Danny Boy seems a simple enough lyric yet no one can be quite sure exactly what it means.
For example, who is the subject …that is to say, who is the person singing the song and what is their relationship to Danny?
Is the subject man or a woman? Is it a parent or a lover? Does the lyric have political overtones?
Heartache at the heart of the lyric
There are some things that are obvious about the lyric. It’s about the parting of two people who love each other.
The person being left behind fears that he or she may not live long enough to see Danny return.
It may be that there can be no reunion until they meet again in the next life.
One obvious interpretation is that the subject of the song is Danny’s lover or wife. The pipes are calling him away to war and she fears she may not live long enough to see him return.
Another theory is that the subject is a father or mother who is singing to their son. This interpretation accommodates the idea that the singer may not live long enough to see Danny return as a parent would naturally be much older than a lover or wife.
Was the writer being deliberately vague?
There is a school of thought that the man who wrote the lyric, Fred Weatherly, was being deliberately vague about who the subject should be because he wanted to make the song accessible to as many singers as possible.
Weatherly was a very clever writer with 1500 songs to his name. He was writing for profit and he would obviously make more money if contrived the lyric so that it could apply equally well to a man or woman, as that meant more people would be able to perform it.
Men should sing Eily Dear, not Danny Boy
The idea of the deliberate vagueness is beguiling but the theory takes a knock from a footnote that Weatherly added to the 1918 reprint of Danny Boy. He said that male performers should replace the words Danny Boy with Eily Dear.
This would clearly suggest that Weatherly meant for Danny Boy to be sung by a woman, which gives strength to the interpretation that the subject of the song would be Danny’s wife, lover or mother.
Does Danny Boy have political overtones?
There are some who believe that Danny Boy with its Londonderry roots is a unionist anthem.
While some nationalists have taken the military overtones suggested by “the pipes are calling” in the opening line of the song and added verses of their own to promote the fight for Irish freedom.
It’s hard, however, to make a credible case for Danny Boy being political in any partisan way. The writer, Fred Weatherly, rejected any political interpretations saying that he wanted “Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike” to sing the song. He also insisted that “there is nothing of the rebel song in it and no note of bloodshed”.
Danny Boy – a song of love and loss
So there we have it. No politics, just a heart rending story of love and loss, set to one of the most sublime melodies ever written.
From humble roots in Northern Ireland it has spread across the world and remains as popular and powerful as the day it was first written.
With new recordings by major articles every year, the appeal of Danny Boy shows no sign of waning.