Danny Boy

You might hear what seems to sound like a quintessentially Irish ballad being sung by patrons of Eamonn’s in Brooklyn or at haunts like Dorrian’s Red Hand in Manhattan or Jersey City. But in reality, the lyrics to “Danny Boy,” one of the world’s most recorded songs, were penned by an Englishman, Frederick Weatherly, and put to music courtesy of a traditional 19th century Irish fiddle tune, “Londonderry Aire.”

While considered a man’s song, “Danny Boy” was first recorded in 1915 by a female singer, Elsie Griffin. Some took the music and lyrics to be a lamentation for those who went off sea, or to World War I (the “war to end all wars”). Others suggest it projects the sadness of those touched when Catholic Republicans and Protestant Ulstermen battled over Irish independence.

Lyricist Weatherly would later claim he had no intention of implicitly making reference to war or bloodshed when crafting the tune.

Today “Danny Boy” is an unofficial anthem for all things Irish in North America. Nearly everybody who is anybody in the history of 20th century popular music has recorded “Danny Boy”. Judy Garland, Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Cher, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke,  Carly Simon, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Lawrence Welk and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir are but a handful. Elvis sang it and it was played at his graveside when he left the house. How did this song get to be the evergreen that it is?

Along with the annual St. Patrick’s Day parades across the country, the wearing of green clothing, greenbeer and corned beef and cabbage, “Danny Boy” is part of the manufactured civic religion that defines popular Irish culture in the United States and that remains a manly, male-dominated culture, indeed.

Recent estimates indicate that over 35 million Americans claim to have Irish ancestry. Once the dominant force in America’s political class the Irish-American politicians who would sing “Danny Boy” and march on St. Patrick’s Day have yielded to a more inclusive social model. And some old timers and millennials don’t like that.

The rigid class structure from which emerged the terms “shanty Irish,” “lace curtain Irish” and “castle Irish” in popular fiction, Hollywood movies and street slang has faded away. And as America changes “Danny Boy” is fading away too. James Cagney isn’t remembered as a “Danny Boy” kind of guy. And Boston gangster Whitey Bulger isn’t either, although he might have owned a few juke boxes that played the tune. With the IRA seemingly working in Ireland’s political mainstream, associating the song with supporters of Northern Aid and other militant fronts is fading away too.

“Danny Boy” was not the preferred song of pioneering Irish republicans like Manhattan born Eamon DeValera, and Irish-born British diplomat Roger Casement (Sir Roger Casement until he was stripped of his title and hung for treason in Pentonville Prison in 1916). But the ballad got traction on Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building and that’s how American legends are made.

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flow’rs are dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

Interestingly enough, U.S. president Barack Obama discovered his Irish roots in 2007, on the eve of his campaign for the White House, a family line that traces back from his Caucasian mother Ann Dunham, who was born in Kansas.

According to The Telegraph of London, the president has 28 relatives who descend from Ireland in the United  States, and not of them are fond of him.  In an effort to stave off the “birther”movement  Obama has even made a visit to Ireland and his ancestral home town of Moneygall [an interesting name to say the least]. The president has gone so far as to order workmen to turn the White House fountain green on St. Patrick’s Day [pictured below].

Online resource Ancestry.com has calculated that president Obama is 3.1 per cent Irish. The question remains… can he sing “Danny Boy”as good as Irish tenor Michael Londra does on You Tube. It got Michael 5.8 million hits. If he sang it, could it get O’Bama five million votes?


About Author

Eric is a digital nomad who writes on sports, politics and culture. He is a member of PEN, one of the original bloggers on the HuffPo World section and is one of the pioneering contributors to Rolling Stone starting in 1968 working under co-founder Jann S. Wenner. Eric resides in Brazil and is fluent in five languages. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, National Review, New York Times and USA Today. Photo credit, Eric Ehrmann.