It may be one of the most famous songs in the world but no one knows for certain who wrote the melody that came to be used for Danny Boy.
It’s often attributed to a blind Irish harpist named Rory Dall O’Cahan.
The dates of his birth and death are not known for certain but it’s thought that he lived between 1560 and 1660.
Danny Boy – drink fuelled origins?
There is a quite popular legend that Rory had been drinking heavily one evening and then on his way home he fell down by the side of a river and dropped his harp.
As he lay there in a drunken stupor, he gradually became aware of a magical melody wafting through the air.
He was transfixed because he had never heard anything so beautiful before. He scarcely dared to move in case the music stopped.
The Londonderry Air and the supernatural
The story goes that he eventually managed to turn around and was amazed to see fairies playing on his harp. As soon as they had finished, they departed leaving Rory to the silence of the night.
By now he had sobered up and was wide awake. He immediately rushed to his harp to start playing the melody before he forgot it. As soon as he mastered it, he raced back to his patron’s castle to play it to anyone who would listen.
The melody became known as O’Cahan’s Lament and quickly became popular throughout the north of Ireland.
The melody’s first reliable reference
A legend of the supernatural may tie in nicely with Elvis Presley’s view that the melody was written by the angels but most people demand a little more hard evidence.
That didn’t appear until 1851.
A well-to-do woman called Jane Ross heard a harpist playing the song across the road from where she lived in the town of Limavady in Northern Ireland.
She was so taken with the tune that she went across to ask him to play it again so that she could write it down. She then gave him a coin for his trouble.
One of the best ever investments in music
The harpist, widely believed to be a man called Jimmy McCurry, was blind so he put the coin to his lips to check its value. He expected it to be a penny but then discovered it was a florin – 24 times more than he was expecting and more than a week’s wages in those days.
He shouted after the lady thinking she must have made a mistake but she wouldn’t take the coin back. She told him to keep it as a token of her appreciation. That florin must rate as one of the best ever investments in music!
Mystery melody becomes the Londonderry Air
Many people believe the tune heard by Jane Ross that day was the melody originally composed by Rory Dall O’Cahan some 200 years before.
Ross sent a copy of the tune to Dr George Petrie who was devoted to the study of Irish music.
She didn’t have a title for the tune and just said it was a very old air from Londonderry.
Londonderry Air published for the first time
Petrie recognised its quality and published it immediately under the simple title of The Londonderry Air. Several lyricists added words to the exciting new melody but none really caught on.
The melody had to cross the Atlantic to America and then travel all the way back to England before it was to achieve worldwide fame.
The Englishman behind the Irish song
Meanwhile across the Irish Sea in England, a lawyer named Fred Weatherly had made a name for himself as a prolific songwriter. In 1910, he wrote a song called Danny Boy which, to his great disappointment, completely flopped. The lyrics were good but the melody wasn’t strong enough.
Then his sister-in-law Margaret Weatherly, who was living in Colorado, heard a tune being played by Irish workers who were prospecting for gold. She fell in love with the melody and sent a copy of the sheet music to Fred in the hope that he might be able to use it.
Londonderry Air meets the Danny Boy lyric
Weatherly couldn’t believe his luck. He saw that the Danny Boy lyrics needed only the slightest amendments to fit this magical new tune. He republished the song using the new melody and it was an instant success.
The gramophone was just coming into vogue and that helped to spread the song across the world. More than 100 performers recorded the song within a few years of it being published.