St. Patrick’s Day is drawing near, and if you learn one song to celebrate the Irish and Ireland, it has to be THE St. Patrick’s Day song– “Danny Boy”! This is a song that makes grown men weep (I’ve seen it myself, and have had to hold back a few tears of my own), especially when lovingly sung by an Irish tenor. This tune of longing is sung at just about any occasion where Irish folks are present, from church services and weddings to sporting events and pubs. It is especially used at funerals, most famously at the funerals of President Kennedy, President Reagan, Elvis Presley, and Princess Diana. If you’ve never heard the song before, you have missed out on what is practically an unofficial anthem for the Irish, and particularly the Irish in America. But, surprisingly, “Danny Boy” is not completely an Irish song!
A Little History of the Song
The tune itself is called “Londonderry Aire” and was first published in 1855 in Ancient Tunes of Ireland. But the words were written much later in 1910, by British lawyer and composer, Fred Weatherly. He originally set his lyrics to a different melody, but the song never caught on in England. Meanwhile, his brother and sister-in-law, Margaret, an Irish woman, had immigrated to the Colorado mining camps in search of silver and gold. She heard the original Irish tune there, and then sent it to Fred, who put that Irish melody with his lyrics, and, as they say, the rest is history!
A Great Version:
The universal appeal of the lyrics, the lyrical quality of the melody, and the soul-stirring purity of an Irish tenor make this a song for all time. It’s somehow appropriate that Britain, Ireland and America have all played a part in bringing this beloved cultural icon to life. And, on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is is a little bit Irish! I grew up on the East coast in a town where there were many first- and second-generation families from Ireland, Italy and Germany. I am a first-generation Italian-American, and my best friend was Irish and German, but we both celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with equal enthusiasm. Like many in our town, we shared that deep appreciation for the immigrant experience of coming to America. Our parents and grandparents made many sacrifices and hard choices. “Danny Boy” strikes at the heart of that profound and difficult decision to leave one’s family and homeland for a better life.
Have fun listening to different versions of “Danny Boy” on YouTube or iTunes, add the sheet music to your song library, available everywhere— Amazon and Walmart online, or any sheet music service online as well. Just make sure the key is right for your voice. See my post: Choosing a Song That’s Technically Right for You, Right Now.
A Little History of St. Patrick’s Day
If you’ve often wondered, or never even pondered (!), why we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, it might be nice to know a little bit about the Saint himself, and the Day. St. Patrick was born c. 385 AD, and died in 461 AD, with his actual death date traditionally celebrated as March 17th– the day we now celebrate as St. Patrick’s Day. It is both a religious holiday, and a secular celebration of Irish culture around the world.
But who was Saint Patrick, and why did he become the patron Saint of Ireland? Although born into a Christian British family, at age sixteen he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave. During his time working as as shepherd, Patrick was said to have had a revelation about God, and was able to escape back to Britain. He later returned to Ireland as a priest and missionary, converting the pagan Irish to Christianity. This is thought to be the origin of the legend of St. Patrick driving the “snakes” out of Ireland.
Other Ways to Celebrate…
Besides singing beautiful Irish tunes like “Danny Boy” and playing traditional Irish instruments and melodies, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with a variety of traditions, including the “wearing of the green”. While there are multiple theories about the origin of this tradition, the most popular is that St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach his converts about the Holy Trinity– the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, we see green and shamrocks everywhere on St. Patrick’s Day! City monuments are lit with green lighting, the river running through Chicago is dyed green, and anyone who doesn’t want to get pinched wears a shamrock or some article of green clothing that day!
Of course, there are St, Patrick’s Day parades and festivals, and Christians may attend special church services as well. Many families cook the traditional corned beef and cabbage dinner, bake Irish soda bread, and lift a pint of Guiness in honor of the day. Even though my family is Italian, my mother always cooked the most delicious corned beef and cabbage every St, Patrick’s Day. My Irish best friend said it was even better than her own mother’s recipe!
Two Great Movies for St. Patrick’s Day
Anyone who knows me well knows that I love classic movies. Two of my favorites to watch every year around St. Patrick’s Day are The Quiet Man (1952) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045061/, and Darby O’Gill and The Little People https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052722/ (1959). The first is a cinematic masterpiece starring legends John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, an absolutely endearing, hilarious and heartfelt portrait of Ireland and her people. The sound track is filled with gorgeous, evocative Irish tunes as well. Your face will hurt from smiling when you watch it!
The second movie is a delightful Disney classic that I saw as a child, with absolutely charming and also scary special effects, from dancing leprechauns to a wailing banshee. You even get to hear a very young Sean Connery sing in this movie! It was this appearance in Darby O’Gill that eventually landed him the job as the original James Bond in the classic 007 movies.
So… whether you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with music, food, movies or your own special traditions, celebrate! You don’t need to be Irish to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day. If you don’t find that four-leaf clover or pot of gold at the end of the rainbow this holiday, there’s always next year. But you can enjoy the beauty and timeless appeal of THE St. Patrick’s Day Song–“Danny Boy” this St. Patrick’s Day, along with two great movies that will make even the most mischievous leprechaun smile!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Sláinte! (Good Health!)