuahua mix with a disproportionately small head, an imperfection that makes her all the more endearing. Sometimes, the black velvet sails of her ears flap out like airplane wings, seemingly involuntarily, and I thank God for His small, strange gifts.

Da-da DA DA DA; da-da DA DA DA. Aren’t those rhythms the words of Jesus? Steady, assured, and satisfying our souls to completion? Doesn’t He pursue us with the danger of a highwayman, the thirst of Dives, and the winsomeness of a young girl in summer? He comes at me from all directions. He murders my sin, drenches my parched tongue, and delights me with natural wonders. He’s my Star of the County Lake, on the other side of the Atlantic, in northern Illinois.

After several weeks of playing and praying this tune, I finally read the lyrics to the hymn version. Actually, I am reading them now, as I write this column, for the very first time. I’m not surprised to find rest, gladness, and quenching. Light, walking, and grace. The words are completely true and surprisingly secondary to the melody itself, which the Spirit has already been using for weeks to guide me into worship.

I can’t get Him out of my head.


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