'Danny Boy' Explores an Enduring Irish Mystery

In "Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved Irish Melody," Malachy McCourt plays sleuth in tracing the origin of "Danny Boy," the most beloved of all Irish melodies. WGT Consulting Editor Rick Grant says McCourt's book creates a context for the song, albeit leaving its meaning as murky as ever.

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 flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

A Review By Rick Grant
Special to The Wild Geese Today

Malachy McCourt website
Malachy McCourt

It may be one of the most easily recognized and most beloved of Irish ballads, and yet, according to author Malachy McCourt, Danny Boy may not even be Irish.

But where did it come from? Who wrote it, and for whom? McCourt addresses the questions that have lain, unanswered, for nearly 100 years in his recent book "Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad."

Only two verses long and a little more than 150 words, "Danny Boy" has become far more than a folk song. As McCourt puts it, "The mystery and myth surrounding the air has elevated it from beloved ballad to sacred script."

Could it be that a song that can bring a tear to the eye of even the hardiest Irish fighting man has its roots on a British commuter train? Author of the New York Times best seller, "A Monk Swimming," McCourt, in search of the origin of this classic tune, takes us on a trip back in time to a land of traveling folk minstrels.

Photo by Herbert Lambert
Frederick Edward Weatherly

When the song was first published, back in 1913, the lyricist was an English barrister by the name of Frederick Edward Weatherly. McCourt introduces us to Weatherly and his family in an attempt to determine who exactly he was writing the song about.

In the process, he explores the political situation at the time and allows us to see how very unlikely an event it was that an English song could become so important to the Irish. Recall, at this time, the seeds for the English/Irish civil war were being sown by Irish trade unionists and nationalist volunteers. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, forerunners of the Irish Republican Army, had been drilling all year, and the conflict would ultimately break out on Easter Monday of 1916. World War I was about to begin; war had already broken out in the Balkans.

In that context, "Danny Boy" seems a lament for simpler times.

But the song's words are only part of McCourt's story. He next goes in search of the composer who first put those lyrics to a melody. It is from the pages of a tome written in 1855 that McCourt pulls the name of Jane Ross of Limavady, County Derry. It was she who first put the song together based on the tune she heard played by a blind Irish fiddler.

Like most every other aspect of Irish life, the song is not separated from politics or religion. To some, the tune is called the "Londonderry Air" for the town it is said to have originated in. For others, it will always be known as the "Derry Air," for the very same reasons.

But where did the tune originally come from? To answer this question, McCourt takes us back to Northern Ireland and into the heart of the conflict that, at the time, was tearing his homeland apart. In doing so, McCourt, no shrinking violent when it comes to politics or much else, cannot resist the temptation to expound on the political implications of the time. In doing so, he provides a timeline of Irish conflict and a better insight into the forces that came together to bring this melody to life.

In the end, those who seek absolute answers might be a bit disappointed. While McCourt does an excellent job of digging back into the past and exploring each possibility, he cannot guarantee that he has uncovered the real birthplace of the music.

Likewise, in his search to uncover the real subject of the song, he leaves us with probabilities instead of certainties. And yet, because of his attention to historical detail, when we reach the end, we feel that we understand more about the environment that gave birth to the song and the people that inhabited that world.

"Danny Boy" is not a long book. In fact to make it to 141 pages, McCourt has to include a partial discography of artists who have recorded the song and a timeline of Irish history. But in that short space, he uncovers a wealth of historical information that is very interesting and readable.

The book can easily be read in a single day. Many who pick it up will doubtless do so without any desire to put it down.

 

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 flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis 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
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'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 all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me
I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.
I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

 

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Tags: Boy, Danny, Irish, Malachy, McCourt, culture, music


Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on August 10, 2013 at 9:49pm

Do you have a special connection to ‘Danny Boy’? What makes it so
powerful? Do you have a funny, quirky or poignant story about this iconic
song? Perhaps it reminds you of a particular person ... an occasion ... or a
time in your life? Tyrone productions wants to know about it.  http://www.tyroneproductions.ie/happy-birthday-danny-boy/

Comment by Gerry Regan on August 12, 2013 at 10:39am

Might make a good WG-based discussion, Linda, one that would truly be 'evergreen.'

Comment by Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill on August 12, 2013 at 12:03pm

You rarely hear 'Danny Boy' in Ireland unless there are tourists about. MAny Irish would see it a stoo maudlin.Another well know ditty 'Song for Ireland' was was written by an Englishman. The classic 'Dirty Old Town' refers to an English city, not an Irish one.

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