Tiny harp

The Danny Boy Trivia Collection

by Michael Robinson

Just before St. Patrick's Day, 1998, I received a call from a reporter from The Herald News in Joliet, Illinois. The reporter was writing an article on Danny Boy and wanted to quote me as "one of the world's leading experts" on this song. I have never claimed this distinction, or even wanted it, and if I have achieved it, it must only be by default. (The article appeared on March 12, 1998. Philippe Varlet was also interviewed. It may have appeared in some other papers as well.) However, I feel that since I'm being cited in the popular press, I now owe it to the reading public to keep on with my research. I only hope they don't put this on my tombstone.

I have received quite a few e-mail messages from people asking all sorts of questions about Danny Boy. I've also had people give me information, some of it "I heard somewhere" or "I remember reading", and some of it actually verifiable. I also go looking around the Net from time to time to see if anything interesting has turned up. I've collected the more concrete items all together in one spot for your browsing pleasure.

Why the name Londonderry Air?

Londonderry and Derry refer to the same place, a city in the north of Ireland, and also to the surrounding county. Supposedly the city of Derry was founded by St. Colmcille, although archaeological evidence shows that people were living there thousands of years earlier. There is an excellent museum in the city, which is worth a visit if you want to find out more. The name of the city was actually "Doire", corrupted to "Derry" by people who can't pronounce Irish. It thought to derive from an Irish root meaning "oak tree".

Moving quickly along in history, about a millenium later the government of England was having a difficult time colonizing Ireland because of the fierce and warlike clans living there, especially in the north of the country, Ulster. The monarchs of England, almost all of whom were notorious cheapskates, were continually looking about for ingenious ways to conquer places without actually having to put up the money themselves, or run the risk of unpopularity if they lost. In the case of Ireland, some of these schemes of the "Brish gummit" (as it is termed nowadays in Ulster) are still producing unfortunate long-term consequences.

In 1608, King James I gave the city of Derry to the City of London corporation. I guess the deal could be summed up by saying that if the City of London could figure out a way to chase all the inhabitants out of Derry, they would be allowed to keep the loot, minus a percentage for the King of course. If they lost, well too bad. In celebration of this historic agreement, the name of Derry was officially changed to Londonderry. (For further information, check out the Northern Ireland Tourist Board's History of Derry.)

The linguistic outcome of all this today is that, if you think that King James's deal with the City of London was a good idea, you call both the city and county "Londonderry". If you do, you are probably a supporter of the Unionist movement that seeks to keep Ulster a part of the United Kingdom. If you think it was a bad idea, you call both "Derry", and you are probably a supporter of the Irish Nationalist cause. Or you might just be someone who thinks it's confusing for kings to be going around changing the names of places all the time for no good reason.

You can find plenty of discussion about the political side of the question elsewhere, but here let's look at the musical side. We have an air, collected in county Derry/Londonderry, and it doesn't have a title. What do we call it?

If you were a proper Victorian, there's no way you were going to call it the Londonderry Air, much less the Derry Air, because of the improper sentiments that these titles might suggest. My parents tell me that in their youth in Australia, it was usually called the Air from County Derry. (This would, I suppose, support Winston Churchill's theory that Australia was inhabited by "convicts and Irishmen".)

My mother also sends the following information, referring to an arrangement of the tune by the Australian composer Percy Grainger:

The references to Londonderry Air that I've seen don't go back any earlier than the late 1930s. For example, the Glenn Miller Orchestra recorded Danny Boy (Londonderry Air) in February 1940. Bing Crosby's version was recorded in July 1941 (reference). (So many different things I could check up on!) Londonderry was an important American naval base during WWII, but the US hadn't come into the war in 1940.

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The Percy Grainger connection

Percy Grainger was an Australian composer who led a very colourful and interesting life. Musically he bore some resemblance to Ralph Vaughn Williams, in that he often collected folk tunes and produced art music settings of them that were quite sympathetic to their original character. The Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne (which, coincidentally, both my parents attended) is the repository of his papers and other memorabilia.

As I mentioned, just above, Percy Grainger composed a very highly regarded setting of the Air from County Derry. I mentioned him in relation to Ralph Vaughn Williams, who also made use of the Air from County Derry as a hymn tune.

How does this relate to Danny Boy? Well, read on ...

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Why did Fred Weatherly wait for his sister-in-law to send him the Air from County Derry from America?

Fred Weatherly The basic answer, I suppose, was that he had no interest in Irish folk music. But what caused that momentous point in history, when Danny Boy lyrics first met the Air from County Derry tune? And why at that particular moment in time?

On this Limavady website the following information appears:

Similar (or the same) information is found in a column by Joan Morris in the Contra Costa Times (California):

Perhaps the original source for this comes from Jim Hunter's The Origin of Danny Boy:

When he says "believed to be from the Roe Valley", I think he means that's what he believes himself. But Australians also have a lot of experience in gold mining, and it wouldn't be too surprising if some of them turned up in Colorado as well. Perhaps even some who were fans of Percy Grainger. A most ingenious suggestion appears on Prof's Traditional Irish Music Pages, a very interesting site well worth a visit. (There are background discussions available on a number of other songs as well.)

The point is made that Percy Grainger's arrangement was published in 1911. Might this have been her source? In support of this theory, "knowing that Australian born Grainger finally made his home in the USA in 1914, might his arrangement have first been published in the US, and thus available to Weatherly's sister-in-law before it reached Europe?"

Interesting thoughts indeed. This would put Grainger in the company of many another person who dusts off an old folk song, only to see it bring fame and fortune to other people. (Edward Bunting, Nic Jones, Jimmy Crowley, Dave van Ronk...)

A final irony is that when I look at the CD versions of the Grainger arrangement (for example at the Grainger Museum), it is titled Danny Boy!

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Fred Weatherly's own description of writing Danny Boy.

In 1912 a sister-in-law in America sent me "The Londonderry Air". I had never heard the melody or even heard of it. By some strange oversight Moore had never put words to it, and at the time I received the MS. I did not know that anyone else had done so. It so happened that I had written in March of 1910 a song called "Danny Boy," and re-written it in 1911. By lucky chance it only required a few alterations to make it fit that beautiful melody. After my song had been accepted by a publisher I got to know that Alfred Percival Graves had written two sets of words to the same melody, "Emer's Farewell" and "Erin's Apple-blossom," and I wrote to tell him what I had done. He took up a strange attitude and said that there was no reason why I should not write a new set of words to the "Minstrel Boy," but he did not suppose I should do so! The answer of course is that Moore's words, "The Minstrel Boy" are so "perfect a fit" to the melody that I certainly should not try to compete with Moore. But beautiful as Grave's words are, they do not to my fancy suit the Londonderry air. They seem to have none of the human interest which the melody demands. I am afraid my old friend Graves did not take my explanation in the spirit which I hoped from the author of those splendid words, "Father o' Flynn." However, "Danny Boy" is accepted as an accomplished fact and is sung all over the world by Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike, by English as well as Irish, in America as well as in the homeland, and I am certain "Father o' Flynn" is equally popular, as it deserves to be, and its author need have no fear that I shall be so foolish as to write a new version of that song. Here are my words:

It will be seen that there is nothing of the rebel song in it, and no note of bloodshed. "Rory Darlin'" on the other hand is a rebel song. It has been set sympathetically by Hope Temple. No doubt if Sir William Hardman were alive, he would forbid it being sung at Surrey Sessions mess.

A few comments. When Weatherly says "a sister-in-law", keep in mind that he had seven brothers. Moore didn't set the tune because he used Bunting as a source. Petrie's collection wasn't published until three years after Moore died. So Weatherly seems unaware of the origin of the tune; he only knows it is Irish, and assumes that Moore would have known it. He received it from his sister-in-law as a manuscript copy, not a printed copy of Percy Grainger's version. The explanation of the reference to "Surrey Sessions mess" will be found below.

Also, you get Weatherly's original punctuation and spelling, if you ever had any questions about that.

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Title page from Piano and Gown

Selections from Piano and Gown
(Frederic Weatherly's autobiography)

Walter Horatio Pater, the famous author of "Studies of the Renaissance," was my College Tutor, and the fact that I was assigned to him as a college pupil was a rare piece of good fortune. I had seen all the other Fellows, before I saw him—Shand, "Toby" Watson, "Jacky" Wordsworth, afterwards Bishop of Salisbury, "Sam" Reynolds. They were rough, kind, genial men, untidily clad, of the type of one's masters at school. But Pater was beautifully dressed, he was a dandy with a dash of the ascetic, spoke with a gentle voice, was polite as a woman, arranged lectures and subjects with a quiet deferential air as though he had said" "I'm sorry to have to trouble you, but I shall be much obliged if you will attend." At lectures he was too shy to make a good teacher. Rather than hurt a pupil's feelings, he would let even a howler go uncorrected. I remember once trying him with "the hosts of heaven" as a translation of "acies stellarum." He gave a little smile, and said: "Yes—yes—quite pretty, but I'm not sure that it will do."

On the shelves of the Union I found, and for the first time read and worshipped, William Morris's "Defence of Guenevere." His "Life and Death of Jason" appeared in my first year at Oxford, followed by the "Earthly Paradise" in 1868-1870. Rossetti's poems appeared in 1870; Swinburne's "Poems and Ballads" in 1866; "Atalanta in Calydon" and "Chastelard," I think, earlier. The erotic side of Swinburne's poetry startled me. It seemed so daring to put into print on cold paper things that seemed too intimate for verbal expression. But what impressed me was the colour of it all. The pages of William Morris and Rossetti seemed to blaze with colour. I do not even now forget the impression made upon me by my first sight of a Burne-Jones window in the Latin Chapel of Christchurch. It was the same sort of attraction that drew me first to frequent the Roman Church, and then the High Church Ceremonial at St. Barnabas and SS. Philip and James. The music, the vestments, the coloured walls and the banners, from these not all the gentle words of dear John Christopher and his pleasant evangelical breakfasts ever really weaned me.

Apart from the time I spent over Latin and Greek and Logic, and from the time I spent on the river, my reading now consisted of Swinburne and Morris and the Rossettis (brother and sister); not that I ever forgot or ceased to love my Longfellow, most of whose songs I know by heart, or Tennyson's earlier poems. For his later work and his dramatic poems and plays I had no such love.

Once in the woods at St. Cloud I saw two lovers. The girl had flashing eyes, and her lover was a man older in years. She lay on the grass under the forest trees, he sat beside her.

Unwittingly, and unknown to them, I, sitting near, heard just a few words: "It's no good—it's no use that we love each other"; and the refrain of a song came to me:

Later that evening I saw them in the salle-à-manger of my hotel in Paris. But they were not together; she was dining with an old man—her father or uncle perhaps. Her lover sat alone at a distant table. Their eyes met across the lights and flowers. I watched the little drama.

Yet later, as I sat at my open window and watched the moonlight on the hotel garden, I saw the lovers at a window—her window, of course—which opened on to a balcony where her lover stood. It was their "Last Watch" I knew, and that night I wrote my song:

A year afterwards, when the song was first sung in St. James's Hall by that great tenor, Joseph Maas, I saw the girl and the same old man with her.

Landon Ronald makes a very just complaint of the way in which musicians are imposed on by people who ought to know better, who ask them to social functions and then expect them to play for nothing.

Let me tell you how an old friend of mine dealt with one of the fine ladies of the class Sir Landon reprobates. He was organist of one of the Colleges at Oxford, and he was also an accomplished pianist. A very leading lady, if not the leading lady, in Oxford Society, wrote to him saying that she had "some interesting people from town coming to dinner on Wednesday next," and would so much like him to meet them, adding that it would be a delight to her visitors if he would play to them after dinner.

To which my friend replied, thanking her for "her kind invitation," saying, however, that he was not quite clear as to its meaning:

Ten to eleven hours a day with pupils during term did not prevent me writing a few songs in occasional congenial nights. But the vacations were my best times for songs and other literary work. That is how the time passed, and to those strenuous days of my youth I believe I owe my happy and vigorous old age. I wrote verses for Life, the Whitehall Review, London Society, Temple Bar, Cassell's Magazine, and the sober old Quiver; books for children regularly year by year, and some verses for Christmas cards, but not mottoes for crackers. I drew the line there. Songs for music, however, were the work of my heart. I had as my models the old ballads my Mother and "Old King Cole" [a family friend] had sung to me in my childhood. I had also such fine specimens of the "modern" ballad (I am speaking by comparison with the really "old") as Kingsley's "Three Fishers," set by John Hullah; his "Sands of Dee," by Fred Clay; John Hatton's settings of Herrick's "Bid me to live," and of Bellamy's "Simon the Cellarer," of Longfellow's "Wreck of the Hesperus," "The Reaper and the Flowers," and in later times Clay's setting to W. G. Will's words "I'll sing thee songs of Araby," surely the most beautiful love song ever written.

Those are the songs I heard sung, I even tried to sing them myself. Those are the songs which I kept before me in the humble hope that I, too, would be able to write words which great composers would set to music and great singers would sing. I thought to myself if my words sahll be good enough for that there will be "something in them."

It is no idle boast when I say that my songs have been sung by millions all over the English-speaking world; it is not myself that I am praising but my friends the musicians and the singers who have carried my words to the heart of the people. I don not claim to be a "poet"; I don't pretend that my songs are "literary," but they are "songs of the people" and that is enough for me. Longfellow expresses better than I can what I mean:

In the copy of the book I have at hand, the following corrections have been made:

Fred Weatherly portrait Friends often ask me how I write my songs, where do I find my subjects? Are they histories of actual facts? Those are questions which it is difficult if not impossible to answer except vaguely. Something seen, something read of, something told; some tragedy, some comedy of life of which one has heard or in which one has taken a part; knowledge of people's ways and peculiarities; love of beautiful things—the sea, the forests, the rolling hills, the waking voices of the dawn, the solemn hush of night—all these things and the power to appreciate them go to the making of songs.

And then when one turns to the technical skill required, I suppose the first essential is clear language and rhythmical expression. There must be no parentheses to interrupt the flow of a sentence. No inversions, no words or sentences that will make the singer feel embarrassed or ridiculous. This especially applies to songs written in the first person. I never have forgotten the effect produced on me when for the first time I heard "I'd be a butterfly, born in a bower." It was sung by a very stout soprano. Whatever words and phrases may be used in lyric poetry not intended for music, it is essential for songs that are to be sung with comfort to the singer and pleasure to the hearer, that the words must be vocal. When a singer's voice sounds harsh on a particular syllable or has some particular twist or mispronunciation, the fault is probably due to unvocal words. The singer is trying to overcome the difficulty caused by some ugly word.

is a perfect example of "vocal" words. With Liddle's music, which is in perfect communion with the words, every singer's voice sounds at its best.

My friends are most inquisitive about my love songs. Are they all personal? If so, I would have had a busy time and a varied experience. Some are, perhaps. But many of them have been written round the love story of a very dear friend of mine.

The person to whose skill and industry our knowledge is primarily due is William Chappell, F.S.A. Between 1828 and 1840 he collected and published in two quarto volumes the "National English Airs" with their history. It was the first work of its kind. He also projected and took an active part with the Percy Society in the publication of old ballads and lyric poetry, exemplifying the manners and customs of our forefathers. The Musical Antiquarian Society held its meetings at Chappell's shop in New Bond Street. The two Societies flourished for at least eleven years, and the collection of "National English Airs" was expanded into "The Popular Music of the Olden Times," published by Chappell & Co. It was a standing living protest against the statement of Burney that "the English people made no national music." By strange good fortune there was a copy of that wonderful work in my home, amd I studied it and humbly tried to imitate, at all events, the spirit of the old rustic folk songs.

Miss Kate Flinn (in her day a most charming and successful singer) sang for the first time a little song entitled "The Bee and the Song," of which I wrote both the words and the music, and which was avowedly an imitation of an old-world song. It was described in the programme as "an old English ballad"; the name of author and composer had been accidentally omitted. A musical critic in a leading paper wrote:

Amongst my private friends who criticised my work, there was one who constantly told me that he did not pretend to be musical but had plenty of common sense—and that common sense was the test he always applied to a song; and not a bad test either.

"I like that 'Nancy Lee' of yours," he used to say. "The words of the refrain are regular common sense. So practical, you know."

I was rather confused by his praise, and asked him: "How? In what way practical?"

"Well," he said, "think of your own words, 'The Sailor's wife the Sailor's star shall be.' That's quite right and practical."

Still I did not see his point.

"You are dull," he said. "Why, if she is his star, she'll be up aloft, and if she's up aloft she can always keep an eye on him! See?"

And I saw. And, upon my life, I think his remarks were more useful to me than the concert criticisms which I used to read, for at least it gave me one very good "tip" for the writing of songs and that is "get a point at the end of each verse, and the best point in the last."

It was about the time when I was in chambers with Dickens [the son of the author Charles Dickens] that I made friends with Edward Cutler, Q.C., of the Chancery Bar. He was drifting into music and had written several pretty songs and instrumental pieces. In collaboration with him and Eustace Smith, also on the Chancery side, I wrote a small book on "Musical and Dramatic Copyright," and Copinger, author of the monumental work on that subject, did us the honour, when issuing a new edition of his book, to "lift" a long and important paragraph on a new point from our little work—without any request or even acknowledgement. Our remonstrances he did not take in the proper spirit, so we sued him; but he apologised and paid our costs, so that the curious comedy of an author of a book on copyright being sued for breach of copyright was never performed in open court.

So here I was in the London of my hopes and dreams, busy at my Piano, and getting busy with my Gown, those two good "Friends of Mine," working at two occupations which have nothing in common except that both require a knowledge of life. I was fully aware of the verdict on those who try to carry on two trades. But I had done it successfully at Oxford—why not in the new life I had chosen? Moreover, the soundness of the verdict depends entirely on the nature of the two callings. If I had accepted a journalistic engagement or had taken to writing novels, work at the Bar would soon have become impossible. But the songs I wrote for music, the verses I wrote for newspapers, magazines and children's books, were written in spare moments in all sorts of places, in the train travelling to some distant court, in court waiting for a case to come one, just as I wrote them at Oxford when waiting for a truant pupil.

I was always taught that the opening line or lines of a song should give the picture, and then if people will talk while the song is being sung at all events they know what the song is about.

Longfellow's "Village Blacksmith" has the sort of opening that a song requires:

It is a fine type of song, I think; a homely, straightforward picture of an honest working man, who still revers his God and Church, loves the memory of his dead wife, and loves his child because she recalls her mother.

Charles Lamb Kenny's "Vagabond," set by Molloy, is another song beginning with a fine line:

a model of a song as songs were in my days, and a model which I think has not yet been surpassed.

Sir William Hardman (then the Editor of the Morning Post) was in the chair on the night when I first dined with the Sessions Bar. I not only had to make a short speech, but had to sing! I sang "The Wearing o' the Green," the only song I could remember without the music before me. Sir William sent me a little note: "Don't sing that rebel song at our next dinner or I shall leave the Chair." I only saw "art" in the song. He saw "politics."

In Bristol there was and still is a very keen Burns Society, which commemorates his birth each year by a banquet, with haggis, pipers, songs and speeches. ... I venture to reproduce what I said at a recent banquet, as not so out of place in a book about song writing.

"Song and story are indeed closely connected. A song, as it seems to me, is a short poem which either tells a simple story of expresses a simple idea. And it is difficult to find a song which is not at the same time a story. A song either suggests music or is suggested by music, and it is perfectly certain that it is upon the winds of music that songs best reach the heart. One of the features of the songs of Burns—seldom noticed by his most ardent worshippers—is that the majority of them were written to fit the old national melodies of Scotland, proving that he was not only a poet but a musician. I loved the songs of Burns when first my mother sang them; and because it was she who sang them, my earliest and perhaps my only ambition was that some day I, too, might write songs. Oxford, to my surprise and disappointment, told me that the songs of Burns were not classic, and were not even worthy to be called literature; and it was reserved for this great city of commerce (Bristol) to show me the meaning of the cult of Burns. It was a happy hour that brought me back to settle in my country of the West—to walk once more over the green hills of Somerset, to dream again of Arthur and of Avalon, to see again in fancy the earliest Christian Church planted by Joseph of Arimathea, to stand by the shores of the Bristol Channel and in dreams to watch the great sea venturer, john Cabot, as he sailed past the stormy hills of Wales; in dreams to hear again John Wesley's silver tongue, the stirring speeches of Burke, and the songs of the ill-starred poet, Chatterton. It was a fortunate hour that brought me to my first Burns dinner; to have my love for Burns formulated and stimulated by the eloquent words of Dr. Young, and in the fellowship of song and story to form that friendship with him which I value so highly. To-night as we all stood in silence and drank to the immortal memory of Burns—how plainly I saw him—brooding as he sometimes brooded among the melancholy woods, dreaming as he often dreamed while he drove his plough across the upland, hearing new music in the old melodies of his native land, melodies made ages before he was born, melodies to which the words he wrote gave a new and eternal meaning. And as I thought of Burns I thought of another singer like him in so many respects—David, the shepherd, the king, and the singer, whose life was shadowed in many ways like that of Burns. Once again my heart went back far away and long ago—a thousand years before Christ was born, and I listened as that shepherd sang, now upon the desert plains of Judah, now beneath the cedars of Lebanon, and now beside the waters that rocked the merchant ships of Tyre—those songs that have been the inspiration and consolation of the world. At all times and to all people they are appropriate:

God—no mere abstraction, no vision of a dreamer, but God the great Architect of the universe and Father of man.

"It needs no flight of imagination to pass further East, and listen to the ancient song of India—sung generations before Christ, the song that tells how the king's son left his place beside his father's throne and passed into the wilderness to find the light, and by that light to save his people.

[Weatherly had been the tutor of Prince Swasti Sobhon of Siam at Oxford, and published a defence of Buddhism in the Times in response to an ignorant travel book reviewed there.]

"And I think of Homer,

building up those mighty epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, out of the old ballad poetry and legends of ancient Greece. I see 'the isles of Greece where burning Sappho loved and sang.' I see Theocritus among the olive woods. And as the years pass, I think of Horace making his Odes and Satires upon his Sabine farm; and of Virgil at Mantua, the Roman poet reviving the old romances of Greece. And so the vast procession of poets seems to pass—some of them hand in hand with the ladies who inspired their songs, Dante with Beatrice, Petrach with Laura. To this glorious heritage of song and story we of these little islands of ours have succeeded. And to this wondrous galaxy what have we not contributed? There is no need to mention the names of the poets when we remember their songs so well: "Why is it that songs appeal? Is there not a story in each? A melody which remains—deep down in our hearts? We may listen to the noblest sermons. We may study the deepest philosophy. We may be elevated by the loftiest speeches. We may read the brightest pages of history. And yet none appeal to use with quite the same appeal as song and story. Is it not perhaps that all the rest appeal to the intellect and need mental powers which only the few possess? But song and story appeal to the heart. From the heart they come and to the heart they go. They express the joys and sorrows of the poet himself; and just because he is a poet they express the joys and sorrows of the world. Think to-night of the millions who are singing songs—not merely on this festival night of the greatest song writer of the world. To-night and every night, when the songs of the birds are silent and the steps of the passers are hushed in the street; in all places, high and lowly—in circumstances commonplace and in the most tragic moments, songs are being sung. Those who went from that Upper Chamber to the greatest tragedy of the world sang a hymn before they went; Paul and Silas sang hymns in prison; when the great ship settles down to her doom, when the last moment in the beleagured fort has come, when the entombed miner knows there is no escape; it is not argument, it is not philosophy, it is not dogmas that strengthen and console them; it is the songs and psalms and hymns they learnt from the dearest lips of all. It is these that come back to them in their last moments."

In 1917 I wrote "Our Little Home" (Eric Coates), and I think if I were asked to choose my favourite song I should select that, both for its music and its words.

Compared to my early days, fewer songs are produced now. Owing to broadcasting, concerts are gradually decreasing in number. Gramophones and broadcasting have also their effects on home-singing, and were it not for the increase of gramophone records, composers and authors and singers would have a bad time in store.

I hear from my composer friends that the "Mechanic's Millenium" is only a phase, and that they will soon get busy again with musical settings. I hope so, for though I have written some thousands of songs of which at least one thousand five hundred have been published, I don't feel played out and think that some at least of many recent songs as yet unset are as good (or as bad) as any of my old ones.

In 1923 I took a new lease of life. I married again—to my unspeakable happiness.

For many years prior to my marriage I had been passing through times that I hope fall to the lot of few men, times of sorrow and anxiety, of mistaken steps, of financial loss. Maybrick, Molly and Roeckel, my three best and dearest musical friends, passed away. I lost many friends at the Bar, amongst them my dearest barrister friend, Beverly Vachell.

I did not, however, carry my heart upon my sleeve, and those who met me in the Law Courts, in Chambers, in the train and in the street, those who read and heard the songs which I was still writing, only saw me gay and active, and knew nothing of what I was sufferring, or if they did, gave me that kindest sympathy of all, the deepest fellowship which says nothing but feels the more.

In 1910 two special blows had fallen upon me. My father and only son died within three months of each other, the former at the age of ninety, deserving well his name of "The Grand Old Man of Somerset," engaged upon his public work till within three weeks of his death; and my boy, an actor, who had just after long struggles got into smooth water. Then came the war. To me it came almost as a distraction from continued anxieties, for it brought in addition to my ordinary legal work the novelty and excitement of Courts Martial. It did not crush but seemed to stimulate my power of song writing, and in that war time I wrote some of my best and gayest songs.

We have been looking, my wife and I, over songs old and new to find an Envoi, and we think that the song that best describes our happiness is the following:

Fred Weatherly portrait

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Poem by Fred Weatherly

Fred Weatherly

In a book called Irish Traditional Fiddle Music by Jack Perron and Randy Miller (Fiddlecase Books, 1980), I discovered the following poem:

In 1893 I was very busy with my pen, but my legal work in London was insignificant compared with the Briefs that called me to the West of England, and at the end of that year I settled at Clifton and joined the Local Bar of which Bristol was the headquarters. Poole and Norris, the local leaders, had taken silk, Poole having gone to London, Norris having taken an Indian judgeship, and Goodeve had practically retired. He was the author on two leading text-books on Real and Personal Property, but more interesting to me as the husband of Mrs. Goodeve, who wrote some very charming and characteristic music to some words of mine called "Fiddle and I."

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Jimmy McCurry

I'm very grateful to John Cowan of the Environment and Heritage Service, Northern Ireland, for sending me a number of publications relating to Danny Boy and other musical traditions in the Limavady area. Unfortunately due to other commitments it has taken some time for me to add this material to my website. I have never actually visited this part of Ireland, but I hope to do so in the future. It seems to have had quite an intriguing history. I was interested to find out that Limavady means "dog's leap" (léim an mhadaidh), a term based on an event in the history of the O'Cahan clan who were prominent in the area.

Jimmy the Fiddler re-enactment, photo by Jochen Lueg Of particular interest is The Blind Fiddler from Myroe by Jim Hunter (University of Ulster, 1997). This publication is produced in association with The Danny Boy Trading Co. Ltd., 8 Balloo Drive, Bangor, Co. Down. I have no idea what type of goods are traded by this company, and I suggest that you get in touch with them directly if you want to know. Their website says only "The DannyBoy Trading Company will resume online trading in the very near future" at the time of this writing.

As an update, Jim Hunter has now created his own page, The Origin of Danny Boy, which contains much additional information.

This book details the history of Jimmy McCurry (1830-1910), a well-known blind musician and composer of songs. Like many of these Irish local history publications, the book is chock full of interesting anecdotes, but only a few relate to the Londonderry Air.

"The Limavady market was a favourite destination for Jimmy," recounted John Fleming. "All the farmers used to bring their horses and carts into the Main Street. After they had unyoked their horses they left their carts with shafts on the ground all lined up along the street. Jimmy took up position between the shafts with his fiddle at his favourite spot outside Burns and Lairds Shipping Line Office." Interestingly, this office was just opposite the home of Jane Ross, who annotated the music of the 'Londonderry Air' from an itinerant fiddler in 1851.

Here's a photo of Jane Ross's house, by Jochen Lueg.
The blue plaque reads:  
1810 - 1879
who recorded the
folk tune
Jane Ross House, photo by Jochen Lueg

There is strong oral evidence to suggest that Jimmy was the 'itinerant fiddler'. Wallace McCurry tells a story related to him by his grandfather, a contemporary of the blind fiddler. "One day Jane heard Jimmy playing a beautiful melody outside the Shipping Line Office which she had never heard before. She came across and asked him to play it again to enable her to note down the tune. Jane thanked him and gave him a coin for his moving rendition of the tune. When she departed he rubbed it against his lips, as was his custom, and discovered it was a florin and not the customary penny. He set off in pursuit and when he caught up with her he told her that she had made a mistake. Jane refused to take it back and asked him to keep it as a token of her appreciation for his music."

Jane was a friend of Dr. George Petrie, a Dubliner who had dedicated his life to the study and collection of ancient 'airs' or folk tunes of Ireland. It was to Petrie that Jane gave the air she had collected from the blind fiddler.

In 1855 Petrie published the unknown Irish lament in his famous collection 'The Ancient Music of Ireland.' In honour of Jane Ross and her native county, Petrie included the unknown melody under the title 'The Londonderry Air' ... a fitting tribute to an air which had its roots in that part of the country.

It was not until 1912 that suitable lyrics were provided for the tune by Fred Weatherly, an English barrister who wrote songs in his spare time. Fred's lyrics 'Danny Boy' had an immediate appeal and went straight to the hearts of Irish people world wide.

Jimmy may have also produced lyrics for the melody. "I have discovered no less than six different sets of lyrics to accompany the Londonderry Air," said Margaret Cowan, the Ranger at the Roe Valley Country Park. "It is just possible that one of these is the work of the blind fiddler from Myroe."

Limavady today, photo by Jochen Lueg There are several interesting points here. One is that if you work out the dates, Jimmy must have been in his early twenties at the time of the encounter described above. Another is that although Jimmy was a well-known local character, who regularly played across the street from Jane Ross's house, she does not appear to have ever known his name. When in later years she was challenged about the origin of the Londonderry Air, she never brought forth the name of Blind Jimmy McCurry, although he was still alive and, presumably, fiddling across the street from her house every market day.

This may seem hard to swallow, but taking into consideration the outlook of the British upper classes in the 19th century, it could conceivably be true. Miss Ross may have thought it beneath her dignity to send her maid across the street to ask the name of the fiddler who was always playing there. She may not have even entertained the concept that common folk had names, or that street fiddlers were not interchangable. Malachy McCourt agrees with me on this question.

I'm not sure that we can ever settle the question of whether Jimmy McCurry gave the Londonderry Air to Jane Ross. However, he is interesting in his own right. One reason for this is that Jimmy was a Presbyterian by birth. (According to Hunter's book, though, he was not the kind of Presbyterian who finds strong drink unholy.) At a later point in his life he seems to have attended the Church of Ireland because it was closer to his home. This illustrates one of the great modern myths of the traditional music establishment, which is that Irish traditional music is the province only of the Catholic Irish. In the Internet world of Irish music, people have been banned from list discussions for denying this myth. I would be hesitant to bring up the name of Jimmy McCurry in such online forums for fear of being accused of advocating the murder of children. (To some people this may seem ridiculous, but I speak from experience.) I'm afraid that dispassionate discussion of this part of the history of Irish music must be postponed until the Irish manage to settle their very complicated political disputes, which we all hope will come sooner rather than later.

Another publication of Jim Hunter which I received was Rory Dall O'Cahan: Chieftain and Harper. Rory Dall was indeed a famous harper, apparently from the Limavady area, who is known for his composition Tabhair Dom do Lámh (Give Me Your Hand). However, I find Hunter's claim that Rory Dall also composed the Londonderry Air to be devoid of evidence.

Some other additional points: I received an e-mail, which unfortunately I seem to have misplaced, from a person who claimed that according to family tradition his ancestor had composed the Londonderry Air. From the context, this person seemed to be an Irish Catholic. The ancestor in question was a Catholic from the Limavady area. The story seems to have been somewhat mixed up with that of Blind Jimmy. Unfortunately, I did not get any response to my further enquiries.

One last point about Jane Ross is that I have been informed by another e-mail communication that she also composed music. Her known output seems to have consisted of a small number of pieces in honour of the local militia. I have not seen or heard any of these pieces.

In light of the previous discussion, I will suggest a scenario for which there is no actual evidence, but does not contradict the known facts:

I submit the preceding argument as a possibility without claiming that it has any supporting evidence. I would be interested to hear any opinions, pro or con.

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Are there Gaelic words to Danny Boy?

I have been asked by several people if there are Irish or Scottish Gaelic words to Danny Boy. In the sense of there being a translation of Weatherly's English lyrics into Gaelic, there are not, as far as I know. One of the people who contacted me claimed to be working on a translation, but I never heard any more about it.

There are, however, Irish words set to the tune Air from County Derry. These were composed by Osborn Ó hAimheirgin, who I'm told was an Irish language enthusiast who taught at Trinity College and wrote these lyrics in the 1890s.

Source: Abair Amhrán, Comhaltas Uladh, Béil Feirste, 1969

The title means "A Morning in Bere"; Bere is an island in the southwest of Ireland. I may get around to doing a translation sometime. Meanwhile I will just say it describes the beauties of the place.

Please don't ask me to provide a phonetic version. Irish is pronounced pretty much as it is spelled (as it is spelled in Irish, of course—not according to the spelling system of English, or Spanish, French or any other unrelated language.) I have already done a page describing how to pronounce Irish. From the information given on that page you can easily make your own phonetic version should you want one.

You can get some amusing translations of Danny Boy into other languages by using the translation button at the top of the page before linking to the lyrics site. None of these are likely to be singable, or even make sense. Samples:

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A message from Julian Lloyd

Maybe you saw that show that was on PBS some time ago, Danny Boy: In Sunshine or in Shadow, that featured such clips as Eric Clapton discussing De Dannan's version of the song. (Now I'm waiting to hear Martin Hayes giving his opinions about B. B. King and Son House!) Unfortunately, the format and marketing requirements of television required the omission of most of the interesting stuff (as usual).

Just after St. Patrick's Day, 1999, I received a message from Julian Lloyd, the producer of Danny Boy: In Sunshine or in Shadow. My favourite version of the song was done by pianist Bill Evans (not in the least Irish, though), and I was pleased to find out that he agreed with my opinion.

For a mere US$19.98, you can buy your own copy of the video of Danny Boy: In Sunshine or in Shadow. Unfortunately I can't link directly to the right page any more. At least I haven't figured out a way to get it to work. You'll have to do a search on the site to find the video. This is the way websites get "improved".

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Diocese says "Danny Boy" isn't appropriate at Mass

Oct. 24, 2001 | PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (AP)

The ballad Danny Boy has long been played at funerals, wakes and memorial services, its mournful strains conjuring up images of Ireland's green pastures and wind-swept hills. New York Fire Chief Peter Ganci, killed in the World Trade Center attack, actor Carroll O'Connor and John F. Kennedy Jr. all were laid to rest with the plaintive melody.

So when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence banned Danny Boy and other secular songs from funeral Masses, it raised the ire of Irish-Americans. "I want Danny Boy sung at my funeral Mass and, if it isn't, I'm going to get up and walk out," retired Pawtucket police officer Charlie McKenna wrote in April to The Providence Visitor.

The weekly diocesan newspaper got dozens of letters, some from as far away as California, urging Bishop Robert E. Mulvee to reverse his decision -- at least when it came to Danny Boy. So far, he hasn't.

"The controversy took on a life of its own," said the Rev. Bernard A. Healey, theological consultant to the Visitor. "I don't blame people, but really it's a lack of understanding of what a funeral Mass is supposed to be. It's about their connection with Jesus Christ and the church, not their connection with the Emerald Isle."

Other bishops have left the question of funeral music up to parish priests.

The Archdiocese of New York, which has buried scores of police officers and firefighters since Sept. 11, often playing Danny Boy at the service, usually discourages the use of secular music during Mass. "All music played at church services should be liturgically appropriate music," said Joe Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "But we don't have a policy about any one song, or a list of songs that can't be used."

Besides lacking the appropriate piety, the song itself can counter what funeral services are supposed to accomplish, Healey said. "Part of what I do at a funeral Mass is try to lift people's spirits," he said. "But the song is emotionally manipulative. Everything I've spent the last hour working toward is gone within two minutes because everyone is reduced to tears."

Despite its popularity among Irish-Americans, the song's lyrics were actually penned by an Englishman, Frederick Edward Weatherly, in 1913, and set to the tune of the 17th century Irish folk song, Londonderry Aire. Danny Boy tells the tale of an Irish lad called to military duty by the sound of distant bagpipes, and a loved one who promises to wait for him. '"Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow / Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so," go the wistful lyrics.

The tune has long been cherished by police officers and firefighters, who identify with its message, McKenna said. "Danny's answering a call, and it's uncertain whether he's going to return or not," he said. "If you think about it, a policeman and a fireman, they do the same thing. What happened in New York is a perfect example." Also, fire and police departments have historically been dominated by Irishmen, another reason why Danny Boy is often blown on the bagpipes during ceremonies for fallen officers.

Tom Deignan, a columnist for the New York-based Irish Voice newspaper, wrote about the controversy in July and was inundated with letters from across the country. Some readers circulated a pro-Danny Boy petition that they intend to present to Mulvee.

"Ninety-nine percent were saying it was ridiculous," Deignan said. "Just to judge from the reaction we got, it's clear that song means a lot to a lot of people."

The song has been played at many funerals connected to the World Trade Center attacks, he said, often by the New York Police Department's Emerald Society bagpipers.

"The Irish community was hit particularly hard by the tragedy," Deignan said.

Back in Providence, Mulvee's decision may be unpopular, but he's on solid ground from the church's perspective. Church documents plainly advise that popular ballads be excluded from Mass, said David Early, a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"These kinds of songs should clearly be avoided," Early said. "But it's not a matter of church doctrine. It's a pastoral decision left to the interpretation of the local bishop."

No other American church leader appears to have taken as strong a stand on the issue as Mulvee.

"If you allow Danny Boy, then you open all kinds of other questions about what should and shouldn't be allowed," said Healey, who personally has rejected requests to have Frank Sinatra's My Way, John Denver's Annie's Song, and Bette Midler's Wind Beneath My Wings, played at funerals.

The diocese formed a committee to look at the infiltration of secular music, Healey said, and the group intends to send a letter by the end of the year to parishes detailing what is acceptable during Mass.

One alternative has been to play the song for other parts of the funeral rites, such as at the wake or during a procession. Some church music directors are using a version of the song with lyrics from the hymn In Paradisum with the music from Danny Boy.

But even Healey admits that priests can only be so insistent with a family mourning the death of their beloved. "I'm not going to fight with the family over Danny Boy," he said. "And with the tragedy the scope of what happened in New York, I can't fault any priest who's allowed it to be played in their church."

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Limavady parade, photo by Jochen Lueg

The news from Limavady

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The true meaning of Danny Boy

Fred Weatherly I've received a lot of e-mails about Danny Boy from people who want to know the "true meaning" underlying Fred Weatherly's lyrics. I should point out that Fred Weatherly was a highly successful professional song writer. In his day, song writers made most of their money from sales of sheet music to amateur vocalists. To maximise sales, the lyrics specify neither the gender of the singer nor the relationship to Danny, thereby maximising the size of the potential sheet music-buying public. In fact, the same lack of specificity can be found in many of Fred Weatherly's songs. It was thinking of things like this that helped him to become extremely wealthy.

I have some updated information on this topic. Karen Hutchinson writes from Australia:

And I have a further communication on the subject from Nigel Parsons:

This certainly is an objection to several of the theories listed below. Perhaps a new theory or two could be developed from this information. I've heard the 'Eily Dear' version before, but I didn't realize it went back to 1918.

The addendum is not found in the 1913 sheet music of Danny Boy (American edition). Possibly male singers in those days may have been embarrassed by singing a song addressed to a man, so the suggestion was added at a later printing.

Despite all this, a number of stories have arisen concerning the Danny Boy lyrics. Even though on the previous page I have stated that I have no interest in collecting these stories, some perverse impulse has led me to enumerate those that I have heard. Perhaps Edgar Allan Poe can explain ...

Before we start, note what Fred Weatherly himself said. The complete text may be found above. "It will be seen that there is nothing of the rebel song in it, and no note of bloodshed." He says it is not a rebel song, although he has written other songs that are rebel songs.

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The missing third verse

There has been some discussion about a third verse in which the "real meaning" of the song is explained. Unfortunately, though, Fred Weatherly never wrote such a verse. This has not stopped other people from filling the gap. You can get more discussion on this by searching for "Danny Boy" on the Mudcat Cafe forum. Also, several people on the forum contributed their own verses addressing various topics.

There do seem to be a couple of "third verses" floating about, one of which may have been recorded by Dennis Day. I reproduce two versions here, both of which follow the IRA school of thought. The authors seem to be unknown.

The talk about pikes seems to be a reference to the rebellion of 1798. Unfortunately, "pike" can also be a verb, bringing in the unfortunate concept of "piking my dearest". Even without this distraction, the image of Danny's old grey-haired mother in her shawl tottering off with a big pike to turn the Redcoats into shishkebab is fairly ludicrous. And the author seems to have had difficulty finding a rhyme for "Ireland". I'm informed that this verse was sung by Sinead O'Connor.

Here's another version:

The syntax is a bit confused here. Could an audience really make sense of the second half? Also, it's a bit of a struggle to get these words to fit the tune.

It makes one appreciate the craftmanship of a good professional songwriter like Fred Weatherly, doesn't it?

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Where can I get the sheet music for Danny Boy?

If the answer "your local music store" just won't do, never fear! The Internet comes to the aid of penny-pinchers everywhere with the following sites:

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Danny Boy—national anthem of Northern Ireland?

Chris Phillips sent me the following information:

And along the same lines we have:

Jim Hunter's The Origin of Danny Boy describes the view of Fred Weatherly:

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Danny Boy—a Unionist rallying song?

With Danny Boy being such a favourite with Irish-Americans, it would seem strange to claim it as a Unionist song. But that's just what the very bizarre site The Truth About The Great And Most Recorded Ulster Song In Histroy proposes. (Yes, "histroy". They can't spell either.)

Here's the argument. Blind Jimmy McCurry was a Protestant (although he seems to have wavered between Presbyterianism and the Church of Ireland). Jane Ross was a Protestant (denomination unknown to me). So was Fred Weatherly (I suppose). So there you have it—Danny Boy is an all-Protestant production.

The worst thing about this site is that most of it was stolen from me, taken out of context, then spiced up with interpolations that I didn't say.

Jenny, Ulster loyalist babe This is far from the only strange page on the site, however. Take as an example the photo reproduced to the left. Someone sent me the original picture of Jennifer Lopez, but unfortunately the e-mail seems to have been deleted, so I can neither credit the person or show the picture. Maybe that person will resend the information. Since Jennifer Lopez is of Puerto Rican descent, I doubt that she has strong Ulster Unionist sentiments. This means that someone has been busy with Photoshop. And it's so artistic! Look at the composition. The hand on the flag points up, the hand on the girl points down. It's much better quality than the rest of the graphics on this site, which had me confused for a while.

Of course the page misses the whole point I was trying to make, which is that the Irish traditional music is a tradition that is shared between the Irish Catholic and Protestant cultures. I pointed out that many Irish Catholics don't like to admit this, and this page demonstrates that Irish Protestants don't like to admit it either. But it's still true.

Here's an explanation of what really happened. Of course this will be well known to most Irish people, but I include it for the benefit of others who may not be familiar with the story.

Ulster was the most rebellious province in Ireland. So the British government decided to encourage Scottish Protestants to settle there by letting them keep any land they could steal from the native Irish. Over time they got most of the good farm land and the Irish were pushed off into the more barren areas.

At this time Catholics didn't have any civil rights; in fact there were very severe laws against Catholics. What many people don't realize is that Protestants were also deprived of many rights if they did not belong to the established church (the Church of Ireland). The Ulster Scots were Presbyterians or similar denominations, and so fell into this category. Among other things they had to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland even though they were not members of the church. They were not as badly off as the Catholics, but still were definitely second class citizens. Because of this, many of them emigrated to America.

The British government was very consistent in its policy toward colonies. The colonies were to produce raw materials which were shipped to England to be transformed into manufactured goods, which were then shipped back for sale in the colonies. So the colonies lost out twice, by getting paid low prices for their exports, and then having to pay high prices for imports. This policy was in effect for both Ireland and the American colonies.

It was this policy that was the real cause of the American Revolution, and many Ulster Scots were involved in it. (In the US they are called "Scots-Irish".) Shortly afterward came the French Revolution. So in the late 1700s there were many people in Ireland pondering this issue. This led to the rising of 1798, in which much of the leadership were Protestants. (Wolfe Tone was a friend of Edward Bunting.) The Irish Parliament was abolished and Ireland was governed from London. This policy was disadvantageous to both the Protestant and Catholics in Ireland, so both were in favour of "home rule". In the words of Karl Marx:

In the later part of the 19th century the British government came up with a solution to this problem. This was the same "divide and conquer" technique that they used in India to set the Hindus against the Muslims, which has its legacy in the continuing difficulties between India and Pakistan today.

In Ireland the Protestant-dominated north was allowed to industrialize, using the Catholic population for cheap labour. This was accompanied by a propaganda campaign to convince the Protestants that their prosperity depended on continued British rule. There was a big growth in organizations like the Orange Lodge (their bowler hats date from this period). That leads to the situation that exists in Northern Ireland today.

But enough of the history lesson. What has this to do with Danny Boy? The answer is, not much at all. Most of the events in the story took place before the current situation was established. Characters like Bunting and Petrie were Protestant Irish Nationalists, a breed that is rare nowadays, when "Nationalist" is basically a synonym for "Catholic". But it was not always so. Of course many of the Gaelic speaking Scots are Protestants, which should dispell the myth that Gaelic culture is exclusively a Catholic affair.

Of course Denis Hempson was a Catholic, and so was Rory Dall O'Cahan (if he had anything to do with it). But if anything would raise doubts about the all-Protestant Danny Boy, it would be the line about kneeling and saying an Ave. Unless Presbyterianism has undergone some changes recently that I didn't hear about.

But the website has an explanation for that too! It claims that St. Patrick was a Presbyterian. I always thought that Protestantism started with Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door, so I'm glad to be corrected. I guess that would mean that the Pope who sent St. Patrick to Ireland was a Presbyterian as well. So if the Pope is a Presbyterian, my only question is, what are they all fighting about?

The site also features background music in the form of Elvis singing Danny Boy. It gets really annoying to hear it over and over again. If your head starts throbbing you can switch to the instrumental version by Eric Clapton. (Actually when I access the site from work I get Elvis, but from home I get Clapton. I'm not quite sure why.) It reminds me of the scene in the film The Commitments where the hero's working class Dublin dad has twin portraits of Elvis and the Pope up on the wall. To give credit where credit is due, they do include both verses.

This means that this must probably be the only Unionist web page in existence where you can hear a song about kneeling and saying an Ave.

I'm not sure how many other sites feature sultry leather-clad women posing in front of Red Hand flags, but there can't be that many, can there?

If you really want to keep up with events in Northern Ireland, I suggest the Portadown News, but only if you're not easily offended.

Enough of this. This response is really more than this stupid page deserves. I'm just annoyed because they're using my name. But it did give me a chance to quote Karl Marx. I'm sure this is a first for any Danny Boy page.

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I don't make any money off this site. We don't even take advertising. I'm in favour of information being disseminated, and I don't expect to get paid for my research, but I wouldn't mind getting some credit now and then. So I get a bit annoyed when people take my work without citing the source. Like these:

Just a link would be nice, folks.

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Links to other sites

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