"Danny Boy" is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written. If you've heard it, you were moved. You’ve probably heard it sung by a women or a man with an Irish lilt, and a voice so lovely that everything around just... stops. The sound is stunning, but I wonder if you’ve really heard the words.
The melody is Irish, but the words were written, not by an Irishman, but by an English lawyer and writer, Frederick Edward Weatherly in 1910, just after the death of his father. Mr. Weatherly had no roots in Irish music, the original version of “Danny Boy” was actually set to a completely different tune. His sister, Margaret, from America, heard "A Londonderry Air" from Irish immigrants and sent it to Weatherly who found that it fit the words of "Danny Boy" with minor adjustment. The current version of the song was published in 1913, the year before the start of World War One.
It has been said that the song was about Irish youth being marched off by the pipers to fight the Brits, or perhaps immigrating to the new world. But the bagpipes are played by many people in England (Irish, Scottish, and English alike) at important events; Weatherly heard them at his father’s funeral; he later said "there is nothing of the rebel song in it, and no note of bloodshed". There is no hint in the words of Danny being in danger.
Where is Danny going then? What takes our children from us? Not race, not wars, not resettlement, not anything we can hope to avoid; but instead the hopeless end, age, the passing of time, and the cycle of life. At some point the children must go on without us, as we have gone on without our own dear mothers and fathers:
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 roses falling
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so
And when ye come, and all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
Ye'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an Ave' there for me
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me
And all my grave shall warmer, sweeter be
For you shall bend and tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me