An Irish Song: Danny Boy
When Everyone is Irish
By the first week in March, supermarkets, restaurants, and taverns and bars that serve food are well-stocked with corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Bagpipers and tin whistlers and flutists are practicing one song above all. And the habitues of elegant lounges, rustic taverns, and neighborhood "beer joints" hear strains of that song loved around the world, "Danny Boy." Almost everyone whose mother said he/she could carry a tune will sing along. Those who can't or won't sing will propose an interpretation of the lyrics and an explanation of the circumstances that evoked them. The musicologically literate will debate the origin of this air now so closely associated with Erin. Again each March, "the pipes, the pipes are calling. . .." (Photo courtesy of Bkkbrad, Wikimedia Commons)
The Origins of the Most Beloved Ballad
To clear the air in countless ale-filled rooms, I suggest we gently expose a few oft-repeated misconceptions about this beloved ballad and the circumstances surrounding its composition. Some readers may cringe at having their "meaning" dismythed (er - that is, dismissed); others will read this explication but not remember it. For it is a truism about us that we 'ear what we want to 'ear - and let the rest go out the other. . .. I encourage anyone who "ha'e me doubts" about the following facts to engage his favorite search engine for an evening of further research while quaffing his/her favorite beverage. (Try www.standingstones.com/danny3.html.)
Finding the Music
I'll phrase it as succinctly as an Irishwoman can: "Danny Boy" was not written by an Irishman! In fact, Frederick Edward Weatherly never saw the forty shades of green. In England in 1910 he had written these words for an unsuccessful song called "Danny Boy." In 1912 he heard the music known today as the "Londonderry Air" or "Derry Air." (Please, please, no tittering; these are painful disclosures for some of you.) The lyrical lawyer, poet, entertainer, and author of children's books knew instantly that his words and this music belonged together. The new, improved "Danny Boy" was published in 1913 and became an immediate success. (Photo courtesy of Jean-no, Wikimedia Commons)
A Song of Rebels?
And now for more demystification: Many believe the lyrics were intended to honor the courage of rebellious Irishmen or comfort their progeny. In 1926 Weatherly said that Danny Boy was being sung all over the world - by Sinn Fein-ers and Ulstermen, by Englishmen and Australians and Americans. Fred said, "It will be seen that there is nothing of the rebel in it, and no note of bloodshed." He acknowledged he had written some rebel songs but insisted "Danny Boy" was not one of them. (And nota bene: the official ballad has only two verses.)
A Modern Connection?
AHA! some of you exclaim, but the British barrister did, indeed, have a son named Danny! A son who joined the RAF and was killed during World War I. (I urge you to calmly recall the dates of that war. Frederick was a poet, not a prophet.) And one more delicate detail: Weatherly wrote the song to be sung by a woman. Indeed, a footnote to sheet music circulated in 1913 suggested the substitution of the words "Eily Dear" when the singer was a man.
Which Pipes are Calling?
Now then, about the pipes. One may question whether Weatherly alluded to the Highland pipes or the Ullean (Irish) pipes or one of the 28 other kinds of bagpipes. And there is quite a commotion over whether the "Londonderry Air" is a distorted version of an earlier air, claimed by the Scots. And the song for which Mr. Weatherly ( 1848-1929) was more famous during his lifetime was "Roses of Picardy," rather than "Danny Boy." But it is "Danny Boy" that we'll be hearin' for the Wearin' of the Green. So it's time to "pipe down" and just enjoy the words and melody of one of the world's best-loved songs. (Photo courtesy of Lienhard Schulz, Wikimedia Commons)
More About Irish Songs
Learn more about Irish songs in these recommended Amazon books:
Learn More About Ireland and Irish Culture
Try the following recommended books from Amazon on Ireland:
Learn More About Saint Patrick
© 2005 Patricia Doherty Hinnebusch