Saturday, June 30, 2012

Danny Boy



The one Irish ballad our family traditionally sings at every wedding and funeral, is Danny BoyThe song is guaranteed to pull on the heartstrings and choke us up if the whiskey doesn't work. 

Last time we dusted off Danny Boy and all sang it as a family was at my aunt Canice's wake, at the Druid's Hall in Nicasio. We gave her a real send-off with a piper, an impromptu ceili band with Father Sullivan, the parish priest on the penny whistle, Cormac Gannon on the uillean pipes, and bodhran, and mine own laddie, Neil O'Neill on the guitar—it was a fine June wake. 

But is the song itself authentically Irish? Or merely American stage Irish—like the nostalgic wave that produced When Irish Eyes are Smiling, composed by Ernest Ball, a popular American song composer (with Chauncey Olcott), for a romanticised musical tribute about Ernie Ball's vaudeville life in The Isle O' Dreams, in 1912, and made into a film in 1944; or How are Things in Glocomora (a fictitious village) from the 1947 Broadway musical, Finnian's Rainbow?


With tongue in cheek I offer you that Irish schmaltzer, Daniel O'Donnell:

When Irish Eyes are Smiling


Danny Boy


So, Ian Paisley, the Pope and Daniel O’Donnell are shipwrecked on a desert island with a single palm tree in the middle. Paisley looks up to the sky and shakes his fist in anger, "Lord, why have you forsaken me? You have abandoned me to be tormented for the rest of my days, what have I done to deserve this?" Meanwhile, Daniel and the Pope just sit chatting under the tree. Paisley paces round and round, occasionally stopping to shake his fist at the sky  and stubs his toe on something buried in the sand: a Colt 45 with two bullets. He picks up the gun, puts in the bullets and looks up again at the sky, "Oh my dear Lord, you have not forsaken me. How could I have ever doubted you?" He walks up to the palm tree, points the gun and shoots Daniel O’Donnell—twice.
The American connection: It turns out, that the melody used in Danny Boy is indeed from an old Irish air that was supposedly "lost," and then "rediscovered" by London barrister and lyricist Frederic Weatherly's sister-in-law (apparently he had several) in the goldmines of Colorado (what was she doing in the mines, one could ask?). 

Why did Londonderry Air (AKA "Air from County Derry" or "Derry Air" depending on the origin of your Irish roots), have to travel from Northern Ireland to the Wild and Wooly West of the New World, circulate through the goldmining camps of the 1840s and boomerang back again to the streets of London, England, in order to be united with new English words written by a London barrister and lyricist in 1910, is a bit of a mystery. Circuitous, even. 

That berobed, bewigged and bewitched barrister, Frederic Weatherly who dabbled in song on the side, borrowed the unnamed ancient Irish tune, updated with his new song lyrics to chanteuse Elsie Griffin, circa 1913, who made it one of the most popular songs in the new century. (The first record was pressed in 1915). So we tend to think of him as the author and composer of Danny Boy. But he didn't compose the melody of the song, just the lyrics. 

The story goes that the original air was collected by Miss Jane Ross (1811-1879), from a blind fiddler, Jimmy McCurry, on market day in Limavady, Northern Ireland in 1851. 

One day Jane Ross heard Jimmy playing a beautiful melody outside the Burns & Laird Shipping Office, which she had never heard before. She came over to Jimmy and asked him to play the tune over and over again until she had taken down every note. Jane thanked him and gave him a coin for his moving rendition of the tune. When she departed Jimmy rubbed it against his lips, as was his method of determining the denomination of coins, and discovered it was a florin instead of the customary penny. He set off in pursuit of Jane 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 of his music. —Ulster Ancestry
She recorded the notes and sent it to musicologist and antiquarian, George Petrie, who publisied it in 1855, in the The Ancient Music of Ireland, an imprint of the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland.
World-famous song Danny Boy is taken from a melody composed by O’Cahan bard Rory Dall O’Cahan. The original version concerns the passing of the Chief Cooey-na-Gall whose death brought an end to a long line of O’Cahan chiefs in Northern Ireland. —Wiki
Dall means blind in Irish (and Gall means foreigner). We've not one, but two blind musicians shoehorned  in on the tale: the composer, a harper, from the Middle Ages, and an itinerant street musician, Jimmy McCurry, a fiddler from the Edwardian era.
For the following beautiful air I have to express my very grateful acknowledgement to Miss J Ross of Newtown Limavady in the County of Londonderry - a lady who has made a large collection of the popular unpublished melodies of that county, which she has very kindly placed at my disposal, and which has added very considerably to the stock of tunes which I had previously acquired from that still very Irish county. I say still very Irish; for though it has been planted for more than two centuries by English and Scottish settlers, the old Irish race still forms the great majority of its peasant inhabitants; and there are few, if any, counties in which, with less foreign admixture, the ancient melodies of the country have been so extensively preserved. The name of the tune unfortunately was not ascertained by Miss Ross, who sent it to me with the simple remark that it was "very old", in the correctness of which statement I have no hesitation in expressing my perfect concurrence. —Ulster Ancestry

One hundred years ago, Freddy Wetherby first sang Danny Boy on the radio (it wasn't successful), and published a version in 1913.


In the 1890s, Irish scholar, Osborn Ó hAimheirgin, who taught at Trinity College, wrote lyrics to the tune.

      Maidin i mBéarra

      Is é mo chaoi gan mise maidin aerach,
      Amuigh i mBéarra i m' sheasamh ar an dtrá,
      Is guth na n-éan 'o m' tharraing thar na sléibhte cois na farraige,
      Go Céim an Aitinn mar a mbíonn mo ghrá.
      Is obann aoibhinn aiteasach do léimfinn,
      Do rífinn saor ó ana-bhroid an tláis,
      Do thabharfainn droim le scamallaibh an tsaoil seo,
      Dá bhfaighinn mo léirdhóthain d'amharc ar mo chaoimhshearc bán.

      Is é mo dhíth bheith ceangailte go faonlag,
      Is neart mo chléibh dá thachtadh anseo sa tsráid,
      An fhad tá réim na habhann agus gaoth glan na farraige
      Ag glaoch is ar gairm ar an gcroí seo i m' lár.
      Is milis briomhar leathanbhog an t-aer ann,
      Is gile ón ngréin go fairsing ar an mbán,
      Is ochón, a ríbhean bhanúil na gcraobhfholt,
      Gan sinne araon i measc an aitinn mar do bhímis tráth!

      Source: Abair Amhrán, Comhaltas Uladh, Béil Feirste, 1969 —The Danny Boy Trivia Collection



For further reading:

The Danny Boy Trivia Collection—a lot of it's spurious information (it is a collection), but well worth a look. See Fred Weatherley's own description of how he came to write Danny Boy. Though it's possible that Weatherly wrote at least 3000 songs in his lifetime (that's the equivalent of a song a week), one suspects that not all the tunes were his original melodies or compositions. Or maybe the litigation business was slow.)

mudcat.org: Lyr Req: Danny Boy in Gaelic


Danny Boy?


The words to O'Cathain Lament may be as follows: Unfortunately no clear evidence supports this.

A chief far famed for liberal affluence,
For wise discretion and conducting sense,
Whom sages honour and learned commend,
The minstrels' patron, and the clergy's friend.

In his sad bower and damsel bands are pale,
And weep their chieftain and unwearied wail,
With lamentation oft renewed they mourn,
And know no joy, but hope for his return.

When Croghan's fate in battles fearful scale,
Hung trembling yet and their fair dames looked pale,
His arm rolled back the battle from afar,
Chief of valiant - Ulster's leading star.

With jewelled wealth and gay magnificence,
Whose bounteous tables heaped with princely hand,
Diffused a grateful odour o'er the land,
There met the brave, there came the poorest distrest,
And there the minstrel was an honoured guest.
O'Kane the brave, the generous to dispose,
Wealth to his friends - destruction to his foes,
Sword, fire and plunder followed where he trod,
And peace and mercy vanished at his nod.

The present day Lyrics to Danny Boy were written by an English lawyer, Frederic Edward Weatherly, in 1910. His version was unsuccessful, until his sister-in-law (in the United States), sent him the melody to the Air from County LondonDerry. The melody matched nicely with his words and became an instant success, especially in the United States. —
Brian O'Cathain




 This blogpost was hoodwinked and expanded from a longer blog I wrote called Old Tunes, New Licks.

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