Danny Boy is one of the most famous and popular Irish songs of all time yet few of its fans know how it came to be written.
It’s a fascinating story which involved the melody having to cross the Atlantic from Ireland to America and then back again to England before the song was finished.
The lyric was written by an Englishman named Fred Weatherly, a lawyer who wrote songs in his spare time. He was very popular in his day and wrote about 1500 songs during his career including Roses from Picardy.
In 1910, he wrote a song called Danny Boy which he had high hopes for but which unfortunately turned out to be a complete flop. Weatherly realised that although the lyrics were very good, the melody wasn’t strong enough.
He looked everywhere to try to find another tune but nothing seemed suitable. Eventually, he gave up and concentrated on his other songs.
Meanwhile, his brother and his sister-in-law Margaret Weatherly emigrated from England to the United States and settled in Colorado.
One day in 1913, Margaret came across a group of Irish immigrant workers entertaining themselves by playing music from their homeland. She was enchanted by it and asked what it was called.
They replied that it was called the Londonderry Air and was an old harp tune from Northern Ireland.
Margaret asked if they would play it again a few times so that she could write it down. She thought it might be of interest to her brother-in-law Fred as she knew he was always looking for good melodies to help with his song writing.
Little did she know the impact it would have.
As soon as Fred played the first few bars of Margaret’s transcript he knew he had something special on his hands. He also realised very quickly that the lyric he had written three years earlier called Danny Boy would fit the new tune perfectly. He hardly had to make any changes.
Fred published the tune in 1913 and it caught on immediately.
It was picked up by most of the major artists of the day including the famous Irish tenor, John McCormack. He was one of the first big name performers to record and it was an instant success.
It remained popular throughout the rest of the twentieth century and was recorded by several of the top performers of every generation including people like Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and Elvis Presley.
Danny Boy is one of the most recorded songs of all time yet without that chance meeting between Margaret Weatherly and those Irish workers in Colorado, it might never have come to people’s attention at all.