The Londonderry Air
is an anthem
of Northern Ireland
. It is also popular among the Irish diaspora
and very well known throughout the world. The tune is played as the Northern Ireland anthem at the Commonwealth Games
. "Danny Boy
" is a popular set of lyrics to the tune. Australian
composer Percy Grainger
wrote numerous settings of this tune.
The title of the air
comes from the name of the county in Northern Ireland. The air was collected by Jane Ross of Limavady
, County Londonderry
, who heard it played by an itinerant piper or fiddler
. The descendants of blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry assert that he is the musician from whom she transcribed the tune but there is no historical evidence to support this speculation.
Ms. Ross submitted the tune to music collector George Petrie, and it was then published by the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland in the 1855 book The Ancient Music of Ireland, which Petrie edited. The tune was listed as an anonymous air, with a note attributing its collection to Jane Ross of Londonderry. This led to the descriptive title "Londonderry Air" being used for the piece. The title "Air from County Derry" or "Derry Air" is sometimes used instead of "Londonderry Air", due to the Derry-Londonderry name dispute.
The origin of the tune was for a long time somewhat mysterious, as no other collector of folk tunes encountered it, and all known examples are descended from Ms. Ross' submission to Petrie's collection. In a 1934 article, Anne Geddes Gilchrist suggested that the performer Ross heard played the song with extreme rubato, causing Ross to mistake the time signature of the piece for common time (4/4) rather than 3/4. Gilchrist asserted that adjusting the rhythm of the piece as she proposed produced a tune more typical of Irish folk music.
In 1974, Hugh Shields found a long-forgotten traditional song which was very similar to Gilchrist's modified version of the melody. The song, Aislean an Oigfear ("The young man's dream"), had been transcribed by Edward Bunting in 1792 based on a performance by harper Denis Hempson at the Belfast Harp Festival. Bunting published it in 1796. Hempson lived in Magilligan, not far from Ross's home in Limavady. Hempson died in 1807. In 2000, Brian Audley published his authoritative research on the tune's origins. He showed how the distinctive high section of the tune had derived from a refrain in The Young Man's Dream which, over time, crept into the body of the music. He also discovered the original words to the tune as we now know it which were written by Edward Fitzsimmons and published in 1814; his song is 'The Confession of Devorgilla', otherwise known by its first line 'Oh Shrive Me Father'.
The most popular lyrics for the tune are "Danny Boy
" ("Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling"), written by English lawyer Frederick Edward Weatherly
in 1910, and set to the tune in 1913. While Weatherly intended the song as a parting message from a woman to a man, others have interpreted the parting in the song as that between a parent or grandparent and a son or grandson going off to war. The song has sometimes been taken as a call to arms or a rebel song, sometimes with the addition of verses of a more military nature.
The Confession of Devorgilla
The first lyrics to be sung to the music were, almost certainly, "The Confession of Devorgilla", otherwise known as "Oh! shrive me, father".
- 'Oh! shrive me, father - haste, haste, and shrive me,
- 'Ere sets yon dread and flaring sun;
- 'Its beams of peace, - nay, of sense, deprive me,
- 'Since yet the holy work's undone.'
- The sage, the wand'rer's anguish balming,
- Soothed her heart to rest once more;
- And pardon's promise torture calming,
- The Pilgrim told her sorrows o'er.
- The charms that caus'd in life's young morning,
- The woes the sad one had deplor'd,
- Were now, alas! no more adorning,
- The lips that pardon sweet implor'd:-
- But oh! those eyes, so mildly beaming,
- Once seen, not Saints could e'er forget! -
- And soon the Father's tears were streaming,
- When Devorgilla's gaze he met!
- Gone, gone, was all the pride of beauty,
- That scorn'd and broke the bridal vow,
- And gave to passion all the duty
- So bold a heart would e'er allow;
- Yet all so humbly, all so mildly,
- The weeping fair her fault confess'd,
- Tho' youth had viewed her wand'ring wildly,
- That age could ne'er deny her rest.
- The tale of woe full sadly ended,
- The word of peace the Father said,
- While balmy tear-drops fast descended,
- And droop'd the suppliant sinner's head.
- The rose in gloom long drear and mourning,
- Not welcomes more the sun's mild ray,
- Than Breffni's Princess hail'd returning
- The gleam of rest that shriving-day.
The first writer, after Petrie's publication, to set verses to the tune was Alfred Perceval Graves, in the late 1870's. His song was entitled 'Would I Were Erin's Apple Blossom o'er You.' Graves later stated '.....that setting was, to my mind, too much in the style of church music, and was not, I believe, a success in consequence.' (ref Audley, below).
- Would I were Erin's apple-blossom o'er you,
- Or Erin's rose, in all its beauty blown,
- To drop my richest petals down before you,
- Within the garden where you walk alone;
- In hope you'd turn and pluck a little posy,
- With loving fingers through my foliage pressed,
- And kiss it close and set it blushing rosy
- To sigh out all its sweetness on your breast.
- Would I might take a pigeon's flight towards you,
- And perch beside your window-pane above,
- And murmur how my heart of hearts it hoards you,
- O hundred thousand treasures of my love;
- In hope you'd stretch your slender hand and take me,
- And smooth my wildly-fluttering wings to rest,
- And lift me to your loving lips and make me
- My bower of blisses in your loving breast.
- And when the dew no longer pearls your roses,
- Nor gems your footprint on the glittering lawn,
- I'd follow you into the forest closes
- In the fond image of your sportive fawn;
- Till you should woo me 'neath the wavering cover
- With coaxing call and friendly hands and eyes,
- Where never yet a happy human lover
- His head has pillowed—mine to emparadise.
Irish Love Song
The tune was first called "Londonderry Air" in 1894 when Katherine Tynan Hinkson
set the words of her "Irish Love Song" to it:
- Would God I were the tender apple blossom
- That floats and falls from off the twisted bough
- To lie and faint within your silken bosom
- Within your silken bosom as that does now.
- Or would I were a little burnish'd apple
- For you to pluck me, gliding by so cold
- While sun and shade you robe of lawn will dapple
- Your robe of lawn, and you hair's spun gold.
- Yea, would to God I were among the roses
- That lean to kiss you as you float between
- While on the lowest branch a bud uncloses
- A bud uncloses, to touch you, queen.
- Nay, since you will not love, would I were growing
- A happy daisy, in the garden path
- That so your silver foot might press me going
- Might press me going even unto death.
Use as a hymn tune
As with a good many folk tunes
, Londonderry Air is also used a hymn tune
; most notably for I cannot tell
by William Young Fullerton
- I cannot tell why He Whom angels worship,
- Should set His love upon the sons of men,
- Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,
- To bring them back, they know not how or when.
- But this I know, that He was born of Mary
- When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home,
- And that He lived at Nazareth and laboured,
- And so the Saviour, Saviour of the world is come.
- I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
- As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
- Or how His heart upon the cross was broken,
- The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
- But this I know, He heals the brokenhearted,
- And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
- And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
- For yet the Saviour, Saviour of the world is here.
- I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
- How He will claim His earthly heritage,
- How satisfy the needs and aspirations
- Of East and West, of sinner and of sage.
- But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
- And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
- And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendour
- When He the Saviour, Saviour of the world is known.
- I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
- When, at His bidding, every storm is stilled,
- Or who can say how great the jubilation
- When all the hearts of men with love are filled.
- But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
- And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
- And earth to Heaven, and Heaven to earth, will answer:
- At last the Saviour, Saviour of the world is King
It was also used as a setting for I would be true by Howard Arnold Walter at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales:
- I would be true, for there are those that trust me.
- I would be pure, for there are those that care.
- I would be strong, for there is much to suffer.
- I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
- I would be friend of all, the foe, the friendless.
- I would be giving, and forget the gift,
- I would be humble, for I know my weakness,
- I would look up, and laugh, and love and live.
"Londonderry Air" was also used as the tune for the Southern Gospel hit "He looked beyond my fault" written by Dottie Rambo of the group "The Rambos"
- Amazing Grace shall always be my song of praise,
- For it was grace that bought my liberty,
- I do not know just why He came to love me so,
- He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
- I shall forever lift mine eyes to Calvary,
- To view the Cross where Jesus died for me,
- How marvelous His grace that caught my falling soul,
- When he looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
The melody is given by Julian May
as the anthem of the Tanu and Firvulag in her Saga of Pliocene Exile science fiction
series. She implies that the ongoing confusion about the melody's origin arose because it originally came to Earth from an alien world.
The song has been adapted into You Raise Me Up, and also Ne Viens Pas by Roch Voisine.
The melody was used to words in Irish Gaelic and sung by the Bunratty Castle chorus during the 1970's. The title used was "Maidín i mBearra".