Danny Boy: Derry's Gift To The World

Read the full chapter from City of Music: Derry's Music Heritage

It’s difficult to put a precise date on when Derry first emerged as a centre of musical excellence. 

What can be stated with certainty is that the city’s first major venue, the Exchange on Diamond Square (aka the Town Hall), opened in 1692 and was regularly hosting concerts and balls by 1755. By that stage, however, the most famous piece of music ever associated with this city – the air to 'Danny Boy' – had, quite probably, already been written. 

It is also a matter of record that by the nineteenth century, the city was not only a favoured stopping point on the international music circuit, but it was also producing many world-renowned balladeers and hymnwriters of its own. 

That century also saw tremendous physical development in Derry’s musical landscape, with the completion of top-class facilities such as the New Royal Opera House on Carlisle Road, the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall, St Columb’s Hall and the Guildhall. 

This in turn encouraged and enabled local artistic talent to thrive. And by the end of the century, both St Eugene’s and St Columb’s cathedrals had flourishing choirs, and the city also boasted a musical union, a choral society and a philharmonic society. Thus the seeds of the City of Music were sown.

What have Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Glenn Miller, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Cher, Connie Francis, Tom Jones, Jackie Wilson, the Wolfe Tones, Judy Garland, Sinéad O’Connor, Eric Clapton, Eva Cassidy and even the Muppets got in common? Okay, you already know the answer – 'Danny Boy' – but admit it, you were suitably impressed by the Muppets. Michael Robinson has spent a lifetime tracing the roots of the song that is synonymous with this city.

'Danny Boy', aka 'The Derry Air', aka 'The Londonderry Air', is the city’s single most famous export. It is also probably the most-recorded Irish song of all time and has served as a national anthem for the Irish, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians and Irish-Australians. 

‘Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.' Anyone who plays Irish music must be ready to field countless requests for this song, particularly around St Patrick’s Day. There is no doubt about its popularity with those who know little about traditional Irish music, and even with the older generation of Irish-Americans. But where did the song come from? Is it Irish at all? Interestingly, the answer can be found in the collection of traditional Irish harp music made by Edward Bunting a little over 200 years ago! 

Frederic Edward Weatherly (1848-1929)To begin with, 'Danny Boy' is one of over 100 songs composed to the same tune. The author was an English lawyer, Frederic Edward Weatherly (1848–1929), who was also a songwriter and entertainer. In 1910, he wrote the words and music for an unsuccessful song he called 'Danny Boy'. In 1912, his sister-in-law in America sent him a tune she called 'The Londonderry Air', which he had never before heard. He immediately noticed that the melody was perfectly fitted to his 'Danny Boy' lyrics, and published a revised version of the song in 1913. As far as is known, Weatherly never set foot in Ireland. 

The publisher Boosey accepted the song, and then it came to light that an old friend of Weatherly’s, Alfred Percival Graves, author of 'Trottin’ To The Fair', had already written two lyrics to the melody. Graves took exception to having the folk tune ‘poached’, and it seems that the friendship with Weatherly came to an abrupt end. 

The most prolific poet of the Edwardian – and for that matter Victorian and Georgian – ballad, the genial and indefatigable Weatherly was virtually a one-man song factory. He wrote thousands of lyrics, of which at least 1,500 were published, with music by dozens of composers who vied to get their hands on his verses. His most commercially successful ballad was 'Roses Of Picardy', which became one of the hugely popular songs of the Great War and made its writer a small fortune. 

The 'Danny Boy' lyrics proved particularly popular in the United States, where they were recorded by scores of singers including Bing Crosby. The song was also popularly referred to as both 'The Londonderry Air' and 'The Air From County Derry'. 

The first appearance of the tune in print occurred in 1855 in Ancient Music of Ireland, published by the early collector George Petrie (1789–1866). The untitled melody was supplied to Petrie by Jane Ross of Limavady, who claimed to have taken it down from the playing of an itinerant piper. This is the origin of the 'Londonderry Air' name. Petrie states: 

'Name unknown: For the following beautiful air I have to express my very grateful acknowledgement to Miss Jane Ross of Newtown-Limavady in the county of Londonderry – a lady who has made a large collection of the popular unpublished melodies of that county, which she has very kindly placed at my disposal, and which has added very considerably to the stock of tunes which I had previously acquired from that still very Irish county. I say still very Irish, for though it has been planted for more than two centuries by English and Scottish settlers, the old Irish race still forms the great majority of its peasant inhabitants; and there are few, if any, counties in which, with less foreign admixture, the ancient melodies of the country have been so extensively preserved. The name of the tune unfortunately was not ascertained by Miss Ross, who sent it to me with the simple remark that it was ‘very old’, in the correctness of which statement I have no hesitation in expressing my perfect concurrence.'

Sam Henry, a great collector in the 1930s, speculated that Miss Ross had collected the tune from blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry, who was known to have played in the Limavady area at the time. 

As the tune grew in popularity, and at the same time that traditional Irish music came to be more thoroughly researched, considerable doubt emerged about Miss Ross’ story. No additional versions of the melody were encountered by other collectors. The structure of the tune is unlike any other traditional Irish melody, and it is not suited for words in any of the known Irish song metres. Miss Ross was unable to provide any supporting evidence (the name of the piper, for example), and the suspicion grew that she had composed it herself and was attempting to pass it off as a genuine Irish tune – although by doing so she would be missing out on considerable royalty payments! She continued to maintain that her original account was true. 

I have encountered one claim for an earlier appearance of the tune. The history of the tin whistle, found on the website of the Clarke Company, claims that the founder of the company, Robert Clarke, frequently played the tune while walking from Suffolk to Manchester in 1843. If true, this would be before Petrie’s publication date of 1855. 

My friend Jerome Colburn points out that the tune appears (twice) in the collection of Francis O’Neill, made among the Irish-American community in Chicago around the end of the nineteenth century. It’s still worth mentioning that the tune had a life of its own in the tradition between Jane Ross’ time and Frederic Weatherly’s, as shown by 'Drimoleague Fair' and 'Londonderry Love Song' in O’Neill’s collection. Both are settings of the same tune Miss Ross notated, complete with duple metre, half-cadence in the first part, high note in the second, etc. If they got into circulation from musicians who read 'The Londonderry Air' in Petrie, the melody underwent some alterations – more strikingly in 'Londonderry Love Song', where the last note of each phrase is changed to put the whole tune into minor mode. 

Drimoleague is in the south of County Cork, very close to where O’Neill grew up, and about as far away from Derry as one could get and still be on dry land. Since no other use of the 'Drimoleague Fair' name is known, and O’Neill is known to have used printed sources including Petrie, it’s highly likely that Petrie is the source and O’Neill gave the song this name (he often gave his own titles to untitled tunes). 

The next piece of the puzzle appeared in 1934, when Anne Geddes Gilchrist published an article entitled ‘A New Light Upon the Londonderry Air’ in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. She theorised that the tune was taken from a performance in which the performer was using extreme rubato, and this ‘so disguised the natural rhythm that the tune was wrongly noted down in common instead of triple time’. If the prolonged notes occurring on the first beat of the bar are shortened, ‘the tune falls at once and easily into a rhythm which instead of being unique in Irish folk music is paralleled in scores of other Irish folk-tunes’. 

In 1979, an article, ‘New Dates for Old Songs 1766–1803’ by Hugh Shields, appeared in Long Room (the journal of the library of Trinity College, Dublin). Shields identified a tune in Edward Bunting’s 1796 publication, A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music, entitled 'Aislean An Óigfear' (in modern Irish 'Aisling An Óigfhir' – 'The Young Man’s Dream'), as being very close to the Gilchrist version of 'The Londonderry Air', except in the fourth phrase which ‘makes The Londonderry Air almost unsingable in traditional style while endearing it to virtuosos eager for effects of vocal expression’. (This phrase does not, however, exceed the range of the pipes, so there is nothing to show it was not present in the original performance.) 

Edward Bunting (1773–1843) was the pioneer collector of harp music whose career began in 1792 when he was hired to write down the tunes performed at the Belfast Harp Festival. It is to him (and his employees, particularly Patrick Lynch) that we owe the preservation of much of the traditional Irish harp repertoire. Bunting noted 'Aislean An Óigfear' from Denis Hempson, aka Denis O’Hampsey (1697–1807), the very last traditional performer on the Irish wire-strung harp (who luckily lived to the age of 110, allowing Bunting to collect many of his tunes before his death in Magilligan, County Derry – very near to the Jane Ross home in Limavady). 

In his 1840 work, A Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, Bunting discusses the characteristics of typical Irish melodies, stating: ‘'The Young Man’s Dream' and the air of 'The Green Woods Of Triugha' might be suggested as answering more nearly to the editor’s conception of such a standard than any others with which he is acquainted.’ So, after more than a century, Miss Ross has been vindicated, although her skill as a transcriber is perhaps called into question. 

The Irish-American historian Malachy McCourt, author of Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved English Ballad, has argued that Hempson/O’Hampsey inherited the tune from the County Derry harpist Rory Dall O’Cahan. Rory Dall composed many enduring tunes in the early seventeenth century including the Irish wedding anthem 'Tabhair Dom Do Lámh'/'Give Me Your Hand'. McCourt suggests that Hempson/O’Hampsey studied with Bridget O’Cahan, a relative of Rory Dall, and later became custodian of the O’Cahan repertoire.

Danny Boy: From the Horse’s Mouth
Weatherly later provided his own description of writing 'Danny Boy':

In 1912, a sister-in-law in America sent me 'The Londonderry Air'. I had never heard the melody, or even heard of it. By some strange oversight, Moore had never put words to it, and at the time I received [it], I did not know that anyone else had done so. 

It so happened that I had written in March of 1910 a song called 'Danny Boy', and re-written it in 1911. By lucky chance, it only required a few alterations to make it fit that beautiful melody. 

After my song had been accepted by a publisher, I got to know that Alfred Percival Graves had written two sets of words to the same melody, 'Emer’s Farewell' and 'Erin’s Apple-Blossom', and I wrote to tell him what I had done. 

He took up a strange attitude and said that there was no reason why I should not write a new set of words to 'The Minstrel Boy', but he did not suppose I should do so! The answer of course is that Moore’s words to 'The Minstrel Boy' are so ‘perfect a fit’ to the melody that I certainly should not try to compete with Moore. But beautiful as Graves’ words are, they do not to my fancy suit 'The Londonderry Air'. They seem to have none of the human interest, which the melody demands. 

I am afraid my old friend Graves did not take my explanation in the spirit which I hoped from the author of those splendid words to 'Father O’Flynn'. 

However, 'Danny Boy' is accepted as an accomplished fact and is sung all over the world by Sinn Féiners and Ulstermen alike, by English as well as Irish, in America as well as in the homeland, and I am certain 'Father O’Flynn' is equally popular, as it deserves to be, and its author need have no fear that I shall be so foolish as to write a new version of that song. 

Here are my words [with Weatherly’s original punctuation]:

'Danny Boy'

Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling, 
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer's gone, and all the roses falling,
It's you, it's you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow,
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow,
It’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow -
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so!

But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Ave there for me.

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!

Sinéad O’Connor
Weatherly’s lyrics have been variously adapted down through the ages – as different singers try to put their own stamp on it. One version, as sung by Sinéad O’Connor, provoked a huge number of complaints when it was broadcast by the BBC. It included two extra verses, which appear to indicate support for the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798: 

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 article from the book City of Music: Derry's Music Heritage is reproduced with the kind permission of the author, Michael Robinson (www.standingstones.com), and Guildhall Press.

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