March 17th, 2003

Danny Boy: An emotional day for Ireland's favorite son

By Jack Broom
Seattle Times staff reporter

You could start with simple questions: Just who is this "Danny Boy"? Where are the pipes calling him? And who, exactly, must "bide" at home?

Then the questions could get deeper: Why do Irish Americans feel so attached to a song with lyrics by an Englishman and avoided by a fair number of contemporary Irish performers?

And how has a simple, two-verse song attracted recordings by scores of artists — from crooner Bing Crosby to rock/soul singer Patti LaBelle, big-band leader Glenn Miller to country singer Slim Whitman to the gospel group Five Blind Boys of Alabama?

"It's always emotional," said Irish-born Joe McAleese of Mercer Island, who's been singing it for decades, even at a few wakes. "Undertakers say, 'Get the money off 'em while they're singing "Danny Boy.

The song could have a particular poignancy this year, as so many families have watched sons, daughters, husbands, wives leave home in preparation for war. "It's so dominant in everybody's mind, there's an extra seriousness to the event," said Mary Shriane, a co-chair of Seattle's Irish Week activities. A Catholic Mass at noon today at Plymouth Congregational Church was scheduled as a time for Catholics and Protestants to pray for peace in Ireland, but many of those in attendance will likely have a broader peace in mind, she said.

The history of "Danny Boy" links a centuries-old melody with relatively modern lyrics.

McCourt and other researchers point to indications the music came from an Irish harpist of the 1600s, Rory Dall O'Cahan. The tune was called "Derry Air," borrowing the name of an Irish county. Under English dominance, that switched to "Londonderry," a term many Irish shun.

"Of course, the Victorians wouldn't say 'Derry Air' " said McCourt, because it sounds like 'the nether regions of the body.' "

Although other sets of lyrics had been penned for the piece, the ones that stuck came from an English barrister, Frederick E. Weatherly. According to McCourt, Weatherly wrote them for a different tune in 1910, but switched them to "Derry Air" when a relative sent him a copy of the music in 1913.

"The 'Air' is like no other," McCourt said. "It's the sort of melody that strikes a melancholy chord in all of us."

His book lists more than 120 groups or solo artists who have recorded the song, and that doesn't include the hundreds more who have been coaxed into performing it at clubs, bars and parties.

Though it's not 100 percent Irish, its Irish roots are much deeper than those of a couple of other St. Patrick's Day standards, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (1912) and "My Wild Irish Rose" (1899). Those stage tunes were penned by Chauncey Olcott, born in Buffalo, N.Y.

Authentic or not, there's no denying "Danny Boy" is well-trod ground.

"It became so popular there was a bit of a backlash," said Fiona Ritchie, host of NPR's "The Thistle & Shamrock" Celtic music show. "I've tended to take a wide berth around it, though there are a couple of nice guitar versions."

Chris Teskey of Green Linnet Records, a Connecticut-based label with two dozen artists playing traditional and original Celtic tunes, likens "Danny Boy" to the proverbial night spot that's so crowded nobody goes there.

But there are moments, he allows, in which a musician's own preferences run headlong into an audience's request — or demand — to hear the familiar song. In that case, said Teskey, a performer has only two options: a version of "Danny Boy" or a very good excuse.

"I used to have a bluegrass band and people would always ask for 'Danny Boy.' And we had a fiddle player who did a very nice solo of it," said Teskey. "That worked out great. The people loved it — and I didn't have to sing it."

Liam Gallagher, a Belfast-raised singer/guitarist who lives in Issaquah, said there may be no appeasing a "Danny"-hungry audience around St. Patrick's Day. "Some people would rather hear a bad version of 'Danny Boy' than no version at all."

Gallagher sings the song, but admits that with its octave-plus range, it's no easy task. "I suspect some people say they don't sing it because they can't."

He, too, values the ambiguity of the lyrics. "Any good song is worth an argument," he said. "If you have a song that has one interpretation, it's more limited in its appeal."

Over the years, the song has drawn various interpretations, even additional lyrics. One extra verse, recorded by Sinéad O'Connor and other artists, refers specifically to fighting and dying for Ireland's freedom.

Among the popular "Danny Boy" renditions in recent years is the 1992 recording by Scotch-Irish John McDermott, a solo artist and original member of The Irish Tenors. McDermott's treatment of the song is widely regarded as sweet and quiet, in keeping with the emotions the song commonly evokes.

But McDermott himself isn't so picky. Though he's heard "Danny Boy" played in a vast number of styles, "I have never heard a version that offends me."

McDermott moved from Scotland to Canada with his parents in 1965, and got his break into the recording business after singing "Danny Boy" at an office party at the Toronto Sun, where he worked as a circulation manager.

He recorded the song as a gift to his parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, but the recording became wildly successful when it was offered in a TV promotion.

Ardent devotees of the song may think it fits every occasion, but Catholics have debated its appropriateness at funerals. When officials of the Diocese of Providence, R.I., put out word in 2001 that "Danny Boy" and other secular songs should not be sung at funeral Mass, a controversy was ignited.

The song has been played at many Catholic funerals, including those for actor Carroll O' Connor, John F. Kennedy Jr. and New York City Fire Chief Peter Ganci, killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.

One retired Rhode Island police officer, Charles McKenna, wrote to the local diocesan newspaper: "I want 'Danny Boy' sung at my funeral Mass and, if it isn't, I'm going to get up and walk out."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or