A popular song that has gone on to epitomise Irish culture, Danny Boy is a ballad with an ancient Irish melody. Despite the lyrics being penned by an Englishman, Danny Boy is associated with Irish communities. The tune is taken from the ‘Londonderry Air’, a folk-song collected by Jane Ross of Limavady. Arguably the most famous of all Irish songs, Danny Boy has become culturally symbolic for those in the Irish diaspora. For years, the meaning of Danny Boy has been heavily debated, with multiple narratives developed to reflect individual circumstances. Regardless of Danny Boy’s meaning, the song has been covered by famous artists from all over the globe: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Celtic Woman, and Daniel O’ Donnell are only a few of the artists who continue to popularise this nostalgic Irish melody.
‘The Pipes Are Calling’: The Inspiration for Danny Boy
Frederic Weatherly was inspired to pen O’Danny Boy after his sister-in-law Margaret sent him a copy of “Londonderry Air” from the United States in 1913, prompting Weatherly to change the lyrics of Danny Boy in order to fit the tune of “Londonderry Air”.
Weatherly gave the song to the vocalist Elsie Griffin, who made it one of the most popular songs of the era as she entertained British troops in France during WWI. The very first recording of Danny Boy was produced in 1918 by Ernestine Schumann-Heink. The original version of the song had four verses, but two more were later added and most recordings have six verses performed.
It is noted by historians that the Londonderry Air was recorded by Jane Ross in Limavady. A blind fiddler called Jimmy McCurry ( 1830-1910), who lived in the local workhouse at the time, played the song opposite her home. She noted down the tune and passed as part of her collection to George Petrie who published the air in 1855 in a book called “Ancient Music of Ireland”.
It was Margaret Weatherly who heard the song being played in Colorado in 1912, and liked the tune so much she sent a copy to her solicitor brother in law who lived in Somerset, England. Margaret possibly heard the song via Irish emigrants, or her own father was a passionate fiddle player.
Fred Weatherly who wrote lyrics as a pastime had already written the lyrics for a song called Danny Boy and on hearing Londonderry Air, believed the words worked perfectly with the tune and hence we have Oh Danny Boy today.
It is believed that the origin of the air used was Aisling an Oigfir attributed to Ruadhrai Dall O Cathain and collected by Edward Bunting from the harp playing of Denis Hempson in Magilligan after the 1792 Belfast Harp festival.
There are numerous statues and plaques in Limavady to commemorate its link to this world-famous song and every year it holds the Danny Boy Festival. A surprising fact is that Frederic Weatherly never visited Ireland. According to Frederic’s great-grandson, Margaret who sent him the air was never acknowledged for her part in the song’s creation and died in poverty in the USA.
Danny Boy the Famous Funeral Song
Danny boy has become a popular song that is played at funerals and wakes probably because of its haunting melody and lyrics. The song represents love and loss which is fitting with the passing of a loved one. The song was famously played at both Princess Diana’s and Elvis Presley’s funerals. Elvis had once said “he thought ‘Danny Boy’ was written by angels” and asked for it to be played at his funeral and it was.
On the 2nd September 2018, Senator John McCain funeral was held and he had award-winning opera singer Renee Fleming sing the song. It was a song McCain is reported to have enjoyed listening to as he sat on the porch of his Arizona cabin. It is seen as a nod to his Irish routes.
It’s easy to understand why it is a popular funeral song as it’s in the same group of folk songs that are universally loved such as Amazing Grace and Ave Maria.
If you listen to the song above and read through the Danny Boy lyrics below you will find that song is about separation, loss and eventual peace. The traditional melody tempo is well suited to a funeral. The core theme is someone who has passed and the focus on the person left behind. The song was also played at the funeral of American President John F Kennedy.
According to Fred Weatherly’s great-grandson Anthony Mann – who published a book “In Sunshine and In Shadow” the story behind the Danny Boy song available on Amazon. The actual words to the song were written at a time of great pain for Fredrick Weatherly.
His father and only son died within 3 months of each other. The song was conceived as a song about a woman mourning a man who had gone away. The words of loss and reunion after death had special meaning for the Irish people of the time who faced mass migration. Irish people saw the words of grieving the loss of a family member who died for the cause of independence ( against the British ). While unionist saw it as a call to arms for the British Army.
Who Wrote Danny Boy?
As mentioned above the Danny Boy Song was written by Fredric Weatherly (1848-1929), who was a famous composer and writer with over an amazing 2,000 songs under his belt. Weatherly was encouraged as a child to follow his love of music, verse writing and playing the Piano by his mother and that had hugely shaped him and his writing.
His second love in life was legal law and at the age of 39 he went to train as a Barrister in London, so you could say he was a man of many talents.
Some of his most well- known songs other than Danny boy is the religious “The Holy City,” and the wartime song “Roses of Picardy.”
O Danny Boy Lyrics – Also Known as Oh Danny Boy Lyrics
Oh, 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,
And I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so!
But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
And I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an “Avé” 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!
Danny Boy Music Sheet:
Meaning Behind Oh Danny Boy Song
The lyrics to the Oh Danny Boy song are simple yet full of emotion that is hauntingly beautiful to everyone who hears it.
In the first line of the song you here “The pipes, the pipes are calling” which is meant to be a reference to when the bagpipes would play in Ireland, that was the call to arms for many young Irish Men.
On the third line, “Summer gone, and all the roses are falling” suggests at how fast time and life is passing by, giving you that nostalgic feeling of something you can’t get back.
Another line of the song is “Tis you, tis you, must go and I must bide” which could be suggesting that two people are being forced apart. It doesn’t give us any indicates as to what’s going to happen next, an uncertainty of how things will end.
If you read further into the Oh Danny Boy lyrics you will probably find things that you didn’t know before, it is a powerful song yet very sad at the same time.
Throughout the years, there have been several interpretations of the true meaning behind Danny Boy. One of these interpretations suggests that the song is a message from a parent to a son going off to a war, which now seems like a foreshadowing as later on Fred Weatherly’s son Danny joined the RAF during WWI and was subsequently killed in action. There are other views on its meaning, but this one seems to be the most common.
Danny Boy has also been considered an unofficial anthem by Irish Americans and Irish Canadians. It’s frequent singing at funerals and memorial services means people associate the beautiful song with loved ones and very emotional times in their lives, thus possibly ensuring it has a special meaning for most who hear it. In modern times it has been sung at some very famous funerals – it is becoming known as “the funeral song”.
From the Lego movie where the bad cop character sings the Danny Boy lyrics to Liam Neeson singing the Danny Boy tune with Peter Travers in this short video. Liam explains why it is such s special and emotion song for him and for many Irish.
Oh Danny Boy Song with Chords:
More interesting information on the story behind the song in the video below:
What Was Fred Weatherly Thinking As He Wrote Danny Boy?
Below is a description, in Weatherly’s own words of the writing process of Danny Boy from start to finish:
“In 1912 a sister-in-law in America sent me “The Londonderry Air”. I had never heard the melody or even heard of it. By some strange oversight, Moore had never put words to it, and at the time I received the MS. I did not know that anyone else had done so. It so happened that I had written in March of 1910 a song called “Danny Boy,” and re-written it in 1911. By lucky chance it only required a few alterations to make it fit that beautiful melody. After my song had been accepted by a publisher I got to know that Alfred Percival Graves had written two sets of words to the same melody, “Emer’s Farewell” and “Erin’s Apple-blossom,” and I wrote to tell him what I had done.
He took up a strange attitude and said that there was no reason why I should not write a new set of words to the “Minstrel Boy,” but he did not suppose I should do so! The answer of course is that Moore’s words, “The Minstrel Boy” are so “perfect a fit” to the melody that I certainly should not try to compete with Moore. But beautiful as Grave’s words are, they do not to my fancy suit the Londonderry air. They seem to have none of the human interest which the melody demands. I am afraid my old friend Graves did not take my explanation in the spirit which I hoped from the author of those splendid words, “Father o’ Flynn.”
More on The Writing Process of the Danny Boy Song
Weatherly continued – “Danny Boy” is accepted as an accomplished fact and is sung all over the world by Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike, by English as well as Irish, in America as well as in the homeland, and I am certain “Father o’ Flynn” is equally popular, as it deserves to be, and its author need have no fear that I shall be so foolish as to write a new version of that song…. It will be seen that there is nothing of the rebel song in it, and no note of bloodshed. “Rory Darlin'” on the other hand is a rebel song. It has been set sympathetically by Hope Temple. No doubt if Sir William Hardman were alive, he would forbid it being sung at Surrey Sessions mess.”
Famous Singers Who Covered Danny Boy
We have often been asked, “Who sang Danny Boy?” Over the last century, Danny Boy has been covered by numerous famous singers, including Mario Lanza, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Shane MacGowan, Jackie Wilson, Daniel O’Donnell, Harry Belafonte, Tom Jones, John Gary, Jacob Collier and Harry Connick Jr, amongst others.
Check out the videos below of some of our personal favourite video renditions of the Danny Boy song by some well-known singers.
Johnny Cash Singing Danny Boy:
Elvis Presley Singing Danny Boy:
Celtic Woman Singing Danny Boy:
Celtic Woman’s version of Danny Boy is very popular today on YouTube – here is a version of it below –
Daniel O’Donnell Singing Danny Boy:
Irish Tenors Singing Danny Boy
Danny Boy also may have inspired other songs to be sung to the same tune, such as “You Raise Me Up,”, which was popularised by Josh Groban. This song is commonly been said to have been influenced by the Irish classic.
Danny Boy In Contemporary Pop Culture
In addition to inspiring many songs, Danny Boy was also featured on several modern movies and TV shows, such as The Simpsons, 30 Rock, Futurama, Modern Family, The Lego Movie, Iron Fist, Memphis Belle, and When Calls the Heart.
Furthermore, as proof of how the song has been deeply integrated into Irish Culture, Danny Boy was used to represent Northern Ireland at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. We are glad to say this song counts as a Northern Irish anthem and Irish anthem no matter where it is sung or who sings it.
The Original Londonderry Air Song:
In listening to the Londonderry Air – you can clearly see the similarity between that song and Danny boy. Below are the words to the Londonderry Air and a video of the song itself. What do you think when you listen to it? The same song as Danny boy?
Londonderry Air Lyrics;
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 burnish’d apple
For you to pluck me, gliding by so cold
While sun and shade you robe of lawn will dapple
Your robe of lawn, and you hair’s spun gold.
Yea, would to God I were among the roses,
That lean to kiss you as you float between,
While on the lowest branch a bud uncloses,
A bud uncloses, to touch you, queen.
Nay, since you will not love, would I were growing,
A happy daisy, in the garden path,
That so your silver foot might press me going,
Might press me going even unto death.
Other Song’s like Danny Boy:
Celtic Women- You Raise me Up
Celtic Women- Amazing Grace
The Much Loved Danny Boy Song
O’Danny Boy has become a hugely popular part of Irish Culture and every Irish person loves to proudly sing it, even though the song was written by an English man, the song is home to Ireland and means a lot to the people here.
One reason why we believe the song has never gone away and never will is even though loss is suggested throughout the song, it also represents the notion of being reunited with loved ones one day, and that is probably why people treasure it so much.
In short, Irish culture and traditions is deeply rooted in the arts, especially songs that reflect their strong emotions and changing circumstances. Their songs have carried Irish culture and traditions all over the world, spreading awareness of the beauty of Ireland. Irish song and lyrics have travelled the world as the Irish travelled and have become popular culture at the same time.
What are your thoughts on the Danny Boy song? what meaning do you find within then words? We would love to know in the comments below as we debate one of the most popular Irish songs and one of the most popular songs in the world. As often the case – the meaning behind the lyrics is often left to the listener. Who was Danny? Where was he going? Who was singing at him? Was it a young man going to war, an Irish man emigrating or someone signing up for a Battle of Independence against Britain?
We will leave you with one last video. What Oh Danny Boy means to former boxing champion Barry McGuigan. Barry was born in Clones Ireland and as a Catholic married a Protestant in Northern Ireland – it was his father who sang this song before he came out to box where the entire crowd joined in.
Quick Answers to Questions on the Danny Boy Song
Is Danny Boy Irish or Scottish?
Frederic Weatherly, an Englishman was sent the song The Londonderry Air, where he changed the song lyrics to the now world famous Oh Danny Boy. A blind fiddler in Limavady played the Londonderry Air which was recorded and sent to Weatherly, who added its new words.
Who sang the original version of Danny Boy?
Frederic Weatherly wrote the words to Danny Boy in 1910 and added them to the Londonderry Air in 1912. It was vocalist Elsie Griffin, who made the song one of the most popular songs of the era as she entertained British troops in France during WWI. The very first recording of Danny Boy was produced in 1918 by Ernestine Schumann-Heink.
Is Danny Boy a funeral song?
Due to its Irish air and sad words on loss, family and reunion – it has become a popular song to play at funerals and is often sung at Irish funerals by family members. It is associated with very hard times in Ireland with emigration and war – carrying the theme of love and loss around the world.
What is the meaning of the name Danny?
The name Daniel comes from the Hebrew word “daniy’el” which translates as “God is my judge.” It is a name that comes from the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament. Danny is a popular nickname for the name Danny and the name has been popular in English speaking countries over the last 500 years.
Who composed the Londonderry Air?
It is believed that the Londonderry Air was recorded by Jane Ross in Limavady when a blind fiddler called Jimmy McCurry ( 1830-1910) who lived in the local workhouse at the time, played the song opposite her home. She passed the music to George Petrie who published the air in 1855 in a book called “Ancient Music of Ireland”. It is a traditional Irish song that can be traced back to 1796.
There is such an incredible history surrounding the Danny Boy song! What is your favourite version of Danny Boy? We would love to know! Johnny Cash’s version of Danny Boy is definitely right up there as the best.
Also if you loved this article check out the history, lyrics and meaning on another famous song ‘Amazing Grace’. Danny Boy’s hometown now has an award-winning, annual music festival – Stendhal. A musical culture that continues to grow even now.
Check out some of our other blog posts, that we think you’ll enjoy such as, Famous Irish People | History of Gaelic Ireland | The importance of the Claddagh Ring | Abbey Ruins | St. Patrick Day in Northern Ireland | Digging into the Secrets of Irish Pookas