it is a century and two years since the song “Danny Boy” first weaved its way into Irish folklore and then into the heart of the world as the classic emigrant’s lament for a lost family and country. Its melody could be heard at President Kennedy’s funeral and it also played at the farewell to Elvis Presley. Elvis said he thought “Danny Boy” was written by angels and asked for it to be played at his funeral. At Princess Diana’s church service, the words were different, but the haunting melody of “The Londonderry Air,” the same. The ballad that has proved irresistible to some of the biggest names in music is a song of love and loss – a lament for those missing home and each other. “Danny Boy” arrived over a century ago and never left. But arrived from where? Most people assume it’s from Ireland, but it’s not. It was written by an Englishman.
Danny Boy is one of over 100 songs composed to the same tune. The author was an English barrister, Frederic Edward Weatherly (1848-1929), who was also a songwriter and radio 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 called the Londonderry Air which he had never heard before. 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. His most commercially successful ballad was ‘Roses of Picardy’ which became one of the great popular songs of the Great War, and it made its writer a small fortune.
“Danny Boy” was originally said to be intended as a message from a woman to a man, and Weatherly provided the alternative “Eily dear” for male singers in his 1918 authorised lyrics. However, the song is actually sung by men as much as, or possibly more than, women. The song has been interpreted by some listeners as a message from a parent to a son going off to war or leaving as part of the Irish Diaspora.
The song is widely considered an Irish anthem, although Weatherly was an Englishman. Nonetheless, “Danny Boy” is considered by many as the unofficial anthem of the Irish Diaspora. These were the days when emigrants were given a “wake” before they left as their family and friends never expected to see them again. Hence the poignancy of the final verse with the returned emigrant before his mother’s grave who implores the returning son to sing an Ave. The song requires a wide vocal range to carry it off and many don’t a fact noted in this wonderful piece by John Sheahan of the Dubliners made by his niece Shona McMillan.
LYRICS OF DANNY BOY (Note; There are numerous variations)
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 leaves are falling
T’is you, T’is 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
t’is I’ll be there in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.
And when ye come, and all the flow’rs 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, tho’ soft you tread above me
And oh, my grave shall warmer, sweeter be
For ye will bend and tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
Well, given these lyrics and the flow of drink in Irish Bars around the world (Same Ireland, different country!) sometimes folk get over sentimental when in their cups, a fact wonderfully parodied by none other than the Muppets!
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.