[PART 1 OF 3]
“Danny Boy” is a classic song, known and loved by many through the years. The melody is actually the old Irish tune “Londonderry Air”. There is a fascinating story of how that tune came into prominence back in the 19th century, and became “Danny Boy” in the early 20th century.
“Londonderry Air” apparently had its beginnings as “O’Cahan’s Lament”, a tune penned by Rory Dall O’Cahan, a 17th-century Irish harpist, as a lament to the destruction of his clan by the English crown. Bridget O’Cahan, a relative of Rory’s, passed the tune along to one of her music students, a blind Irish harpist named Denis O’Hampsey. O’Hampsey lived to be 112 years old, and brought the tune into the 19th century.
It seems that “O’Cahan’s Lament” was passed from musician to musician, until it found its way into the hands of a blind fiddler named Jimmy McCurry in the County of Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Jane Ross heard Jimmy playing the tune on his fiddle around 1851, and asked him to play it over and over again so that she could write down the notes. She failed, however, to ask Jimmy the name of the song.
Jane Ross passed the tune along to George Petrie, who was compiling a book of The Ancient Music of Ireland to be published by The Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland, which he served as President. The book was published in 1855, and included the tune in a collection of “Anonymous Airs”. The tune would later come to be known as “Londonderry Air”.
Fred Weatherly, an English lawyer, set the words of his poem “Danny Boy” (which he had written in 1910) to the tune of “Londonderry Air” in 1913. Thus was born the song the world knows as “Danny Boy”.
“Danny Boy” and Dad
Dad loved that song. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it had something to do with “O’Rear” being a supposedly Irish name (we’ve always believed we have Irish connections because of our name), and “Danny Boy” being an Irish tune. Perhaps it was simply because of the haunting beauty of the song.
When I was a boy living in Alice, Texas, our church supported a missionary in Ireland. Mom told me that when this missionary came to Alice for a visit, he sang “Danny Boy” one evening while visiting in our home. Maybe that had something to do with Dad’s love for the song.
Anyway, for whatever reason, Dad loved the song “Danny Boy”.
A few years ago, I decided that I would either find or transcribe a four-part harmony arrangement of “Danny Boy” so that my brothers and I could sing it and record it in Dad’s honor. I ended up transcribing the arrangement, but never got the guys together to sing it.
I did, however, record a 3-part arrangement of the song with me singing all three parts (through the magic of a 4-track tape deck to which I had access). You can click the “play” button below to hear it. It has some rough spots, but here it is nonetheless. (I still hope to get my brothers together sometime to sing and record it. I think that would be cool!)
For Further Consideration
As I sat here researching the history of “Danny Boy” and thinking about my family, this fascinating thought occurred to me: What if our last name, O’Rear, actually came from this song?
Follow me here:
- The melody of the song “Danny Boy” actually bears the name “Londonderry Air”.
- What if it was actually one of my ancestors, rather than Blind Jimmy McCurry, who was playing the song when it was “discovered” by Jane Ross back in 1851. (What a weasel that Blind Jimmy was, trying to take credit for something MY ancestors did! I never did like that guy.)
- What if, after hearing the song, Jane Ross asked my ancestor for the name of the song, and he told her “Londonderry Air”.
- “Londonderry Air” could easily be misinterpreted as “London Derriere”, or “The Buttocks of London”.
- It’s possible that Ms. Ross might have misunderstood this to actually be my ancestor’s name, rather than the song’s name.
- It’s not a far stretch from “London Derriere” to “O’Rear”. The song is Irish, my ancestor was Irish, so the name likely would have stuck.
- Fascinating possibilities! I realize that there is not much evidence to support this hypothesis … yet! But I intend to get to the “bottom” of this (pun intended!). I will keep you posted.
- Final thought: If the above scenario proves to be true, the song itself could actually be my ancestor. I may just start telling people, “‘Danny Boy’ is my great-great-great-great-grandsong.”
Part 1: “Danny Boy”
Part 2: “Danny Boy (Part 2, in 4 Parts)”
Part 3: “Danny Boy III“
Next: “Danny Boy (Part 2, in 4 Parts)“
- Ireland, Avondale House, Avondale, County Wicklow, by IvanWalsh.com (Flickr), Creative Commons License.
- “The Origin of Danny Boy“, by Jim Hunter of Limavady Town Partnership, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
- “Danny Boy“, in Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
- “O’Cahan“, in Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
- “George Petrie (artist)“, in Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
- The Petrie collection of the ancient music of Ireland, by George Petrie, David Cooper, Lillis Ó Laoire, in Google Books.
- “Londonderry Air“, in Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
- The Londonderry Air: facts and fiction, by Brian Audley.