Portishead lawyer wrote Danny Boy lyrics
There’s no dispute over who wrote the words to that poignant Irish ‘anthem’ Danny Boy – Portishead-born lawyer Fred Weatherly. The 150-year-old mystery is – who wrote the tune? Gerry Brooke investigates.
JANE Ross, from Derry, loved to collect old songs and folk music.
Among them was a "very old" tune which she said she'd first heard played by a street musician.
In 1855, Jane later passed her songs on to another collector, George Petrie, who was planning to publish some old melodies.
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His subsequent Ancient music of Ireland contained a tune – Jane's "very old" melody – identified only as an "anonymous air".
It would be about 40 years before the name Londonderry Air or Air from County Derry, was applied to it.
A growing interest in Irish heritage then led to some doubts being expressed over the tune's provenance.
Musicologists were unhappy that it didn't lie within the usual structure of Irish music, and its shape and rhythm didn't seem to fit with traditional Irish folk singing. Furthermore, it wasn't clear exactly where, or when, Jane Ross first heard it – either from a piper, a harpist or a fiddler.
Did she, as some suggested, compose it herself, and then pass it off as traditional?
Several years later, when a similar tune surfaced, Drimoleague Fair, it wasn't long before the "composer", Francis O'Neill, was accused of merely supplying a new name to the old Derry tune.
Finally, in 1979, a detailed examination of ancient Irish melodies revealed that Londonderry Air was clearly related to Aislean an Olgfear (The Young Man's Dream), a tune heard played by 90- year-old harpist Denis O'Hampsey in 1792.
So Jane Ross was vindicated – the tune was Irish and very, very old.
Over the years, there were many attempts to find fitting words for this lovely melody, including some (soon forgotten) by the Irish poet Thomas Moore.
In fact, nearly 100 sets of lyrics saw the light of day, but only one survived.
During the Great Irish famine (1845 to 1849) many musicians, together with their songs, left Ireland for America.
Edward Weatherly was a London doctor whose brother, Fred, was a well known Somerset lawyer.
In 1899, Edward left for San Francisco and Colorado, and it was there, at the height of the gold rush, that his wife, Margaret, heard a prospector playing a hauntingly beautiful tune.
Knowing of her brother-in- law's interest in writing lyrics, Margaret persuaded the man to let her have a copy of it.
Prolific Fred Weatherly was responsible for about 1,500 published works. One of his first songs – one which helped establish a popular image of the West Country and its distinctive accent – was Up from Somerset (remember the Coates cider advert?) the result of a visit to the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Fred, who translated operas in to English and wrote and published children's stories, also wrote the poignant World War I song, Roses of Picardy.
Sitting in Fred's desk drawer was a song lyric, Danny Boy, which he had written several years before but had never got round to using.
Tentatively matching the lyric with the tune sent to him from the gold fields he was pleased to discover that, with only minor modifications, they seemed made for each other.
Published in 1913 and recorded two years later, the song soon caught the attention of Irish people throughout the world.
Quietly forgetting that Fred had never set foot in the country, it wasn't long before they claimed it as their own.
Since then the song has been heard at every occasion – birthdays, farewells, reunions, wakes, even weddings.
It's also become, I'm told, a karaoke standby.
Danny Boy has been sung by a host of stars including Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Johnny Cash, Sinead O'Connor, Mario Lanza, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Cher, Willie Nelson, Kiri Te Kanawa and Elvis Presley.
Fred Weatherly was born and brought up in Portishead before moving to Bath. There is a plaque to his memory at the family home in Woodhill Road.
If you would like to read more fascinating stories behind the songs, then a new book, Love Me Tender: The Stories Behind the World's Best-Loved Songs by Max Cryer, is just the job.
It's published by Frances Lincoln and costs £9.99.