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‘Oh, Danny Boy’: The Lyrics and History of Ireland’s Beloved Song

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.

O' Danny Boy Song Cover - An Old Irish Air -by Fred E Weatherly
O’ Danny Boy Song Cover – An Old Irish Air -by Fred E Weatherly

‘The Pipes Are Calling’: The Inspiration for Danny Boy

The origins of Danny Boy’s lyrics lie in the most surprising of places, namely, an English lawyer. Frederic Weatherly was a famed lyricist and broadcaster, who wrote the lyrics to Danny Boy in Bath, Somerset, in 1913. It is estimated that he wrote the lyrics to over 3000 songs before his death. Weatherly was inspired to pen Danny Boy after his Irish-born,   sister-in-law Margaret sent him a copy of ‘Londonderry Air’ from the United States. An Irish tune that had humble origins from a small town in Ireland was being played on an international stage in the state of Colorado. On hearing this haunting sound, Margaret immediately went and found out its origins before sending it straight to her brother-in-law. This prompted Weatherly to change the lyrics of Danny Boy to fit the tune of ‘Londonderry Air’.

Hoping for it to gain popularity, Weatherly gave the song to the vocalist Elsie Griffin, who succeeded in making it one of the most popular songs of the era. She was deployed to entertain the British troops fighting in World War One in France. Due to its increasing favour, it was decided that a recording would be made of it. 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 a Jane Ross in Limavady. According to legend, a blind fiddler called Jimmy McCurry would sit on the Limavady streets and play delightful songs as a means of gathering coppers. Living in the local workhouse, he played local and Irish traditional ballads. On one occasion, he set up his playing space for the day opposite Jane Ross’s home. He played a particular tune that caught her attention. Noting down the infamous tune, she had collected a great number of Irish traditional songs, and passed them to a George Petrie, who published the air in 1855 in a music book called “Ancient Music of Ireland”. 

Fast forward to the United States in 1912, where Margaret Weatherly, a Colorado resident, hears a delightful tune and requests it as something to send to someone she regarded as a skilled poet. Margaret sent the copy of the tune to her brother-in-law, a lawyer by trade and a wordsmith in his spare time. Knowing he will create something grand out of it, she requests he writes lyrics to the tune. It is unknown how Maragaret came about the tune itself but, it is believed that she had possibly heard it from Irish emigrants leaving Ireland for the New World or from her father, another passionate fiddle player. 

The lawyer and lyricist Fred Weatherly hailed from Somerset. Passionate about music, Weatherly wrote lyrics in his spare time between court cases. Having already written the lyrics to Danny Boy, he heard the tune of the Londonderry Air and manipulated his words around the song itself. Thus, Danny Boy was birthed into the loved song that it is today. 

limavady-danny-boy
Limavady Main Street where Danny Boy’s tune was first heard. (Source: roevalley.com)

The History of Danny Boy

While the modern origins of the song have originated in Limavady, it is believed that its ancient roots are tied elsewhere. The air itself was used in Aisling an Oigfir, a tune attributed to Ruadhrai Dall O’Cathain. This was then collected by Edward Bunting and arranged for the harp playing of Denis Hempson in Magilligan at the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival. 

Recognising the incredible connection to the town, Limavady has erected numerous statues and plaques throughout the area to commemorate its humble links to the song itself. Every year, the Danny Boy Festival is hosted in the town with the butcher even making bespoke ‘Danny Boy Sausages’ for the visitors. 

Despite the heavy Irish connection, Fredric Weatherly never visited Ireland to learn its history or pay homage to its ancestry. According to Fredric Weatherly’s great-grandson, Margaret Weatherly who was, of course, the reason that Fredric became acquainted with the song, was never acknowledged for her role in the song’s creation and died penniless in the United States. A tragic end to a figure who brought one of the most recognisable songs into the public domain. 

Danny Boy Song: A Song for Funerals

Danny boy has become a song regularly played at funerals and wakes. It’s haunting melody and the sense of returning home have made it a tune usually picked by the deceased to be played at the funeral itself. Representing love and loss, the song is befitting the passing of a loved one and has become a great comfort to those who hear it as well. The song was famously played at the funerals of Princess Diana and Elvis Presley. Presley, who had a real affinity with it, believed that “Danny Boy was written by angels” and promptly requested that it was one of the songs played at his funeral. 

After the death of Senator and Presidential nominee, John McCain, his funeral was held on the 2nd September 2018. Award-winning opera singer, Renee Fleming, performed his requested song Danny Boy for McCain’s mourners. 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.

A universally loved folk song, it is easy to grasp why it has risen in popularity as a funeral song, competing with other cult classic songs like Amazing Grace and Ave Maria. So used to liturgical spaces, it stands out amongst hymns and songs played in these hallowed spaces. 

john-mccain-danny-boy
Senator John McCain had Danny Boy played at his funeral. (Souce: Frank A Fey).

Danny Boy’s lyrics are steeped in a variety of themes: separation, loss, and eventual peace frame the lyrics of the work and make them wholly relatable to those who are listening. The core theme delves into the idea of someone’s pain at the loss of a loved one and how they cope with it. The tempo that the song dictates is also perfectly suited to a funeral, sombre and demure, a slow and gentle grieving. The song was also played at the funeral of American President John F Kennedy.

The lyrics to Danny Boy, according to Fred Weatherly’s great-grandson Anthony Mann, were written in a time of great struggle for Weatherly. Fred Weatherly’s father and son died within three months of each other. The song was conceived with the notion of a woman mourning a man who had been a loss. It becomes even more poignant on the realisation that the song’s pain stems from Fred Weatherly’s own.

The ideas of loss and reunion after death had a deeper meaning to the Irish at the time. Due to mass emigration, people were leaving loved ones on the island of Ireland, never to see them again. The island was still reeling from the effects of the famine as well. Each community in Ireland also had ideas of what it meant to them. People who were raised in the nationalist persuasion believed that the song was about someone grieving over fighting for the cause of independence against the British. Unionist households saw it as a call to arms for the British Army. Anthony Mann delves into these thoughts in his book “In Sunshine and In Shadow”, the story behind Danny Boy.

fred-weatherly-anthony-mann
Anthony Mann, the grandson of Fredric Weatherly who has penned information on the ballad. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

 

Who Wrote the Danny Boy Song? 

The Danny Boy song has become one of the most well-known and received pieces of music in existence. Written by Fredric Weatherly, he became a respected composer and writer throughout the United Kingdom, penning some two thousand songs throughout his career. Despite not being considered a poet in University, having lost out to the Newdigate Prize twice, it seems that he developed into a considerable talent. Encouraged as a child to follow his love of music and verse, his mother taught him piano and spent hours crafting songs with him. 

While all these accomplishments are admirable, Fredric Weatherly was not a full-time lyricist. He read law and qualified as a barrister in London marking a successful legal career to boot. The Danny Boy song is not Weatherly’s only well-known work. He also penned ‘The Holy City’, and the wartime song ‘Roses of Picardy’ that were both met with critical acclaim.

Who wrote danny boy? Frederic Weatherly - Black and White Photo
Who wrote Danny boy? Frederic Weatherly (Photo Source Wikipedia Commons)

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 mountainside,

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 maybe,

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:

 

O' Danny Boy-History song lyrics-oh danny boy music
O’ Danny Boy-History song lyrics-oh Danny boy music (Photo Source: 8Notes)

Meaning Behind Oh Danny Boy Song

When the song of Danny Boy or Oh, Danny Boy is broken down, it is a ballad of beauty and pain. An incredibly popular song, it is a favourite of many and has become one of the most recognisable melodies of all time. 

The first line recounts “The pipes, the pipes are calling” which are about the bagpipes being played. This was often seen as a call to arms in Celtic battalions of the British Army and would have been a common sound for those who knew the war was coming. 

By the third line, “Summer is gone, and all the roses are falling” the darkening tone continues. Many are aware of the loss of life that these wars bring and, indeed, the inevitably of death. Time and life are passing by and there is no control over them. It is this nostalgic feeling of 

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 indication as to what’s going to happen next,  but there is an uncertainty of how things will end.

The Danny Boy lyrics are challenging and thought-provoking, creating a sense of pain and loss, muddled with the acceptance of this as a part of life. It has tones of melancholy and finding strength in pain. 

There have been multiple interpretations of the true meaning behind the song of Danny Boy with lots of different histories dictating their results. One interpretation is that of a son being sent off to war and the parent lamenting this reality. It seems this interpretation foreshadows the writer’s biography, as Fred Weatherly’s son Danny joined the RAF during the First World War and was subsequently killed in action. While other ideas are held to the true meaning of the lyrics, it would appear that this interpretation holds to the lyricist’s biography. 

A beloved song across the world, Danny Boy is considered the unofficial anthem of Irish-Americans and Irish-Canadians. Due to it being commonly sung at funerals and memorial services, Danny Boy is a song that is associated with loved ones and emotional situations. This, in turn, creates a deeper meaning for most who hear it, cherishing it in a form of nostalgia. This same popularity is why it is considered ‘the funeral song’ as people request it as their last ballad at the refrain of their own lives. 

Its tremendous reputation has seen it featured in many acclaimed films. From the Lego Movie to chat show hosts, Danny Boy has been sung in many mixed-mediums. Liam Neeson famously sang the Danny Boy song to Peter Travers and later explains why the song holds a special meaning to him and many other Irish people. 

 

Oh, Danny Boy Song with Chords:

Danny boy song cords-sheet music for danny boy with lyrics
Danny boy song cords-sheet music for Danny boy with lyrics

The Story Behind the Song Danny Boy:

A breathtaking visual experience, the below video provides a short history of the song Danny Boy.

What Was Fred Weatherly Thinking As He Wrote Danny Boy?

Writing a ballad of this acclaim is a difficult task and primary knowledge is always an important part of understanding a song. Below are Fred Weatherly’s own words on the writing process of Danny Boy.

“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

Danny Boy is a tune that has influenced the world for a significant period. Naturally, it makes sense that there have been multiple renditions of the stirring ballad by singers from a variety of backgrounds and grounds. 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. Some of our favourites are listed below.

Johnny Cash Singing Danny Boy:

The bad boy of country, Johnny Cash sings an incredible version of Danny Boy. Cash was obsessed with his Celtic roots and took great joy in singing this mournful ballad. 

Elvis Presley Singing Danny Boy:

He once described this song as “written by angels”, the King himself had this song played at his funeral. An incredible crooner, Elvis Presley delivers his spiritual interpretation of the song. 

Celtic Woman Singing Danny Boy:

The music ensemble. Celtic Woman has a version of Danny Boy that has almost come synonymous with the song itself.  Taking their roots in Riverdance, Celtic Woman is a perfect reflection of Irish culture for the masses and they do a riveting performance of the Danny Boy song.

Daniel O’Donnell Singing Danny Boy:

The song master from Donegal, a beloved singer who has become a household name in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Daniel O’Donnell brings his influences of country and Irish folk to his rendition of Danny Boy.

Irish Tenors Singing Danny Boy:

After being established in 1998, The Irish Tenors have become a popular fixture on the classical circuit. Bringing a refined version of the lyric to life, The Irish Tenors provide a spectacular performance of the lament.

A song of this calibre has naturally influenced other songs and writers to create incredible ballads and tunes that are famous in their own right. One such song that has garnered a lot of fame is ‘You Raise Me Up’. Popularised by Josh Groban, the song was supposedly influenced by the Irish classic. 

 

Danny Boy In Contemporary Pop Culture

Not content with simply inspiring countless songs, Danny Boy has been featured in several films and television shows. The Simpsons, 30 Rock, Futurama, Modern Family, The Lego Movie, Iron Fist, Memphis Belle, and When Calls the Heart have all shared a version of the beloved song on their screens. 

The song itself has become deeply ingrained in Irish culture. In the London 2012 Olympics, Danny Boy was used as the song to represent Northern Ireland in the opening ceremony. Its deep links to Limavady in the North Coast of the isle served it well as a representation for the people of Northern Ireland. Regardless if you are from the North or South of the Island, Danny Boy serves as an anthem for all who sing it and derive meaning from it. 

The Original Londonderry Air Song:

When hearing the tune of the Londonderry Air, it is impossible to not recognise the similarities between it and Danny Boy. The lyrics are indeed different but, due to the popularity of Danny Boy, it is hard to differentiate between the tunes.

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.

Songs Reminscient of Danny Boy:

Celtic Woman sings ‘You Raise Me Up’, a song that is directly influenced by Danny Boy and its melody.

Celtic Women – Amazing Grace

‘Amazing Grace’ is a spiritual song sung regularly in services and funerals to this day. It has the same type of cultural impact as the song Danny Boy.

The Much Loved Danny Boy Song

Danny Boy has become a hugely popular part of Irish Culture and it can be guaranteed that everyone has their meaning to the song itself. Which seems ironic considering the lyrics were written by an Englishman. Regardless, people take great pride in the emotion of the song and playing it for others. 

The song stands the test of time due to its relatability – everyone has experienced some form of loss before. Though, as the song leads us to believe, there will always be the possibility of being reunited with our loved ones one day. It is this comfort that has allowed it to become an incredibly popular song.

The arts form a huge part of Irish culture and have deep-rooted traditions. Some of these traditions are reflected in Irish ballads and exert the idea of the nation’s emotions and, at times, tragic circumstances. It is these sorrowful laments that have managed to find their way into songs and stories all over the world. As the Irish emigrated to the New World, so did their talents and cultural gifts, and they continue to influence the modern arts globally to this day. 

Danny Boy is a song that holds significant meaning to different listeners. Everyone has some form of interpretation of the song and has been deeply affected by it in some way. Whether you are a purist and believe that is a biographical piece, the lyrics were written about the loss of Fredric Weatherly’s son Danny in World War One or perhaps you believe it is about emigration. Regardless, the influence that Danny Boy has created on people is astounding. 

One person who was affected by Oh, Danny Boy is the boxing champion, Barry McGuigan. Born in Clones, Ireland, McGuigan caused controversy during a turbulent time in Northern Ireland – despite being a Catholic, he married a Protestant. His father united every crowd on the island though by singing Danny Boy before McGuigan boxed – everyone in the 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 the 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.

A Song of History: Danny Boy

Danny Boy has a fascinating and incredible history. Countless artists have ambled at the chance of playing it and putting their spin on the song. Songs like ‘You Raise Me Up’ have been written due to its influence and it has featured in multiple films and television series. 

Danny Boy’s hometown of Limavady now has an award-winning, annual music festival – Stendhal. A musical culture that continues to grow even now. A song that everyone has a story about – Danny Boy. 

 

ConnollyCovehttp://jovial-room.flywheelsites.com
Travel Ireland – North and South. Discover amazing things to do and see – find new places to visit and all the fun a holiday in Ireland can be. A video blog/vlog of Ireland and more.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I first thought that this was a young woman’s plea. But there was nothing to explain
    why she thought she might die before he returned. Also, I didn’t know if he was
    leaving Ireland for some other country across the sea or, as some suggested, going
    to war. And there had been the potato famine of years before that forced the Irish
    to America and elsewhere. . .

    Could this be the sensitive reflections of a father? Perhaps. I don’t know.

    • Hi Norman, Thank you very much for your comments here. We have done more research on this subject and updated the article above. It does seem that a lot of people have taken a different view on what the words mean and of course when it was written there was a lot happening – as you mention – Emigration, war and the author lost his father and only son just before writing the words of the song. An endearing classic. Thank you again for reading and commenting. Best Regards.

  2. An alternate interpretation is one of a fallen, mortally wounded, Irish warrior saying a sad farewell to a beloved comrade, probably a son, named Danny. He is telling Danny that he must go, but the warrior must remain there on the battlefield, forever. But Danny should come back any time of the year for the warrior will surely be waiting there. Danny Boy is to find the grave, say a prayer and say that he loves him. Then the warrior’s grave will be more comfortable and he will rest in piece until Danny Boy joins him on the other side. This would more readily fit with the usage of the song at funerals.

  3. Hi Mel, Thank you for your comment – excellent to read and this makes sense indeed. A very haunting song and reminds us all here of family and funerals to be honest. It is amazing the impact it has on people around the world and how music can be so related to emotions. Really appreciate you adding your comments in here – hope your having a nice weekend. Best Regards,

  4. I believe this is a song about an Irish Farmer, hearing the bag pipes of an English Army group approaching, which is intent on forcing Irish boys into the British Army, is warning his Son that they will take him away possibly never to return. But should he survive his service, to come home to his father, no matter the weather or the time of year. For he will be waiting for his son whether he himself be dead or not, whether in the sunshine of life or the shadow of death.

    • Thank you for sharing, Danny Boy is such a powerful song that has many meanings for those who listen to it, hope you enjoyed the article 🙂

  5. My great great grandfather emirgrated to the United States because they promised land that was good farming land in Alabama for homesteading so he left his family came and we’ve been here since but I remember my Mother singing oh Danny boy to me as a small child.I mean a lot of hardworking Irish people were dying and I know it hurt him to go but he just didn’t see in future in his homeland.

    • Thanks for sharing, Danny Boy has a special meaning to everyone, we’re glad our tribute to the song has evoked some equally special memories. Thank you again.

  6. I have heard the story that it was, as described above, a father’s wish for his son to return to the “Place where I am Dying and say an Ave there for me. I was told that in Ireland when I was a youngster and now I’m 74 years old.

    • Thanks George for sharing your story, every story behind Danny boy has a special meaning for all those who listen. Hope you loved the article, thanks again.

  7. Londoner’s Air is also the melody used in the song “Above the Hills Of Time”. Also written in 1912.

    Above the hills of time the Cross is gleaming;
    Fair as the sun when night has turned to day;
    And from it love’s pure light is richly streaming
    To cleanse the heart and banish sin away.

    To this dear Cross the eyes of men are turning
    Today as in the ages lost to sight;
    And so for Thee O Christ, men’s hearts are yearning
    As ship-wrecked seamen yearn for morning light.

    The Cross, O Christ, Thy wondrous love revealing,
    Awakes our hearts as with the light of morn;
    And pardon o’er our sinful spirits stealing
    Tells us that we, in Thee, have been reborn.

    Like echoes to sweet temple bells replying,
    Our hearts, O Lord make answer to Thy love;
    And we will love Thee with a love undying,
    Till we are gathered to Thy home above

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