The real story behind Danny Boy, the beloved Irish ballad

What are the origins of Ireland's most famous ballad?

Many Irish people have a love/hate relationship with the popular song "Danny Boy." The opening lyrics are sure to draw a few voices of dissent from the crowd if a singer takes it upon themselves to belt out one of the most over-played songs in the history of overplayed songs and yet, the same dissenters will willingly join in if the mood strikes and they're feeling particularly homesick. 

Few people are aware, however, of the true origins of Ireland's infamous and unofficial international national anthem, such as the fact that it's not even a completely Irish song. 

In 2001, the Irish-American actor and writer Malachy McCourt took it upon himself to unravel the mystery of perhaps the most popular Irish song ever in his book "Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad."

Who is Danny? Why are the pipes calling? And why did Catholic dioceses ban the beloved ballad's use during funerals?

It has since become a generally accepted (although still potentially blasphemous) fact that the lyrics of "Danny Boy" are in no way related to Ireland.

Not only are the famed lyrics not Irish but they were not even written by an Irishman, and no matter how vehemently the Irish claim authorship of the song, the fact remains that "Danny Boy" was written by, of all people, a British lawyer, McCourt writes.

In the hands of the Limerick-born author-actor-racontmceur, the musical story of "Danny Boy" has its roots way back in the terrible 1690 siege of Derry in Northern Ireland, and its colorful cast of characters includes Charles Dickens' son and a Jack the Ripper suspect.

In his quest to unravel the mystery McCourt enlisted poet Seamus Heaney, actress Roma Downey, and even his Pulitzer Prize-winning brother Frank, to explain "Danny Boy's" enduring appeal. 

McCourt distorts everything we previously believed of our beloved song revealing that "Danny Boy" is not even a completely original song but a version among the 100s of different lyrics set to the tune of the "Derry Air."

The original air is believed by some to date back to Rory Dall O'Cahan, an Irish harpist who lived in Scotland in the late 17th century, while the lyrics as we know and love them today were penned by a British barrister and prolific song writer, Frederick Edward Weatherly.

To add insult to injury, the lyrics weren't even originally used with the "Derry Air" having been written by Weatherly for another tune in 1910. In 1913, Weatherly's sister sent him the tune of "Derry Air," he adapted the lyrics to the tune and it was an instant success.

Weatherly gave the song to the English opera singer Elsie Grffin, who introduced the song to a wider audience. The first recording was made in 1915 by the German vocalist Ernestine Schumann-Heink. 

There are many theories behind the lyrics of "Danny Boy" with everybody making their own of the song's true meaning. Some popular theories include a parent wishing their son to return to them before they die, a parent sending a message to a son at war or immigrating and one theory even believes the words are those of a desolate gay lover.  

No matter the origins or the meaning, "Danny Boy" has still become the song of the Irish, with Irish people worldwide identifying with its words and associating it with our country's struggle for independence. 

*Originally published August 2001. 

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