Tiny harp

Danny Boy—the mystery solved!

by Michael Robinson

Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling. Anyone who plays Irish music must be ready to field countless requests for this song, particularly around St. Patrick's Day. There is no doubt about its popularity with those who know little about traditional Irish music, and even with the older generation of Irish-Americans. But newly arrived immigrants from Ireland have frequently never heard of Danny Boy! Where did the song come from? Is it Irish at all? Those who subscribe to the Internet Irish music list IRTRAD-L may have seen a discussion of these points by folk music experts John Moulden and Philippe Varlet. Interestingly, the answer can be found in the collection of traditional Irish harp music made by Edward Bunting a little more than 200 years ago!

I would also like to extend my thanks to Jochen Lueg of Limavady, Northern Ireland, a place that will play a large role in my story. He puts out a very lively newsletter of local happenings, The Roe Valley News Browser, and he is also a good photographer. He has generously allowed me to reproduce some of his photos on this site.

Fred Weatherly portrait To begin with, Danny Boy is one of over 100 songs composed to the same tune. The author was an English lawyer, 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 (or possibly something else, as discussed in Section 3), 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. If you would like to see Fred Weatherly's lyrics, look at this site. (If you have any questions on this topic, please read all three sections of this article to see if the answer is there before contacting me.)

The publisher Boosey accepted the song, and then it came to light that an old friend of Weatherley's, Alfred Perceval Graves, author of "Trottin' to the Fair"…, had already written two lyrics to the melody. Graves took strong except to having the folk-tune 'poached', and it seems that the friendship with Weatherly came to an abrupt end.

Michael R. Turner and Antony Miall
The Edwardian Song-Book: Drawing-Room Ballads 1900-1914
Methuen, London, 1982
p. 113

The most prolific poet of the Edwardian—and for that matter Victorian and Georgian—ballad, the genial and indefatiguable Fred E. (Frederick Edward) Weatherly (1848-1929) was virtually a one-man song factory. Seven of his lyrics appear in this book, but he wrote thousands, of which at least fifteen hundred were published, with music by dozens of composers who vied to get their hands on his verses. …The law was as much a love as poetry, and he studied and was called to the Bar at the age of thirty-nine, thereafter enjoying a comfortable career on the Western Circuit, often appearing in criminal cases, almost invariably for the defence. According to his own account, in court he was remarkably keen-witted and effective. Songs poured from him, he translated opera (including Cav. and Pag.) and he published quantities of verse and children's books. He revelled in his considerable celebrity. A little man physically, he had, as a friend put it, 'a blithe and tender soul'. He may have been self-satisfied but he was much loved and was certainly no fool, cheerfully dismissing his facility as a lyricist as no safe ticket to Parnassus. 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.

Michael R. Turner and Antony Miall
The Edwardian Song-Book: Drawing-Room Ballads 1900-1914
Methuen, London, 1982
pp. 113-114

(The other Weatherly songs found in the above book are Up from Somerset, Nirvana, Roses, Thora, Stonecracker John, Beyond the Dawn, Friend o' Mine.)

The Danny Boy lyrics proved particularly popular in the United States, where they were recorded by a number of popular singers including Bing Crosby. (Note: These lyrics, plus some parody versions, can be found on the Digital Tradition website.)

Another name for this tune is the Londonderry Air. This title has a certain political bias, since the name "Londonderry" is used to emphasize the ties between Northern Ireland and Britain (referring to the colonization of the area by English settlers in the early 17th century). Irish nationalists usually prefer to use "Derry", the original name of the Northern city and county. It appears that the title Air from County Derry was also used. I take this subject up further in section 3 of this article where the connection to Percy Grainger is discussed.

Jane Ross re-enactment, photo by Jochen Lueg The first appearance of the tune in print occurred in 1855, in Ancient Music of Ireland, published by the early collector George Petrie (1789-1866). The untitled melody, was supplied to Petrie by Miss Jane Ross of Limavady, County Londonderry, who claimed to have taken it down from the playing of an itinerant piper. This is the origin of the Londonderry Air name. Petrie states:

A great collector of the 1930s, Sam Henry, speculated that Miss Ross had collected the tune from a fiddler, Blind Jimmy McCurry, who was known to have been active in Limavady at the time. Jimmy's descendants have embraced this theory enthusiastically, as seen on the PBS show Danny Boy: In Sunshine or in Shadow. However, I'm going to postpone that discussion to section 3 of this article.

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

As the tune grew in popularity, and at the same time traditional Irish music came to be more thoroughly researched, considerable doubt emerged about Miss Ross's story. No additional versions of the melody were encountered by other collectors. The structure of the tune is unlike any other traditional Irish tune, and it is not suited for words in any of the known Irish song meters. Miss Ross was unable to provide any supporting evidence (the name of the piper, for example), and the suspicion grew that she had composed it herself and was attempting to pass it off as a genuine Irish tune (although by doing so she would be missing out on considerable royalty payments!). She continued to maintain the truth of her original account.

I have encountered one claim for an earlier appearance of the tune. The history of the tin whistle found on the website of the Clarke Company claims that the founder of the company, Robert Clarke, frequently played the tune while walking from Suffolk to Manchester in 1843. If true, this would be before Petrie's publication date of 1855. Perhaps somebody at the company can clarify this.

My friend Jerome Colburn points out that the tune appears (twice) in the collection of Francis O'Neill, made among the Irish-American community in Chicago around the end of the 19th century:

Drimoleague is in the south of County Cork, very close to where O'Neill grew up, and about as far away from Derry as one could get and still be on dry land. Since no other use of the Drimoleague Fair name is known, and O'Neill is known to have use printed sources including Petrie, it's highly likely that Petrie is the source and O'Neill gave it the name. (He often gave his own titles to untitled tunes.)

The next piece of the puzzle appeared in 1934, when Anne Geddes Gilchrist published an article entitled "A New Light Upon the Londonderry Air" in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. She theorized that the tune was taken from a performance in which the performer was using extreme rubato, and this "so disguised the natural rhythm that the tune was wrongly noted down in common instead of triple time". If the prolonged notes occurring on the first beat of the bar are shortened "the tune falls at once and easily into a rhythm which instead of being unique in Irish folk-music is paralleled in scores of other Irish folk-tunes".

Finally, in 1979, an article "New Dates for Old Songs 1766-1803", by Hugh Shields, appeared in Long Room (the journal of the library of Trinity College Dublin). Shields identified a tune in Edward Bunting's 1796 publication A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music, entitled Aislean an Oigfear (in modern Irish Aisling an Ógfhir, "the young man's dream"), as being very close to the Gilchrist version of the Londonderry Air, except in the fourth phrase which "makes the Londonderry Air almost unsingable in traditional style while endearing it to virtuosos eager for effects of vocal expression". (This phrase does not, however, exceed the range of the pipes, so there is nothing to show it was not present in the original performance.)

Edward BuntingEdward Bunting (1773-1843) was the pioneer collector of harp music whose career began in 1792 when he was hired to write down the tunes performed at the Belfast Harp Festival. It is to him (and to people working for him, particularly one Patrick Lynch) that we owe the preservation of much of the traditional Irish harp repertoire. Bunting noted Aislean an Oigfear from Denis Hempson (1697-1807), the very last traditional performer on the Irish wire-strung harp (who luckily lived to the age of 110, allowing Bunting to collect many of his tunes before his death), in Magilligan, County Derry—very near to Miss Jane Ross's home in Limavady.

In his 1840 work, A Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, Bunting discusses the characteristics of typical Irish melodies, stating "The Young Man's Dream, and the air of The Green Woods of Truigha, might be suggested as answering more nearly to the Editor's conception of such a standard than any others with which he is acquainted".

So after more than a century, Miss Ross has been vindicated, although her skill as a transcriber is perhaps called into question. (Of course, we cannot be sure that the anonymous piper's performance was of the best standard, either.)

Young Man's Dream Score

Animated Victrola I've now added a MIDI version of Bunting's arrangement, for people who would like to hear the original tune. This includes the bass line published by Bunting, which is not shown in the musical score above, except implicitly by chord names. It is not known whether the bass line was actually played by Hempson, but most authorities think that it was composed by Bunting. Only the melody lines in the Bunting collection were as originally played (we think), although in some cases Bunting has put them into different keys.

Denis HempsonI am not aware of any traditional Irish words to Aislean an Oigfear having been preserved. [Note: more recently I have in fact found the Irish lyrics, given in section 2.] Interestingly enough, though, there does exist a set of English words to the tune, composed by Thomas Moore (1779-1852), who found his way to fame and fortune by writing his own words to the traditional tunes collected by Bunting, such as The Harp that Once Through Tara's Halls and The Last Rose of Summer. (Bunting did not receive any royalties from this effort, and had financial difficulties throughout his collecting career.)

In my 1859 edition of Moore's Irish Melodies the following set of words appear in four-part vocal harmony, set to the tune of The Young Man's Dream:

As a Beam O'er the Face of the Waters

As a beam o'er the face of the waters may glow,
While the tide runs in darkness and coldness below,
So the cheek may be ting'd with a warm sunny smile
Though the cold heart to ruin runs darkly the while.

One fatal Remembrance, one sorrow that throws
Its bleak shade alike o'er our joys and our woes,
To which life nothing darker or brighter can bring,
For which Joy has no balm, and Affliction no sting:—

Oh! this thought in the midst of enjoyment will stay,
Like a dead leafless branch in the summer's bright ray;
The beams of the warm Sun play round it in vain—
It may smile in his light, but it blooms not again!

Based on an article published in the Folk Harp Journal. Some additional material has been added to the version originally published.

Since the above article was written, I have discovered much more information about The Young Man's Dream. In fact, its history can be traced back about a century earlier than what has been mentioned so far. I have also located the original words, which are in the Irish language, as well as another "original" set of words in English.

Continue on to Section Two of this article, Danny Boy—The Mystery Returns! , or, The Young Man's Dream.

Skip ahead to Section Three of this article, The Danny Boy Trivia Collection. All the arcane, useless, or questionable information people have sent me is all collected together in one place.

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