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The Story Behind the Irish Folk Songs "Danny Boy" and "Londonderry Air"

"Danny Boy" and "Londonderry Air": Centuries of Musical Continuation

Danny Boy is a legendary musical piece written in 1910 by English lawyer Frederic Weatherly. The style is in ballad form, and although its author had never been to Ireland, the song has become an unofficial national anthem of the British island. Frederic was quite prolific as a songwriter before he started practicing law and had published about 1500 songs in his lifetime. The inspiration for Danny Boy came from the tune of Londonderry Air, which was provided to him in 1913, by his sister-in-law, Margaret Weatherly who was born in Ireland.

Little house on meadow in England

Frederic had initially penned down the lyrics to a different tune in 1910. But when Margaret, back from one of her trips, introduced him to Londonderry Air, the author made modifications to the lyrics so that it would fit the new tune. This was then provided to Elsie Griffin, an opera singer, who then went on to spread it among a larger mass. 

Frederic’s lyrics in sync with the Londonderry Air tune were first recorded by Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1915. This debut version of the song was with four verses and two more were added later. The six-verse version is more accepted today, with Elsie Griffin, a vocalist, popularizing it back in the day. The song was also released by the name of Eily Dear in 1918, which focused on singing to an Eily Dear rather than a Danny Boy.

Londonderry Air, on the other hand, was a discovery made by Jane Ross in the year 1851. On the streets of Limavady, Ireland, the lady heard a musician on his travels perform the tune, and noted it down. The tune was published in 1855 as a collection called “Ancient Music of Ireland.”  The song itself had no name or title at this point, although there was a general belief that it had originated in Londonderry, Ireland, and was subsequently named Londonderry Air. Many also believe that the piece dates back to Rory Dall O'Cahan, an Irish composer of the 17th century, who, having heard fairies playing on his harp, created the tune that he named O'Cahan's Lament. Later discoveries reveal that this was actually a heavily modified version of Aislean an Oigfear, performed by Denis Hempson, an Irish harper in the mid-17th century. 

Northern Ireland

The prevalent theories behind the meaning of Danny Boy are many. From parents wishing for their son’s return; to a message from parents; to the son fighting a war; to gay lovers communicating, the song’s true meaning is open to interpretation. Funeral and memorial services heavily utilized the song, making it more popular even though some churches restricted its use.

The lyrics of Danny Boy evokes strong emotions and feelings of yearning. Some of its lines are strongly projecting a beautiful countryside while other lines are demonstrating a characteristic of cathartic longing. 

In 2001, saw Malachy McCourt, both actor and author, tries to unravel the origins of the song in his book "Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad." 

The song isn’t even entirely original as it is just one of many songs which adapted the Londonderry Air tune. The song’s prominence before and during World War I became a source of inspiration for the millions of soldiers bidding farewell to their families. 

Legendary singer Johnny Cash, whose favorite compositional topics were often of a dark nature, recorded an interpretation of the piece in 1965. Eminent singers such as John McCormack and Elvis Presley, further globalized the song through their performances. With the emergence and popularity of the gramophone, the music reached a wide range of audience. The Irish diaspora in the U.S. and around the world was moved by its strong sense of hope and expectations. 

Elvis Presley thinks that Danny Boy is angelic, hence once it to be performed during his funeral. Similarly, Princess Diana's funeral service, had the gripping Londonderry Air tune played, albeit its changed lyrics. After the 9/11 attacks on American, Danny Boy was played at the police and firefighters' memorial services. In 2009, Danny Boy was played by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the Central U.S. Tour at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater.

Decades and centuries have passed, during which the original tune creation of Londonderry Air to Danny Boy’s inception has happened. Its popularity has surged forward from Ireland, across the Atlantic to America with its poignant words, becoming a natural choice for funerals. Starting from its dramatic, high-pitched range and its cultural associations with regard to both geography and history, Danny Boy has helped different factions to come together. An example is the song helped Barry McGuigan, a boxer, to unify the two conflicting groups during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Today, it has become an undeniable and irrevocable part of Irish and American culture through its engaging tune and touching lyrics.


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