In 1910, in Bath, Somerset, Frederic Weatherly initially wrote the words to “Danny Boy” to a tune other than “Londonderry Air”. After his Irish-born sister-in-law Margaret Enright Weatherly in the United States sent him a copy of “Londonderry Air” in 1913, Weatherly modified the lyrics of “Danny Boy” to fit the rhyme and meter of “Londonderry Air”.
Weatherly gave the song to the vocalist Elsie Griffin, who made it one of the most popular songs of the new century.
Although the song “Danny Boy” has come to symbolize the Irish national pride, its author was not Irish at all. Frederic Edward Weatherly (1848-1929) was a busy English lawyer who also wrote novels, children’s books, libretti, and the lyrics to some 1500 ballads and songs.
“Holy City” and “Roses of Picardy” are among his most popular creations, but none captured the world’s imagination like “Danny Boy.”
Mystery surrounds the origins of the tune itself. Some say a Celtic harpist played it as early as the 1600s. Others say it originated in the Scottish Highlands. It first appeared in print in George Petrie’s Ancient Airs of Ireland: “I will never deceive you” from the Ancient Airs of Ireland collection.
But perhaps the greatest mystery about “Danny Boy” is its meaning. Who is Danny? Who’s singing to him, and why must he leave? Why will he and the narrator likely never see each other again?
This ambiguity, this very universal lament about separation and the finality of death, and the greater power of love, has spoken to people of many nationalities and faiths, and to artists and singers from nearly every genre of music.