Danny Boy: The Story of the Song Written to an Old Irish Air

'Oh Danny boy the pipes, the pipes are calling...'  It is now 100 years since Fred E. Weatherly published the iconic 'Danny Boy'.  As part of the Explore Your Archive campaign, we invite you to join ITMA as it delves into its printed & sound collections to find the real story behind the song.  We begin in the year 1910 ...

If you search the ITMA catalogues, you will find almost 1,500 references to 'Danny Boy' and its 'old irish air' in books, sheet music and as sound recordings that range from 78 rpm disks to CD.  Some of these items have been digitised in their entirety by ITMA staff and can be viewed and heard online in our Digital Library as part of the Explore Your Archive campaign.  The Danny Boy pieces we have selected are an example of the many treasures held in ITMA, in our premises at 73 Merrion Square and online in our Digital Library.  We hope you will enjoy this short exhibition online and if possible to take the opportunity to visit 73 Merrion Square where the originals will be on display.  But whether virtual or real we hope this story will lead you to discover more music, song & dance in Your Irish Traditional Music Archive. 

The exhibition begins with Fred Weatherly's sheet music, the marriage of his words and a traditional Irish air.  We then move backwards in time accompanying the great antiquarian collectors who captured the air from the musicians of their day and committed it to paper.  We have also included a sound recording from the Glenn Miller Orchestra; a manuscript version from Sliabh Luachra fiddle player, Padraig O'Keeffe and some images of the main characters in our story.

The story of Danny Boy was featured in August 2013 on the RTÉ Nationwide television programme .  To celebrate the centenary, Mary Kennedy paid a visit to ITMA where Director Nicholas Carolan showed her many of the items included in our exhibition. You can view this short programme on RTÉ's Century Ireland project.

We would like to thank the Friends of the Library, Trinity College Dublin, and Lisa Shields for permission to reproduce Dr Hugh Shields' article below.

For more information on Explore Your Archive please visit our news page.

Contents

Danny Boy: song written to an old Irish air / by Fred E. Weatherly
Digitised Books

Fred E. Weatherly (1848–1929),  English barrister & lyricist published his first 'Danny Boy' in 1910.  Written initially to a different air, the song gained no popularity and was destined for a life of obscurity.  But it was when his sister-in-law, Margaret, introduced Fred to one of her favourite Irish melodies, he saw a new opportunity.  He reset his words to the 'old Irish air' and republished it in 1913 to immediate acclaim and to a popularity that endures to this day.  Margaret was never credited for the part she played in the success of the song.  Our extensive sheet music collection contains many versions of Danny Boy.  We have chosen this particular one as the cover shows a stamped Fred E. Weatherly signature.  

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Name unknown [Londonderry air]
Digitised Books

The old Irish air which Margaret brought to Fred Weatherly's attention was in fact what is now known as the 'Londonderry air'.  Our first printed evidence comes from 1855 and The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland.  George Petrie (c.1790–1866) refers to it as 'Name unknown' and thanks one Miss J. Ross of New-Town-Limavady 'in the county of Londonderry' for placing it at his disposal.  Jane Ross (1810–1879) collected and transcribed tunes played locally in County Derry during the 19th century, among them this 'very old' piece which she sent to Petrie. The association with Derry was to give the air its popular name 'The Londonderry air'.

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George Petrie, collector / unidentified artist
Images

Portrait of George Petrie (c. 1790-1896).  Petrie published an air referenced as 'Name unknown' in 1855 which he had received from Miss Jane Ross in Limavady, Co. Derry.  This was to eventually become known as the 'Londonderry air' to which Fred Weatherly married his words in 1913.

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Aislean an oigfear = The young man’s dream
Digitised Books

We are always interested to know how old a song or air or tune is but in an oral tradition where music is passed from musician to musician and not written down, it is often very difficult to come to definite or indeed any conclusions.  Because the 'Londonderry air' was published in 1855 we could at least say it was known and played prior to that date and researchers were content with this evidence.  But research continues to expand our knowledge and in 1979 Dr Hugh Shields (1929–2008) established a possible earlier publishing of the air under the name 'Aislean an oigfear: The young man's dream'.  Following the Belfast Harp Festival in 1792, the collector Edward Bunting (1773–1843), visited Dennis Hempson, a harper living in Magilligan, Co Derry.  'Aislean an oigfear' was one of the tunes he collected from him and later published in A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music in 1796.  This was the source used by Dr Shields to push our date back even further to the 18th century when the air was known and played.

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New dates for old songs, 1766–1803 / Hugh Shields
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Research continues to expand our knowledge of traditional music and the archive contains many studies on song, music & dance.  Here you can read the full article Dr Hugh Shields published in 1979 on revised dating of songs among which 'Aislean an oigfear' was proposed as an earlier version of the 'Londonderry air'.  

We would like to thank the Friends of the Library, Trinity College Dublin, and Lisa Shields for permission to reproduce Dr Hugh Shields' article.

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Edward Bunting, collector / unidentified artist
Images

Portrait of Edward Bunting (1773-1843).  Bunting published 'Aislean an oigfear = The  young man's dream' in 1796.  In 1979 Dr Hugh Shields published an article proposing this air as an earlier version of 'The Londonderry air', thus extending the accepted timeline to the 18th century.

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Air : Danny boy / Pádraig O’Keeffe Manuscripts
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In the ITMA Special Collections Reading Room are some manuscripts of the famous Sliabh Luachra fiddle player and travelling fiddle-master Pádraig O’Keeffe (1887–1963).  Among the tunes he notated in his unique tablature style was 'Danny Boy'.  

The O’Keeffe fiddle and accordion manuscripts presented here as scans have been kindly donated to ITMA by Paud Collins from Knockacur, Knocknagoshel, Co Kerry, a former accordion pupil of O’Keeffe’s whose brothers Jer on fiddle and Dan on accordion were also pupils. The fiddle manuscripts are in Pádraig O’Keeffe’s own hand, while the accordion manuscripts were copied for her brothers from O’Keeffe’s originals by Paud Collins’s sister Tess Drudy (who did not herself read the tablature). We would like to thank Paud Collins and his son Denis Collins who was instrumental in the making of the donation.

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Danny boy, fox trot / Glenn Miller, trombone
Sound Recordings

'Danny Boy' has been recorded across the globe by a variety of artists, from tenor to crooner and 'The Londonderry air' can claim similar variety in instrument and genre of performance.  Here we have chosen The Glenn Miller Orchestra from the hundreds of recordings held in ITMA.  

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Irish air from Petrie’s collection / Canon James Goodman
Digitised Books

We would like to thank Lisa Shields for permission to reproduce this extract from Tunes of the Munster pipers : Irish traditional music from the James Goodman Manuscripts.  Volume 2  / edited by Hugh & Lisa Shields

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