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Danny Boy, the history of a half-Irish classic

A traditional Irish scene
A traditional Irish scene

Danny Boy, the globally recognised folk music classic, has a curious history. Like most folk tunes it can trace its history deep into the 19th century and beyond. Yet in its present form it is little more than a century old. Quintessentially Irish, it is not entirely from that country. Widely covered by an array of musicians, its lyrics have never entirely stuck.

Not the original title

The song ‘Danny Boy’ is a 1913 setting of lyrics to an earlier tune, ‘Londonderry Air’, which was written down by the folksong collector Jane Ross around the middle of the 19th century. The origins of the melody being unclear, she named it after the area where she found it, County Londonderry.

Not the original lyrics

It later came to light that ‘Londonderry Air’ was actually based on an earlier tune knows as ‘Aisling an Óigfhir’ (‘The Young Man's Dream’). This had its own set of lyrics that began:

'Oh! shrive me, father – haste, haste, and shrive me,
'Ere sets yon dread and flaring sun’

After Ross’s publication of ‘Londonderry Air’ a number of other attempts were made to add lyrics to it. Irish writer Katherine Tynan Hinkson wrotte a verse entitled ‘Irish Love Song’:

Would I were Erin's apple-blossom o'er you,
Or Erin's rose, in all its beauty blown

And, like many folksongs, it was also used for hymns, including ‘I cannot tell’ by William Young Fullerton and ‘O Christ the same through all our story’s pages’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith.

The English connection

The familiar lyrics ‘Danny Boy’ were actually written by an Englishman, the lawyer Frederic Weatherly in 1910:

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,

It's I'll be there in sunshine or in shadow,—

Oh, Danny boy, Oh Danny boy, I love you so!

They were not initially attached to the melody ‘Londonderry Air’, but to a different tune. In 1913, possibly at the suggestion of his sister-in-law, he set the lyrics to the Irish tune, creating the piece as we know it today.


The lyrics convey a melancholic sense of longing, love and farewell. A typical interpretation is that it is a message from a parent, especially a mother, to a son leaving home. This could be to emigrate or to go to war. The song contains vivid images of nature, emphasising the beauty of the homeland and the pain of parting. It also, however, contains a note of hope in the promise of return.

A not so sticky classic

Weatherly’s ‘Danny Boy’ became a globally recognised symbol of Irish culture. In this form is has been recorded many times, the most popular versions including those by Bing Crosby (1945)

Elvis Presley (1976):

and Hayley Westenra:

It is also the case, however that ‘Danny Boy’ has never completely supplanted its original title—it’s still almost as common to refer to the song as ‘Londonderry Air’, especially when performed without words. Another sign of this is that new lyrics have continued to be devised for ‘Londonderry Air’, even as ‘Danny Boy’ rocketed in popularity.

This is especially true in terms of it being set as a hymn tune, one of the most recent of many versions being ‘I would be true’, used at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Other versions to use the melody but different lyrics include ‘Let Us Be Glad’ written for the end of the 1948 Summer Olympics; "Maidín i mBéara”, a setting using Irish lyrics sung by the Bunratty Castle chorus during the 1970s; "Air from County Derry" by Belgian singer Helmut Lotti, featuring his own lyrics; and ‘紅 (Kurenai)’, arranged by Japanese composer to lyrics by Minami Kizuki.

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