The lyrics to Danny Boy are extremely simple yet incredibly moving.
They strike a chord with everyone who hears them, whether for the first or the hundredth time.
The lyrics are very short by Irish ballad standards – just two verses with each verse divided into two sections. Each section moves the story on and introduces a new emotional level.
The scene and the mood are set with supreme ease in the first four lines. The phrase “the pipes, the pipes are calling” is thought to refer to the sound of the bagpipes which were sounded as a call to arms to the young men of Ireland.
The third line tells us the “summer’s gone” and that “all the flowers are dying,” which introduces the nostalgic sense of the passing of time and the passing of life.
The fourth line then gives us the emotional jolt of realizing that the two main characters in this drama – the singer and Danny – are being forced to part. “Tis you, ‘tis you, must go and I must bide.”
We’re now engaged and we want to know what happens next.
We already sense that there is the threat of danger in this parting because the calling pipes suggest there will be a battle soon. We therefore understand the sense of urgency as the singer urges Danny to return.
There’s a strong sense of devotion because the singer will be waiting “in sunshine or in shadow” and then the fourth and final line tightens the emotional grip when the strength of feeling is made clear: “Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.”
The second verse takes us by surprise. Danny may be the one facing the danger of battle but the singer is equally concerned that he or she may not live long enough to see his return.
Then the sense of love and devotion returns as the singer urges Danny to find their grave and say an Ave for them. It is a simple request but the highlights the desperate need of the singer to maintain some sort of connection.
The singer’s desperate need to maintain a connection – even beyond the grave – is emphasised in the next two lines. The singer will hear Danny approaching “though soft you tread above me.”
Just that thought brings comfort to the singer but what they really want is reassurance of Danny’s love. If Danny can give that reassurance then the singer will be comforted, even in death, and “will sleep in peace until you come to me”.
Many people disagree as to who is singing to Danny. Is it a lover or a parent? Or is it some other person?
There is a theory that the writer, Fred Weatherly, deliberately left it vague in the hope that he would make more money if the song could be sung equally well by a man or a woman.
Some of Weatherly’s notes on the song, however, suggest this might not be so.