This is a tale of the unexpected insofar as nothing about it – except maybe the lyrics – conforms to the stereotype.
The song Danny Boy was written by an Englishman. Barrister Frederick Edward Wheaterly (1848 – 1929) wrote the lyrics in 1910. However his original air was so poor, the song was destined for obscurity.
It was only after his sister-in-law in American sent him the tune called The Londonderry Air and he matched his lyrics to it, that the song gained popularity. He published his new version in 1913.
There is no record of Wheately ever visiting Ireland, never mind Derry.
He wrote thousands of songs. Another of his songs Roses of Picardy became one of the great songs of World War I.
But what of the tune? It was published in George Petrie’s Ancient Music of Ireland in 1855. The story goes that it was taken down from an itinerant blind fiddler, Jim McCurry (1830-1910), by Jane Ross of Limavady, Co Derry.
Some maintain that the air bears a strong resemblence to one published by Bunting in his 1796 collection under the title “Aisling an Oigfhear ” (“The Young Man’s Vision”).
In 1916, there was an attempt to add a republican verse to the lyrics, but this petered out, to the relief, no doubt, of Fred Wheaterly, who expressed the wish in his biography that Sinn Feiners and loyalists alike would sing the song.
Danny Boy crossed the Atlantic and was famously recorded by Bing Crosby. Tommy Flemming sings what is called the “old version” of Danny Boy. It has been recorded by many artistes but the most remarkable is that by the late USA soul singer Jackie Wilson. Eric Clapton said his favourite version was Frankie Gavin’s on the tin whistle.
Derry is also associated with The Town I Loved So Well by Phil Coulter, of that parish, and Tobhair Dom Do Lamh (Give Me Your Hand) an enchanting tune composed by the blind harpist Ruair? O Cathain, who’s lands, ironically, were confiscated and granted to the Rosses, from whom Jane Ross is descended..
The song was back in the headlines in 2008, when the owner of a New York bar banned the song for the month of March. “It’s overplayed, it’s been ranked among the 25 most depressing songs of all time and it’s more appropriate for a funeral than for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration,” said Shaun Clancy, who owns Foley’s Pub and Restaurant, across the street from the Empire State Building.
For 2009, Shaun Clancy took a more positive approach, launching a competition for the best version or interpretation of the song.
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.
(Chorus) But come you back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
’tis I’ll be there 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 simply sleep in peace until you come to me.