Oh Danny Boy,
The pipes, the pipes are calling...
So begins one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs in the English language. It is a song that has made an amazing journey through the mires of obscurity and across the ocean to grace movie soundtracks and draw tears at funerals, a song that went from just being a symbol of Irish culture to becoming a tune that almost everybody in the English-speaking world has heard of and can hum for you. And it is a song with a story.
Where Did the Tune Come From?
Long before it became the 'Danny Boy' that we all know and love, the song was but a tune, commonly known as 'Londonderry Air', though less commonly known as 'Air from County Derry'. Derry is the name of a city in Northern Ireland, reportedly one of the longest continuously inhabited places in Ireland. Queen Elizabeth I's military leaders would spend most of the second half of the 16th Century trying to conquer the province of Ulster, which was the only part of Ireland still outside English control. By the end of the Nine Years' War, England had gained a hold on Derry, and in 1603 a small trading settlement was established and given the legal status of city. However, it was razed in 1608 by Sir Cahir O'Doherty, previously a supporter of the English in Ulster. In the same year, King James I, in a move to once and for all bring Ulster under English control, gave Derry to the City of London Corporation. In celebration of this event, the city's name was officially changed to Londonderry. Aside from the political connotations associated with the name, many Victorians avoided using the name 'Londonderry Air' because it sounded, to their prudish ears, far too much like 'London Derrière'. Instead, they preferred the name 'Air from County Derry'. There is as yet no consensus regarding the precise origins of this tune, though the earliest reliable record dates from 1855.
Among those who purportedly had a hand in the creation and passing down of the song are:
Rory Dall O'Cahan
Malachy McCourt, author of Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved English Ballad, claims there is evidence that the original tune was written by a blind Irish harpist named Rory Dall O'Cahan1. Blind Rory, a descendant of the ruling O'Cahan clan, was a composer who lived sometime between 1560 and 1660 and who was well-known for his purths, or harp tunes, the best known of which is 'Tabhair Dom do Lámh', or 'Give Me Your Hand'. He honoured the Highland gentry whose homes he frequented with his compositions, and according to the writings of one Arthur O'Neill, it was in one such house on the island of Skye that Blind Rory died, leaving his harp and tuning key.
According to legend, the confiscation of the O'Cahan lands in the early 1600s enraged Blind Rory, whose people had lived on those lands for generations. It drove him to write a deeply moving tune of pain and passion called 'O'Cahan's Lament'. There are some who claim that a sort of supernatural intervention occurred: that Blind Rory, who was drunk one night, had staggered along the riverside and collapsed, where he reportedly heard fairies playing a haunting melody on his harp. Once he was sufficiently sober and confident that he could play back the music, he returned to his castle to serenade his guests with the first rendition of the air that would be transcribed some 250 years later.
Blind Rory's haunting tune would be brought down to the 19th Century by another blind harper called Denis O'Hampsey, a feat made possible by O'Hampsey's life spanning three centuries: he was born at the end of the 17th Century, and died at the beginning of the 19th at the ripe old age of 112. O'Hampsey, who hailed from Roe Valley, was born in Craigmore2 in 16953, and lost his eyesight at the age of three when he contracted smallpox. Having discovered his musical muse at an early age, O'Hampsey studied with Bridget O'Cahan, who was purportedly related to Blind Rory4. It was said that O'Hampsey inherited a sizeable repertoire including 'O'Cahan's Lament', which he would introduce in Ireland and Scotland during his travels.
It was in Ireland that Denis O'Hampsey crossed roads with Edward Bunting (1773-1843), who would later be hailed as the pioneer collector of harp music. O'Hampsey was one of ten harpers invited to attend a harp festival in Belfast in 1792, and Bunting, whose job it was to write down the tunes played at the festival, in an attempt to revive and continue the tradition of ancient Irish music, was particularly attracted to O'Hampsey's traditional harp technique. Immediately after the festival, the young Edward Bunting embarked on a journey to the farthest reaches of Ireland in search of traditional airs. Not surprisingly, his travels began on Denis O'Hampsey's doorstep in Magiligan where he obtained several tunes for later inclusion in his three volumes of The Ancient Music of Ireland (published in 1796, 1809 and 1840).
Over a century later, in 1979, Hugh Shields penned an article for the Long Room, the journal of the library at Trinity College, Dublin, called 'New Dates for Old Songs 1766-1803'. He identified a tune in Bunting's first volume, entitled 'Aislean an Oigfear' ('The Young Man's Dream'), as closely resembling the modern version of 'Londonderry Air', although he noted that the fourth phrase made the song 'almost unsingable in traditional style while endearing it to virtuosos eager for effects of vocal expression'. (See below for further discussion of this observation.)
Interestingly, there is no documentation prior to 1912 concerning O'Cahan's authorship of this melody. The first mention of O'Cahan's name in conjunction with 'Londonderry Air' and its variants came from Charlotte Milligan Fox, who discovered Edward Bunting's stash of manuscripts:
Some of the most beautiful airs have owed their origin to Northern genius, notably the compositions of the famous harper, Rory Dall O'Cahan, who composed such airs as 'Rory Dall's Purth', to which Robert Burns wrote 'Ae Fond Kiss'; 'The Minstrel Boy' and 'Emer's Farewell'5. Stanford, Percy Grainger, and Mrs Needham have all tried their skill in bringing out the beauties of 'Emer's Farewell', which comes from Limavady, in the County Derry; but, fine as are their settings, none seem to me the genuine frame for an air of such remarkable character.
- from the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society, Vol 12, October 1912.
It is not known just how Fox made the association between O'Cahan and 'Emer's Farewell', as neither structure nor style of the melody even remotely resembles anything attributed to O'Cahan.
Jane Ross and Jimmy McCurry
The history of 'Danny Boy' seems to be littered with blind musicians. A book by Jim Hunter entitled The Blind Fiddler of Myroe, published in 1997, tells of one Jimmy McCurry who lived between 1830 and 1910, a famous blind musician and composer who frequently played his fiddle at the Limavady market just outside the Burns and Lairds Shipping Line Office.
Living opposite the shipping office was one Jane Ross, who would later become famous as the lady who annotated the music of the 'Londonderry Air' from 'an itinerant fiddler6 in 1851'. Oral evidence suggests that McCurry was this fiddler. The story, as told by Wallace McCurry, a descendant of Jimmy, was that one day Ross heard Jimmy McCurry rendering a beautiful melody which was unfamiliar to her. Ross was acquainted with Dr George Petrie from Dublin, whose life revolved around the study and collection of ancient airs of Ireland, and felt that the tune would make a good addition to his collection. She requested that the blind fiddler repeat his performance so that she could make a note of the music, and later passed on the tune to Petrie. Four years later, Petrie published a volume entitled The Ancient Music of Ireland7, and in it he included the melody supplied by Ross, which he listed as a 'song' under the category 'Anonymous Airs'8.
The most interesting point raised is that, despite the fact that Jimmy McCurry regularly played just across the road from Jane Ross's house, Ross had never named McCurry as the source of the music even when the origin of the tune was later in question; in fact, there is no firsthand account by Ross of where, when and from whom she obtained the tune. Michael Robinson of Standing Stones, who is the authority on the subject of Danny Boy, suggests a possible explanation: considering the outlook of the 19th-Century British upper class, Ross might have thought it demeaning to find out the name of the fiddler who played the tune she wrote down. Furthermore, he and Malachy McCourt proposed that Jane Ross 'may not have even entertained the concept that common folk had names, or that street fiddlers were not interchangeable'.
A less easily resolved problem is that several authorities in English and Irish music have stated they do not believe the tune is of great age. Their argument is that, firstly, its structure does not seem to fit any traditional Irish ballad metre; and secondly, the melody seems to have appeared out of nowhere, fully developed and without variants9 has cast grave doubt upon the 'very old age' of the tune. Many old traditional songs have variants sired by the handing down of the tunes over the ages and worked upon by the dynamics of evolution.
Additionally, the song's unusually wide pitch range made it more likely a mid-19th Century composition or adaptation than a traditional song sung on the streets of Ireland. The famous English composer Havergal Brian further points out that the leading note in 'Londonderry Air' is sharp and not flat, as it is found in most traditional airs, and that the melody first appeared unattended by the usual story in verse. Hugh Shields also notes that the key difference between 'Aislean an Oigfear' and 'Londonderry Air' was the melodic development of the fourth, and final, phrase, which 'makes the air almost impossible to sing in traditional style while endearing it to the virtuoso eager for effects of vocal expression' - a variation he believed Jane Ross to be responsible for:
This development no doubt arose in a context to which it was just as apt: in the keyboard divigations of a middle-class lady who like her sister played the piano and lived in a small country town, not ten miles from the harper Hempson's former dwelling.
However, Anne Geddes Gilchrist, author of the article 'A New Light Upon the Londonderry Air' (1934) theorised that Ross may have heard the performer exercising his improvisational skills while playing the piece, thus disguising the natural rhythm of the melody, and that she may have confused the 3/4 metre for 4/4. Brian Audley counters this argument with the reasoning that no rubato rendition of a melody in 3/4, no matter now exaggerated, could possibly fool a musician into thinking that it is in 4/4. The resulting melody would have jarred the nerves rather than sounding beautiful. Instead, he suggests that, given that traditional music is prone to adaptation by individual musicians as part of the dynamics of traditional music practice, it was more likely that the tune had a 4/4-metre variant which the itinerant musician had played for Ross.
It may not have been Jane Ross's fault that the fourth phrase soars beyond the singer's ability to render in traditional style. It seems that Edward Bunting, when taking down the music of harpers, had the tendency to notate just the pitches of the notes. Only later, when writing out the tunes properly, did he rely on his memory to get the pitch durations right. Given that he was found to have produced different versions of his notated pieces, the blame of getting the note values wrong may well fall entirely upon Bunting's shoulders.
If it is indeed true that 'Aislean an Oigfear' is the original form of 'Londonderry Air', then the circle is complete, and 'Londonderry Air' is the modern manifestation of Rory Dall O'Cahan's lament. On the other hand, it may very well have been some other itinerant musician who had played the melody for Jane Ross - Jimmy McCurry was in his twenties when the melody was collected, and there is very little evidence supporting the claim that the music came from McCurry, aside from the testimony by his descendents Hugh and Wallace who maintain that Jimmy had told them about the music he'd passed on to Ross. This would raise the question of why he would pass on a bit of trivia like that, since the tune would not be made famous until after 1913, and Jimmy died in 1910. And obviously, being blind, he would never have encountered Petrie's book, which was a limited edition and only sold to subscribers in any case.
Of course, it could also could be that Jane Ross, herself a composer, had written the tune, but some reason - maybe fear of rejection - caused her to pass it off as a genuine Irish tune. If so, then perhaps Ross missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime.
McCormick and the Old Man on the Mountain
There seem to be two other variations on the story of where Jane Ross heard the tune that would become 'Londonderry Air'. Frank Thompson of Hamilton, Ontario stated in a letter to Sam Henry (1878-1952), a collector and folklorist hailing from Coleraine/Limavady, that he had heard 'Londonderry Air' played in Ballymena sometime around 1911-1912 by a street fiddler named McCormick, whom he estimated to be between 26 and 30 years of age. Upon inquiry, the street fiddler had mentioned that his father had played it in Limavady and that the music had been notated by a person named 'Ross'. Research based on this lead revealed that the senior McCormick was a member of an entertainment troupe called McCormick's Wee Show which was purportedly well-known 'in all the towns from Ballymena to Ballycastle'.
However, Limavady is nowhere near the region between Ballymena and Ballycastle. Brian Audley, who wrote The Londonderry Air: Facts and Fiction, points out that if McCormick was 30 when he met Thomson, then that would make him an 1881 baby. Given that Ross had made the collection roughly 30 years before McCormick was born, his parents couldn't have been very old at the time he was conceived - which makes it doubtful that McCormick's father would have been of an age sufficiently competent to be performing on a street about forty miles from his home when the music was notated10. For McCormick's father to realise the importance of his passing on the music to Ross to then and tell his son, he would have to be very far-sighted indeed.
In an equally questionable account, Jane Ross's great-nephew, the Reverend William Manning, maintained that it was his father, Jane's brother William, who first heard the tune, and that he had told Jane about it and whistled it for her. Apparently William and their sister Theodosia were also collectors of traditional music. William then mentioned that he had heard the music drifting from a mountain cabin as he passed by the area. Jane jumped into her car, drove 'a long way from Limavady' and found 'a very old man' who told her that his father had obtained the tune from a harper.
It would appear that there are those who believe that another Limavady native collecting the music from yet another blind musician. A letter written by a man called John Riky in 1928 stated that the melody was 'rescued from oblivion by the late Miss Honoria Galwey', a lady skilled in music who had heard it being played by an itinerant musician on the street and written it down. She later presented it to her friend the Reverend Canon Armstrong, who was a well-known musician, organist and composer.
It was discovered in a forgotten 1918 article in the Musical Times that Galwey reportedly stated that the original version of 'Londonderry Air' was a song called 'Oh shrive me father', which belonged as much to County Donegal as to Derry. A university lecturer and authority on the subject, Annie Patterson (1869-1934) said in the same article that the song was indigenous to the whole northwestern part of Ireland. Neither Galwey nor Patterson could remember the original lyrics, nor were they able to present printed evidence pairing the music with the lyrics to the 'original'. However, a search unearthed the tune, complete with words, printed in a rare book called Irish Minstrelsy: A Selection of Original Melodies of Erin with Characteristic Words by Edward Fitzsimons, Esq and Symphonies and Accompaniments by Mr J Smith (1814, Dublin). One of the songs in the collection was called 'The Confession of Devorgilla' and was set to the tune accompanying a more famous song called 'Castle Hyde'. It had already been identified as a variant of 'Aislean an Oigfear': the first line of 'The Confession' read 'Oh shrive me father'.
The least romantic claim pinpoints 1843 as the year of composition, and Robert Clarke, the founder of the Clarke Tinwhistle Company as the author of the melody. Clarke, whose life was the embodiment of rags-to-riches, was a poor farm labourer whose interest in the wooden whistle led to the invention of the tinwhistle, a musical instrument which became so popular that Clarke became a successful and wealthy manufacturer of the instrument. Legend has it that Clarke played the melody that would one day become 'Danny Boy' on his whistle during many of his walks from Suffolk to Manchester in 1843, although this story is apocryphal and lacks verification.
Might Londonderry Air be from Lower Scotland?
Until recently, it was believed that the first appearance of the lyrics to 'Aislean an Oigfear' (rendered as 'Aisling an Óigfhir' in modern Irish) was in James Hardiman's 1831 publication, Irish Minstrelsy. However, one Bruce Olson has presented evidence that English words for 'Aislean an Oigfear' have been around as early as the 18th Century, when Denis O'Hampsey was only middle-aged, collected in a Scottish manuscript. It would appear that the tune had been in circulation in both Ireland and Scotland simultaneously. The question is whether the words were originally in Irish or English: if they were in English, then it is possible that the song may have originated from Scotland after all, and not Ireland. However, Michael Robinson argues that the song is most likely Irish, pointing out that the style of the tune is more typical of Irish airs, and the words were in the style of the Irish schoolmaster poets of the 18th Century. He further points out that while it was rare for English songs to be translated into Irish, English translations of Irish songs were fairly commonplace. Moreover, the Irish lyrics given by Hardiman were in the French reverdie form, predating the aisling form of 18th-Century Irish poetry - a residue of the French influence on Irish poetry, dating back to the Middle Ages when Norman French families were granted estates in Ireland by the English crown.
Londonderry Air becomes Danny Boy
When the Great Famine hit Ireland in 1845, many emigrants left their failed potato crops and travelled to America, bringing with them their traditions and their music. In 1912, a woman named Margaret Weatherley, who had moved to Colorado with her husband during the Gold Rush, heard gold prospectors believed to have originated in the Roe Valley playing an unfamiliar yet beautiful tune. Although, given that Australians were also highly experienced in gold mining, the men playing the tune at the gold camp might very well have been Australians who had brought with them the music of Australian composer Percy Grainger, who was probably the first to record 'Londonderry Air'. She managed to coax the musicians into giving her a copy of the music, which she sent to her brother-in-law Fred who was a lawyer in Somerset.
It so happened that Frederic Edward Weatherley (1848-1929), when not practising law, was a radio entertainer, writer of verses and children's books, and human songwriting machine, having published over 1,500 works, including the famous hymn 'Holy City'. Two years before, he had penned the words and music for a song he called 'Danny Boy' Unfortunately, the song was a flop. Upon receiving the tune from Margaret, he immediately perceived that the melody fitted his 'Danny Boy' lyrics almost perfectly, and wasted no time in writing a new version of the song, which would be published by Boosey in 1913. By chance, his friend Alfred Perceval Graves had written two sets of words to the same melody, 'Emer's Farewell' and 'Erin's Apple-Blossom', and did not take too kindly to having somebody else doing the same. Weatherley's opinions was that Graves' lyrics were of the wrong spirit for the music. This conflict unfortunately caused their friendship to come to an end.
Happily for Weatherly, though, his version of the song was soon to become much more popular than Graves'.
The Popularisation of Danny Boy
Of all the national tunes which have been rescued from oblivion... none has achieved such striking popularity as the old Irish tune known as the 'Londonderry Air'... this very beautiful tune seems to be taking such an extraordinary hold upon the people - for hardly a week passes by without its appearing in some form or another on concert programmes... within the last few years a perfectly bewildering array of settings and arrangements has appeared.
- Henry Coleman, Musical Times
Because Weatherley purportedly wrote 'Danny Boy' with the intention to bring together the Unionists and Nationalists of Ireland, it is of little surprise that the song held so much appeal to the Irish people - and later, to people all over the world. 'Danny Boy' would quickly make its transition from printed media to audio as the gramophone trend boomed in the country.
The first to record the song was an Australian composer named Percy Grainger, who was also an avid collector and arranger of folk tunes. A record entitled 'Country Gardens' and other favourites by Percy Grainger was recorded by the Eastman-Rochester Pops Orchestra, conducted by Frederick Fennel. Its sleeve contained the following notes:
'Irish Tune from County Derry, harmonised in memory of Irish childhood friends in Australia.' Considered by many to be Grainger's masterpiece of harmonisation, the tune was collected many years ago by Miss Jane Ross of New Town, Limavady, Ireland. Grainger has set it for many instrumental combinations.
This is perhaps the oldest recorded version of 'Londonderry Air' to be found, although the popularity of the song was no doubt enhanced greatly by the distribution, in both America and Europe, of the American recording made by the internationally-renowned opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1915. Later recordings were made by various famous musicians and groups including the Glenn Miller Orchestra (February 1940), Bing Crosby (July 1941), and Harry Belafonte (September 1956).
In 1953, 'Danny Boy' made its second transition from radio to television when the song was adopted as the theme for the Danny Thomas Show, which ran from 1953 to 1964. Since then it has appeared in a number of television shows and movies including Memphis Belle, where it was not only sung by famous jazz musician Harry Connick, Jr11, but featured prominently in the soundtrack. A PBS documentary was even made about the song in 1994: Danny Boy: In Sunshine or in Shadow.
Who was Danny Boy, and why a song about him?
It is highly doubtful that Fred Weatherley meant for the song to be anything but general, specifying neither the gender nor relationship of the singer with Danny Boy, or the details regarding Danny's departure. This lack of specification seems to be a marketing tactic for maximising sales. However, as with any other work, it has been the subject of much discussion and analysis. Among the many attempts to explain the song in a familiar context are discussed below.
Where is Danny Going?
Some say to war. In the old days, recruitment for the army was carried out by a bagpiper who marched through fields and valleys, playing as he went and collecting young men behind him. There are also those who believe that Danny is joining the IRA to free Old Ireland, and that his father, having suffered at the hands of English gaolers, foresees that he will not live to see this liberation. Others, who do not see bagpipes to necessarily mean Ireland, suggest that the British Army is recruiting replacements for a distant war - perhaps as far away as Québec or India, and that Danny is off to serve King and country. Whatever battle it is, it can't be a very hazardous one, as he is expected to return. However, given that Weatherley himself said that there was no element of rebellion or bloodshed in the song, the notion that Danny is going off to war is probably unlikely.
Another explanation is that Danny is leaving Ireland and the Great Potato Blight for the New World and that the song is sung by his mother bidding him farewell. Unfortunately for her, Danny will probably never see her again - few emigrants returned to their home soil.
Who is Singing to Danny?
Suggestions have ranged from an Irish chieftain bidding his son farewell to a female friend. Given that Weatherly had stated in an addendum to his 1918 publication of 'Danny Boy' that when a man sings the song, the words 'Danny Boy' should be substituted with 'Eily Dear', it may be that the song is only meant to be sung by a woman - perhaps to avoid embarrassment among males singing the song in those days. Many suggest that it has to be sung by a lover, taking the line 'And I will sleep in peace until you come to me' to indicate possessiveness uncharacteristic in a parent or mentor.
Is there a lost third verse to 'Danny Boy'? Might the song be political?
The problem is that Danny Boy is really a song with over 100 verses written by probably as many lyricists; it's just that Fred Weatherley's version became the most popular. Of course, this has not stopped people from speculating, or from writing additional lyrics, most of them to do with the IRA. One of the most famous versions goes:
But should I live, and should you die for Ireland
Let not your dying thoughts be all of me,
But breathe a prayer to God for our dear sireland,
That He will hear, and He will set her free.
And I will take your place and pike, my dearest,
And strike a blow, though weak that blow may be.
To help the cause to which your heart was nearest,
And you will rest in peace until I come for thee.
This seems to refer to the rebellion of 1798, when the Society of United Irishmen, in an attempt to remove English control from Irish affairs, launched a bloody uprising on Dublin Castle. Unfortunately for the Society, the rebellion only resulted in the 1801 Act of Union which brought Ireland under even more rigid British control.
Indeed, Fred Weatherley may have intended the song to be political. In his autobiography Piano and Gown (1926) he expressed his hope that 'Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike would sing my song.' However, there are those who insist that 'Danny Boy' was a Unionist anthem. Their reasoning is this: Jimmy McCurry and Jane Ross and (presumably) Fred Weatherley were all Protestants, ergo 'Danny Boy' is anti-Catholic.
The Lasting Appeal of 'Danny Boy'
After rubbing my eyes
I looked all around me
At the half-finished drivel I'd worked on for days
And I told him my dream
Was to live for all time
In some perfect refrain
Like the man who wrote Danny Boy
- 'The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy' by Joe Jackson
'Danny Boy' has travelled a long way. From its murky roots in Ireland to America and to the rest of the world, 'Danny Boy' has entertained its way into the hearts of the young and old alike, in parlours and parties, on radios and television. Almost every famous singer, dead or alive, has recorded a version of the song.
But 'Danny Boy' isn't just about entertainment. Its melody has been described as hauntingly beautiful; it is the song most often requested by those who foresee their end, and the one most often played when people are laid into their graves. And yet it's not all about sadness either. At the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Irish boxer Barry McGuigan, who won the bantamweight gold medal, was moved to tears when one of the officials, who happened to be Irish, sang 'Danny Boy' in lieu of the Irish national anthem, which they weren't able to play for technical reasons. This apparently endeared the song to both McGuigan and his fans, and for the rest of McGuigan's career, his father Pat would sing the song as a preamble to his matches. McGuigan went on to become the World Boxing Association Champion in 1985, the formalities concluded by his father once again singing 'Danny Boy'.
'Danny Boy' is a legend - a cultural symbol, a song of comfort and an anthem of the human spirit. Maybe Elvis Presley was right, and the music was written by angels after all.
References and Bibliography
- Audley, B. 2002. The Londonderry Air: Facts and Fiction.
- Audley, B. 2000. 'The Provenance of the Londonderry Air'. Journal of the Royal Musical Association. Vol. 125(2): 205-247
- Brian, H12. 1935. 'On the Other Hand: The Londonderry Air'. Musical Opinion, February: 395
- Hunter, J. 1997. The Blind Fiddler From Myroe. Cranagh Press.
- McCourt, M. 2001. Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad. Running Press.
- Shields, H. 1979. 'New Dates for Old Songs 1766-1803'. Long Room Journal. Vol. 18-19:41.