Danny Boy – a song of lament

Growing up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, during the 1950-60’s, several of my closest friends were fellow immigrants from the UK – in their case from Northern Ireland, with myself a Scot. My friends were non-denominational Protestants, so naturally, one may assume, they had strong views on the situation that was extant in Northern Ireland – as it was in those pre-Belfast Agreement days.
We would often spend a lazy Sunday afternoon listening to various forms of music – from pop and rock n’ roll, to country and western and popular religious. Being Irish, the friends would occasionally listen to and sing-along with that seemingly evergreen Irish-linked ballad “Danny Boy”. I say “seemingly” because, in my mind, there are now some issues surrounding the origins and development of this ballad.
Further interest in this questionable aspect of the origins of “Danny Boy” was incited by my recent purchase of an album by a long-time favourite singer of mine, the late and lamented American singer Roy Orbison. The album contains many of Orbison’s best known and most played songs. What was different in the presentation of these songs was the fact that they were given the full orchestral backing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO).
The effects were revelatory and entirely consistent with the album’s title, “Unchained Melodies” (also the title of one of the songs on the album and which, incidentally, came from the 1950’s and was one of the songs that, as rendered by the black American singer Al Hibler, took up the lazy Sunday afternoons enjoyed by my friends and me).
For me, and with the above circumstances in mind, the most important of the songs on this album was “Danny Boy”. Roy Orbison’s arrangement of the song was quite superb, along with the backing of the RPO, and added to the poignancy and beauty of the song’s words and music.
Orbison took the well-known first two verses of the song and made them the central focus of the musical presentation. However, he took the less well known third and fourth verses of “Danny Boy” and used a repetition, reorganization and recapitulation of the words to frame the central section (verses 1 and 2) with two verses each on either side of the central section (the “chorus”. The result was the presentation of a genuine, even classical, ballad. “Danny Boy” has never sounded so good nor spoken so emotionally to the listener. A gem!
With Orbison’s rendition of “Danny Boy” reverberating in my mind and senses, I decided that it was time to do a little research on the song. The results of this research were to prove instructive.
The words of “Danny Boy” were written by the English lawyer and lyricist, Frederic Weatherly in Bath, Somerset (England) in 1910. It is believed that initially the tune with which Weatherly accompanied the words was composed by a Scottish piper. In 1913, Weatherly’s Irish-born sister-in-law Margaret (known as Jess), who was at the time living in the USA, sent him a copy of “Londonderry Air” (an alternative version of the story has her singing the air to him in 1912 with different lyrics).
Weatherly is said to have then modified the lyrics of “Danny Boy” to fit the rhyme and meter of “Londonderry Air” (the melody of which was collected by Jane Ross of the Irish town of Limavady in the mid-19th century from a musician she encountered). Weatherly then gave the song to the vocalist Elsie Griffin who made it one of the most popular songs in the new 20th century.
In 1915, Ernestine Schumann-Heink produced the first recording of “Danny Boy”. Roy Orbison’s version of the song with the RPO is the latest version of this much-recorded ballad.
Wikipedia informs that “The 1918 version of the sheet music included alternative lyrics (“Eily Dear”), with the instructions that “when sung by a man, the words in italic should be used; the song then becomes “Eily Dear”, so that “Danny Boy” is only to be sung by a lady”. In spite of this, it is unclear whether this was Weatherly’s intent “. Whatever the intention, and not surprisingly, the song has been covered by a diverse range of male singers – from Mario Lanza to Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley to Harry Belafonte, as well as Tom Jones, and now most recently, Roy Orbison.
It would seem that, prior to Orbison’s rendition, all others used the original lyrics and traditional structure. It could be claimed, therefore, that Roy Orbison’s version of “Danny Boy” is unique.
The actual interpretation of the words of “Danny Boy” are also open to some serious speculation.
Various suggestions exist as to the true meaning of the song’s words. Some have interpreted the song to be a message from a parent to a son going off to a war or uprising (as suggested by the reference to “pipes calling glen to glen”) or leaving as part of the Irish diaspora.
From what has been stated in the foregoing, it seems to me to be as likely as anything, that the actual derivation of the song owes not a little to Scottish influences. The words of “Danny Boy” are more illustrative of a Scottish geography and the original tune belonged to a Scottish piper.
The meaning could satisfactorily be associated with a Scottish boy (Danny?) who left Scotland as part of the migration of both lowland and highland Scots, Protestant and Catholic, to the Province of Ulster during the 17th century – only to be lamented by his mother or, more probably, his father, and with the hope that, one day, he might return to the meadows, mountains and glens of his native land. Poignantly, Danny’s father, or mother, do not expect to live to see that day.
It is to the credit of the Irish (to the north and south of the island) that they have made “Danny Boy” the anthem that today it is.
Notwithstanding, as this essay has argued,  I have my doubts as to its suitability to be the national anthem of Northern Ireland (the British Province of Ulster). Nevertheless, listening to the song still elicits, and will in the future, the necessary patriotic evocations – as it did in the lives of several Irish boys on a lazy Sunday afternoon in far-away Melbourne in the middle of the 20th century.

About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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