Come St. Patrick's Day, even the non-Irish will ask the band to play "Danny Boy." Having been part of those bands, I have to admit sighing with a certain resignation at the request. My first memory of the song has nothing to do with Ireland, per se, but, rather, a comedian whose television show was a family favorite: Danny Thomas. I liked the catchy tune that ushered in each episode, but had no idea at the time (I was in elementary school) that some day I would be playing that music on demand, at least once a year for probably the rest of my life.
Before I discuss this popular song, let me say that there is so much material written about it, its meaning, its origin, its evolution, and the history of Ireland entwined in all of this, that I am not in any way suggesting anything I am writing here should be put beside the scholarship of the previous researchers. What I wish to do is introduce the general public and, more specifically, the genealogical public (especially those who have traced their roots to Ireland), about the various perspectives of the piece and what is known, or generally accepted, about the favorite St. Patrick's Day song. Much of what I will present comes from the recognized, quintessential piece online (an expansion on an article written for Folk Harp Journal) that examines every nuance of both tune and lyrics. Written by Michael Robinson, it answers just about every question one would pose about the song and those who have had any connection to it. I recommend it highly for further examination, if the reader's curiosity is piqued by what I include here (see the reference list below).
The tune for "Danny Boy" has been around since at least 1855 (the earliest known verified record of its existence) and was titled "Londonderry Air" or (to avoid the slur that made it "London Derriere") "Air from County Derry" (BBC). Why County Derry in Ireland would also be called "Londonderry" is explained with a little history: In 1608, the British took over the territory and Derry became English property until 1688 (British Museum). It would seem, then, that a tune entitled "Londonderry Air" would be a slap in the face to the Irish, since Derry was no longer under British rule. Of course, by 1855, the "London" part should no longer be an issue, leaving us to believe that the tune dates back much further.
One argument about the origin of "Londonderry Air" attributes the tune to Robert Clarke, of Clarke pennywhistles, in 1843 (Robinson), and another traces it to 18th Century Scotland (BBC). Legend tells us that "Londonderry Air" goes back many more years. Some profess that Rory Dall O'Cahan wrote the original tune in the 1600s (Taylor). According to Dictionary.com, an "air" is a tune or a melody. A discovery of old manuscripts of many airs - the Bunting Collection - revealed a tune with the striking similarity to the one the blind harpist O'Cahan, from Northern Ireland, had composed (BBC). The argument of the age of the melody may never be solved, but everyone agrees that the tune that eventually carried the words to "Danny Boy" is, indeed, "Londonderry Air."
So why the controversy of the tune's age? The melody is said to have been put down on paper sometime around 1855 by Jane Ross, who heard it played near her home in Limavady by "an itinerant fiddler," whom some have identified as blind Jim McCurry. McCurry never professed to have written the tune, however, so the research that takes the scholar back to its earlier beginnings seems to be acceptable (Hunter). But, let's face it, most of us who sing and/or play the song are less concerned with the origin of the music as we are with the genesis of the words.
Who is "Danny Boy" and why are the pipes playing for him? It seems rather universal to accept that this legendary individual was a young man headed off to the military, being summoned by the bagpipes to join his comrades. It has been proposed that, since the singer of the song (his father? his mother? a lover?) is expecting the young soldier to return, that Danny is not actually headed into battle, but rather to a non-combat service. It also appears that the singer considers his/her own life to be close to an end, suggesting that Danny will visit the grave of this heartsick individual when he does finally get back home. This would imply that it is more than likely that the singer is a parent, not a peer (Robinson). Either way, the fact that the young man is encouraged to "sing an ave" for the departed (Taylor) suggests that the mutual religious tie is Catholic, not Protestant.
The author of this haunting song was Frederick (Fred) Edward Weatherly, an Englishman, not an Irishman, and a barrister by trade (Grant). A prolific writer, he had penned the words for "Danny Boy" in 1910. But words are not enough to keep a lyric like this alive and Weatherly made efforts to put his poem to music, failing to find the right vehicle for it until his brother's wife, Margaret Enwright Weatherly, came to the rescue. Here is where the union of music and lyrics becomes a truly international incident. Margaret and her husband, Edward, were traveling in the gold fields of Colorado in 1912 when the woman heard a haunting tune played in the camp. She persuaded the minstrel to let her have a copy of the melody, believing it would be a good piece for her brother-in-law to work with. She sent it off to the poet in Somerset, England and he recognized it as being a near-perfect fit to his two-verse composition. Words and music were brought together in, what Weatherly said in his autobiography Piano and Gown (1926), should be a song that would unite faiths and politics in a common recognition of human love (Hunter).
There have been various attempts to create a third verse, with composers believing that leaving Danny at the gravesite of his beloved parent or lover without resolution to his life will leave the listener feeling unfulfilled. While one of the popular "lost" third verses mentions the possibility of Danny's dying for Ireland, it ends with Danny and the singer being reunited in death, sort of as an alternate ending to what Weatherly originally suggests. There are also those who believe that, when sung by a man, that, instead of "Danny Boy," the object of the professions of love, should be "Eily, Dear," to eradicate any misunderstanding about the relationship (Robinson).
Did Weatherly succeed? Certainly, here in America, everyone recognizes the music as an Irish anthem. No one seems to attach a political agenda to it, nor does it seem to separate religious philosophies. Whether sung by Elvis or a traditional Irish band, accompanying Danny Thomas or presented by Eric Clapton, "Danny Boy" seems to transcend genres as well as politics and religion. Words by an Englishman set to a tune by a, supposedly, Irish composer, discovered in the gold fields of America, "Danny Boy" is truly an International sensation.
BBC. "The Legend and History of the Song 'Danny Boy,'" 14 July 2005. Accessed 19 February 2010, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3826136http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3826136.
British Museum, The. "Ulster Unionists." British Isles: Ireland AD 1750-1900 The Industrial Age, 2005. Accessed 20 February 2010, from http://www.worldtimelines.org.uk/world/british_isles/ireland/AD1750-1900/unionists.
Grant, Rick. "'Danny Boy' Explores an Enduring Irish Mystery." The Wild Geese Today: Erin's Far-Flung Exiles, 2003. Accessed 20 February 2010, from http://www.thewildgeese.com/pages/dannyboy.html.
Hunter, Jim. The Origin of "Danny Boy," 1988. Accessed 19 February 2010, from http://www.theoriginofdannyboy.com/
Robinson, Michael. "Danny Boy" - the Mystery Solved! Accessed 19 February 2010, from http://www.standingstones.com/dannyboy.html
Taylor, Barry. "Danny Boy." Contemplations from the Marianas Trench. Accessed 19 February 2010, from http://www.contemplator.com/ireland/dboy.html.