The Story of Danny Boy
Danny Boy is without doubt one of the Worlds best known and best loved songs.
Generations of Irish men and women have rendered it lustily, tears in their eyes, wherever they happened to find themselves far from home. Singers as diverse as Paul Robson and Elvis Presley have recorded it, and it has been performed on concert platforms by the Worlds finest orchestras.
It was George Petrie who gave the "Londonderry Air" its title in his compendium of Irish Music, the Ancient Music of Ireland, which was published in 1855. The melody was supplied to Petrie by Jane Ross of Newtown Limavady and he acknowledged her contribution as follows:
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to Miss J Ross of Newtown Limavady in the County of Londonderry - a lady who has made a large collection of the popular unpublished melodies of that county, which she has very kindly placed at my disposal, and which has added very considerably to the stock of tunes which I had previously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.
Jane Ross (1810-1879) stated that she had taken down the tune in Limavady in 1851 when she heard it played by an itinerant fiddler. One of Ireland's most distinguished folk song collectors, Sam Henry, states in "Songs of the People" a regular weekly feature in the Northern Constitution (1923- 1939), that blind Jimmy McCurry (1830-19 10) was the fiddler referred to by Jane Ross.
There is strong oral evidence in the Roe Valley to support this version of the event. I have recounted the following story of the transmission of the air, in The Blind Fiddler from Myroe (1997), related to me in 1996 by Wallace McCurry, a descendant of the blind fiddler:
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.
Jimmy was born in the flatlands of Myroe County Londonderry and his favourite spot for playing the fiddle on market days was outside the Burns & Laird Shipping Office in Limavady. It was customary for the farmers of the day to bring their produce to the Limavady market by horse and cart. After they had unyoked their horses they left their carts with shafts on the ground all lined up along the Main Street. Jimmy usually took up position between the shafts of one of these carts just opposite the home of Jane Ross, who lived at 51 Main Street.
Tradition has it that the McCurrys came from Islay in Scotland. Jimmy's father, John, used to visit Ballycastle regularly from his home in Portnahaven, which had close links with Ireland. On one of his trips he met a girl whom he later married. The family settled in Ballycastle but later moved to Myroe, where blind Jimmy was born in 1830. Jimmy was part of a long fiddle playing tradition for the Currys had once been the bards to the Lords of the Isles, who ruled their Kingdom from Islay.
Several of Jimmy's songs have survived to the present day. Amongst these are "The Maid of Carrowclare", "The Coleraine Regatta", "Sarah Jane", and "The Star of Moville". Jimmy's health deteriorated in his later years and he was eventually admitted to the Limavady Workhouse. It was from here that the blind fiddler's remains were carried to the graveyard at Tamlaghtfinlagan Parish Church, Ballykelly, in 1910. The whole of the community is said to have mourned his death.
Jane Ross, like Jimmy, had Scottish ancestors. She was the daughter of John Ross (1778-1830), an old established family in the Roe Valley and a direct descendant of John Rosse, who had been granted lands in the area in 1609 during the Plantation of Ulster, when English and Scottish planters were brought over to settle in the lands confiscated from the O'Cahans.
The confiscation of the O'Cahan lands was to enrage the blind harper Rory DalI O'Cahan (c1550-166O), a chieftain of the clan, for he and his people had a deep attachment to the land, where the O'Cahans had lived for generations. In Rory Dall O'Cahan, Chieftain and Harper (1999) I have claimed that this inspired Rory Dali O'Cahan to compose a tune of such pain and passion that it would eventually touch the hearts of people worldwide. The tune became known as "O'Cahan's Lament".
There are those who say that Rory Dall had some assistance in writing the lament. A story is told that he had too much to drink one evening. He left his castle on the banks of the Roe, staggered along the riverside and eventually collapsed in a hollow. The servants at the castle, who were sent to bring him back, were attracted by the sound of his harp in the distance. When they found Rory Dali he was lying unconscious but mysterious invisible fingers were playing a most beautiful tune on the harp. After Rory Dali gained consciousness he immediately became aware of the haunting music being played by the fairies. He listened attentively and when he was confident he could play it he made his way back to the castle, where he entertained the guests with the first rendition of the air that was to be taken down by Jane Ross some 250 years later.
Denis O'Hampsey, another blind harper from the Roe Valley brought the melody down to the 19th century. Denis was born at Craigmore near Garvagh in 1695, lived in three different centuries and died in 1807 at the age of 112 years. Shortly after Denis' birth his father, Bryan Darragher, moved to Magilligan to inherit the family farm. When only three he contracted smallpox and lost his sight.
At an early age he decided to adopt music as a career and he commenced his studies under Bridget O'Cahan, who was related to Rory Dall O'Cahan. In O'Hampsey -The Last of the Bards (1998) I have described how Denis inherited a considerable repertoire from Bridget including "O'Cahan's Lament". Denis was to introduce this air throughout Ireland and Scotland as a result of his extensive travels in both countries.
Denis O'Hampsey was one of ten harpers who assembled in Belfast in response to a general invitation to attend a Harp Festival in 1792. Edward Bunting was appointed to take down the airs in an attempt to revive and perpetuate the ancient music of Ireland. The young Bunting, nineteen years of age, took a particular interest in O'Hampsey for he was the only harper who plucked the harp with the long crooked nails of the ancient style. Immediately after the Festival Bunting set off to travel to the remotest parts of Ireland in search of traditional airs. Interestingly he began his travels by visiting Denis O'Hampsey at Magilligan. Here he obtained several tunes from Denis, which he included in his three volumes of The Ancient Music of Ireland published in 1796, 1809 and 1840.
It has always been something of a mystery as to why Bunting failed to obtain the "Londonderry Air" on his visit to Magilligan. Hugh Shields in an article "New Dates for OldSongs 1766-1803" inthe Long Room Journal(1979) states that Bunting collected a song air from Denis which bears a striking resemblance to the melody collected by Jane Ross. The song air is printed in his 1796 collection under the title "Aislean an Oigfear" ("Aisling an Ogfhir" in modem Irish or "The Young Man's Vision" in English).
Anne Geddes Gilchrist in an article entitled "A New Light upon the Londonderry Air" published in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (1934) claims that Jane Ross may have made mistakes in taking down a traditional air ("Aislean an Oigfear"), which she heard Jimmy MeCurry playing in 1851. The melody she collected is clearly a variant of "Aislean", as comparison of the music texts reveals.
It was this derivative that she entrusted to her friend, Dr George Petrie (1789-1866), who was born in Dublin of Scottish ancestry. Petrie was a man of many parts. He was a gifted painter and a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy; he was a member of the Council of the Royal Irish Academy and its great collection of manuscripts was acquired through his initiative and drive; he was a pioneer in the field of archaeology; he was in charge of the distinguished team of scholars, which included John O'Donovan, who produced the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland (183 1-35); but his deepest and most lasting devotion was to the study of Irish music.
Petrie would have met Jane Ross when he visited Limavady on a number of occasions between 1833-35 to research and write accounts of the parishes of the Roe Valley as part of the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland. Little did Petrie know that Jane Ross would supply him a few years later in 1851, with a tune that would become world famous. It was appropriate that it was Jane who helped to preserve the air for future generations for it was her ancestors who, according to the lore, had been responsible for inspiring its composition.
As soon as the air was published by Petrie the great lyricists of the day vied with each other to find suitable words but for some reason no one could find lyrics to bring to life the most enchanting of all Irish melodies. One of the most distinguished song writers of the day, Alfred Percival Graves, made two attempts, one called "Erin's Apple Blossom" and the other "Emer's Farewell", but both failed to find favour with the public. Katharine Tynan also produced a set of words "The Irish Love Song" which were not suited to the melody. Yet another version, the nostalgic "In Derry Vale" written by an unknown song writer, failed to catch the public's imagination.
Meanwhile the beautiful air had reached America with emigrants flooding to the New World to escape the privations of the Great Famine 1845-1849. Many fine musicians left the Roe Valley at this time taking with them their music.
It was in Ouray, Colorado that Margaret Weatherly came into contact with of the tune in 1912. Her husband Edward had abandoned his London medical practice in 1889 and emigrated to San Francisco. It was here that he met and married Margaret Anastasia Enwright before they moved to Colorado in 1908 as part of a gold rush to that area of the United States.
One day Margaret heard gold-prospectors, believed to be from the Roe Valley, playing a beautiful tune. She immediately thought of Edward's brother, Fred, an eminent English lawyer whose spare time passion was writing song lyrics. She persuaded them to let her have a copy of the tune, which she sent to her brother-in-law in Somerset in England.
By an extraordinary piece of good fortune Fred Weatherly (1848-1929) had already written a song called "Danny Boy" in 1910 and it only required a few alterations to make it fit the beautiful melody he received from America. As well as writing "Danny Boy" Fred, a busy lawyer, managed to compose somewhere in the region of 1,500 songs during his lifetime including "The Holy City" and "Roses of Picardy".
It was no surprise that Weatherly's lyrics had an immediate appeal and went straight to the hearts of Irish people world-wide for Fred wrote "Danny Boy" with a view to bringing both traditions together in Ireland. In his autobiography Piano and Gown (1926) he expressed the hope that "Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike would sing his song". His aspirations have come true for "Danny Boy" has become a neutral symbol of belonging and has been accepted by all denominations.
At the time of the song's composition much family entertainment was derived from sheet music, and the seeds of "Danny Boy's" success were sown in drawing rooms and parlours with families and their guests singing beside a piano. By a happy coincidence the gramophone was beginning to make its impact on the entertainment scene and "Danny Boy" quickly found its way onto gramophone records and in the ensuing years over 200 recordings were made of the song.
New Light Upon the Air
As "Danny Boy" increased in popularity so did speculation as to its origins. Anne Geddes Gilchrist in an article previously referred to in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (1934) claims that Jane Ross may well have noted the melody in 4/4 instead of 3/4 time. If 3/4 time is substituted for 4/4 then the melody resembles "Aislean an Oigfear", which had been collected by Edward Bunting in the 1790s.
She also speculates that Jane Ross may have been taken down the melody from a performer (Jimmy McCurry), who allowed himself some abandon in his performance (of "Aislean an Oigfear"). His improvisation and prolongation of certain favoured notes could have disguised the natural rhythm of the air to such an extent that the tune was wrongly noted by Jane Ross. If, for either reason, Jane Ross made a mistake in annotating this air then rarely can an error have had such a striking and satisfactory result.
Hugh Shields in a previously cited article in the Long Room Journal supports the findings of Anne Geddes Gilchrist. He states that the most striking difference between "Aislean" and the "Air" is the melodic development of the fourth and final phrase, which "makes the air almost impossible to sing in traditional style while endearing it to the virtuoso eager for effects of vocal expression". He suggests that Jane Ross may have been responsible for this variation and adds that the final phrase may well be "a keyboard divagation of a middle-class lady".
Hugh Shields refutes the claim that it was Jimmy McCurry who played the melody for Jane Ross on the grounds that Blind Jimmy "preferred traditional music wholly lacking in the drawing room character of the air". This argument can not be sustained for one of Jimmy's favourite pieces was the haunting tune "Blind Mary", which has a melody in keeping with that of the air collected by Jane Ross.
Hugh Shields is also persuaded by a letter to Sam Henry from Frank Thompson of Hamilton, Ontario and formerly of Ballymena. Thompson states that he had heard the air played around 1911-12 by a street fiddler called, he thought, McCormick. The street fiddler said that his father had played it in Limavady and that it had been copied down by a man or woman called Ross.
Again this claim by Hugh Shields must be challenged on the grounds that there are several reliable informants, as I argue in The Blind Fiddler from Myroe, who testifiy that Jimmy McCurry was the street fiddler, who played the air for Jane Ross. Even Sam Henry admits, in Songs of the People, that blind Jimmy was the street fiddler. However, Shields seems to have been unduly influenced by the Sam Henry correspondence from Canada and he is prepared to dismiss Jimmy's claim on the basis of an unsubstantiated document, which is vague as to the identity of both the performer and the collector of the music.
Shield's hypothesis that the tune in its original form was collected in Magilligan by Bunting only serves to strengthen the claim that it was Jimmy McCurry from whom Jane Ross took it down in Limavady in 1851. Jimmy had close connections with Magilligan and its musicians, many of whom would have been familiar with O'Hampsey's music. It seems likely that Jimmy would have acquired the air on his frequent visits to the district and would have played it or a variation of it at weddings and wakes as well as on the streets of Limavady.
If the Gilchrist hypothesis is correct, that the air is a derivative of "Aislean an Oigfear," then it must be assumed that "Aislean" is the lament composed by Rory Dall O'Cahan and carried down over the years by Denis O'Hampsey.