The “The Derry Air” is a well-known tune, and often requested by listeners at sessions. The first published version of this tune is in George Petrie’s collection, entitled Ancient Music of Ireland (1855) where he gives the name as “Londonderry Air” — and which you choose to call it is a matter of politics. It has since been called “The Londonderry Air,” but only in the northeast of Ireland. During Petrie’s tune collecting period for the text, he had met Jane Ross (1810-1879) of Limavady, County Derry (now in Northern Ireland). She was herself an avid collector of tunes. In the text Petrie writes,For the following beautiful air I have to express my very grateful acknowledgement to Miss J Ross of Newtown Limavady in the County of Londonderry – a lady who has made a large collection of the popular unpublished melodies of that county, which she has very kindly placed at my disposal, and which has added very considerably to the stock of tunes which I had previously acquired from that still very Irish county. I say still very Irish; for though it has been planted for more than two centuries by English and Scottish settlers, the old Irish race still forms the great majority of its peasant inhabitants; and there are few, if any, counties in which, with less foreign admixture, the ancient melodies of the country have been so extensively preserved. The name of the tune unfortunately was not ascertained by Miss Ross, who sent it to me with the simple remark that it was “very old”, in the correctness of which statement I have no hesitation in expressing my perfect concurrence.
As the story goes, Miss Ross had heard the tune played by an itinerant fiddler in 1851 outside the Burns & Laird Shipping Office. Miss Ross, however, never had the man’s name. There is some good evidence today, based on oral tradition from a number of sources from different counties, that the fiddler was most likely blind Jimmy McCurry (1830-1910), who at that time was often heard playing outside the shipping office. At any rate, after hearing the tune she requested that he continue playing, which he did, until she had written out the dots for it. When she had finished she thanked him and, as was the tradition, gave him a coin.
When she departed Jimmy rubbed it against his lips, as was his method of determining the denomination of coins, and discovered it was a florin instead of the customary penny. He set off in pursuit of Jane and when he caught up with her he told her that she had made a mistake. Jane refused to take it back and asked him to keep it as a token of her appreciation of his music (Ulsterancestry.com, “The story of Danny Boy” [accessed 6/8/13]).
As to where Jimmy McCurry might have learned it, one theory is that Miss Jane Ross notated the tune in 4/4, whereas if it is put in 3/4 time it seems to be a version of “Aislean an Oigfear,” a tune in Edward Bunting’s A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music (1796) and attributed to Ruairi Dall O’Cathain (Rory O’Kane).
The tune is today also known by its song title “Danny Boy.” The lyrics of the tune were written by an English lawyer, one Frederick Edward Weatherly, in 1910 and set to the tune in 1913. Weatherly apparently intended the song to be a parting message from a woman to a man. The 1918 sheet music included alternative lyrics with the instructions that “when sung by a man, the words in italic should be used; the song then becomes ‘Eily Dear,’ so that ‘Danny Boy’ is only to be sung by a lady” – and let’s hope an agreeable lady. The song has since been held to be from a (grand)parent to a (grand)son going off to war, or even a father/mother lamenting the death of a son – and thus its ubiquitous use at funerals (For more, see Standing Stones).
The Derry Air,
The Derry Air,