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There’s something about the song, Danny Boy

March 15, 2012

Yesterday, I was the lucky recipient of a four leaf clover that my dear friend, Jim Waid found in his back yard. He and I share an Irish heritage. Both of us have a grandfather who immigrated to this country during a potato famine. We have joked that they may have sailed here on the same boat. I find it amusing that Jim managed to locate a rare “shamrock” so close to our only Irish holiday.

I celebrate every St. Patrick’s Day with my family. We don’t drive to Savannah and get drunk on green beer or attend the parade through downtown Augusta. We do eat corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage cooked to perfection by my non-Irish husband, and we watch an Irish movie. In the past we have viewed The Quiet Man, Finian’s Rainbow, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and The Secret of Roan Inish. We haven’t decided yet whether we will seek out a new film or revisit a favorite one this year. I am, however, excited to have discovered the website,, that has the potential to provide years of viewing pleasure.

On March 17th, we also play our DVDs of Celtic Woman and Celtic Thunder, and sometime during the day I will sing Danny Boy to my children. My love of that song runs deep, both for the message it conveys and the part it plays in my own history.

There is something both sentimental and strong about an aging mother lovingly sending her last remaining son off to battle. At least that is the meaning my Irish mother told me. Conveying that poignant moment through a beautiful yet haunting melody is heartrending. Londonderry Air is a folk tune that is so old that no one really even knows who wrote it or how to find out, and so popular that more than one hundred songs are sung to it.

If you aren’t familiar with the lyrics of Danny Boy, here is the version with which my mother sang her nine children to sleep:

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
For I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And when you come, and all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
Ye come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.

And I shall feel, though soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warmer, fairer be
And when you bend and tell me that you love me
Then I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

Frederic Weatherly, an English man, is credited as the lyricist. Knowing the historically rocky relationship between Ireland and England, I find it amazing that the song has become so near and dear to so many American Irish immigrants and their descendants.

It is also interesting to note how many different people from different genres of music have performed and recorded the song. Some artists just that I am aware of who have recorded it are: Maeve (from Celtic Woman), Conway Twitty, Bing Crosby, Elvis, John Gary (my favorite Irish tenor), Glenn Miller, Judy Garland, Slim Whitman, Sam Cooke, Harry Belafonte, Patti LaBelle, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Cher, Thin Lizzy, Carly Simon, Harry Connick, Jr., and Eric Clapton. Its appeal spans generations and styles.

Beyond its commercial value, I love it for the memories it evokes. Wherever I am when I hear the tune, my mother comes to mind. She loved the song and sang and whistled it around our home. As I mentioned before, she sang us to sleep with it along with Swinging on a Star and An Irish Lullaby (Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra).

My youngest brother, Gavan, played the song at my Aunt Ruth Gavan’s funeral mass as the processional. Thirty years ago you could not play a popular song as part of the liturgy, but there was a song in the hymnal set to Londonderry Air, so he was not actually violating Catholic Tradition though he was definitely taking advantage of the coincidence. Gavan also sings the song to perfection.

My own children have heard me sing it plenty of times. When they were little, I followed my mother’s bed time ritual, but now I sing it most often when I am homesick for my family in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

These days, I can rarely make it through the second verse without my voice quivering and tears pouring down my cheeks. My mother passed away from cancer (I hate that disease!) a few years ago. The last time I was home, I went to the cemetery by myself, stood at her grave and sang the song to her, and told her that I love her. I trust that she is sleeping in peace until I go to her someday.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! May the luck of the Irish be with you and do yourself a favor and listen to someone’s version of Danny Boy before the holiday is over. It’s not just a good idea, its tradition.

March 15, 1012


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