Happy St. Patrick’s Day, a day early! I thought I’d write about that most Irish of all Irish songs, O Danny Boy. But there is a small problem with this: O Danny Boy is not Irish. Well, OK the melody is. So, let’s start there.
The tune to O Danny Boy is often called the Londonderry Air, because when it was published in an 1855 book of Irish music, the person who had submitted the melody was from Londonderry. (Londonderry is a county in Ireland, also called County Derry.) (An “air” is just another way of saying song, or melody.)
Do we know who wrote it? Nope, no idea. The melody could go all the way back to the early 1600s, when Celtic harpists traveled the countryside.
But let me tell you, words there are a-plenty for this simple little ditty. According to Wikipedia; the first lyrics that we are aware of that were set to this melody are called The Confession of Devorgilla.
Oh! Shrive me, father – haste, haste, and shrive me,
‘Ere sets yon dread and flaring sun;
Its beams of peace – nay, of sense, deprive me,
Since yet the holy work’s undone.
The sage, the wand’rer’s anguish balming,
Soothed her heart to rest once more;
And pardon’s promise torture calming,
The Pilgrim told her sorrow o’er.
Then 1894 gave us Katherine Tynan Hinkson’s words, entitled Irish Love Song.
Would God I were the tender apple blossom
That floats and falls from off the twisted bough
To lie and faint within your silken bosom,
Within your silken bosom as that does now.
Or would I were a little burnished apple
For you to pluck me, gliding by so cold,
While sun and shade your robe of lawn will dapple,
Your robe of lawn and your hair of spun gold.
(I have some really old music, and this is the first version I learned of the song.)
In 1910, an English lawyer named Fred Weatherly wrote a new poem that he called O Danny Boy. He liked to put his poems to already existing music and was on the look-out for a song to use. A few years later, his Irish sister-in-law sent him the music to Londonderry Air. He made a few changes to his poem to better fit the meter and sent it off to his publisher.
O Danny, boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
It’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow,
O Danny boy, O Danny oy, I love you so!
But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Ave there for me.
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!
Who is this mysterious Danny? No one knows. It could be a son, brother, or sweetheart. Why is he leaving? Well, the pipes are calling, so it could be war, but it also could have been to leave to come to America. One thing I can explain: And kneel and say an Ave there for me. An Ave (ah-vay) refers to an Ave Maria, or a hail Mary, one of the prayers that is said when praying the rosary.
Do you have a favorite version of the Londonderry Air? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll be playing some of my favorites this week on my Minnich Music FaceBook page this week, so be sure to check them out.
Until next time!