The following information on the Londonderry Air is
largely drawn from research done for my article entitled The
Provenance of the Londonderry Air which was published in the
Journal of the Royal Musical Association [125 (2): autumn
2000. Oxford University Press. pp.205-247]. That article was intended
for a readership with a practical and technical knowledge of music;
this web version is for the general reader. Those interested in
detailed references and a wider body of supporting material should
consult the JRMA article. This web site, though, contains
supplementary material, not included in the JRMA article,
mostly related to the air's collection.
One of the reasons for establishing this web site is the desire to correct numerous inaccuracies and misleading statements related to the air which have appeared, and are being repeated, in books and on internet sites, to the point of myth making.
I also provide errata to the JRMA article.
The JRMA article's abstract reads -
The internationally known Londonderry Air carries the status of a cultural symbol of Ireland. Both its collector and publisher claimed in 1855 that the music was very old, a belief which has passed into conventional wisdom. In 1934 and 1979 two writers cast doubts on the tune's age and suggested that its 'collector' had more to do with the moulding of the tune than the process of tradition. Subsequently, doubts about the music have prevailed in academic circles but remained unexamined. This article queries the deductions of these writers and explores the musical origins and evolution of the air. The methodology is historical and musicological. From an examination of collections of Irish traditional music evidence is presented in support of the tune's age and fashioning by tradition. The lost verses of a song, known to have been accompanied by the tune in the nineteenth century, are revealed as the likely original words to the music.
In 1992 I wrote a booklet called Denis O'Hampsey, the harper, c1695-1807 and material which I collected in the course of preparing that publication was the starting point of the concentrated research on the Londonderry Air. A tune, notated from Hampsey towards the end of his life, called The Young Man's Dream was shown in 1979 to be a precursor of part of the Londonderry Air. Hampsey lived near the town of Limavady in which lived Jane Ross, the collector of the Londonderry Air.
In 1994 I was graciously given access to the family records of the descendants of Jane Ross in which the material related to the air consisted only of modern newspaper cuttings which, however, proved to be useful in plotting the air's history. My principal findings were discovered prior to February 1996; confirmatory and additional material was gathered until 1999. An interim paper was submitted to a journal in 1996 and then withdrawn. The full article appeared in 2000.
Public and Scholarly Notice of the Air.
The Londonderry Air was first published by The Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland, which was founded in Dublin, in1851. The society advertised its intention to collect, classify and publish appropriate Irish music and songs and invited people to send copies of any such material to a central depot in Dublin. It seems likely that the air was acquired by the society in response to this invitation. George Petrie was its president and was solely responsible for the preparation and editing of the society's first and only book, The Ancient Music of Ireland (1855), which was mostly part of Petrie's own collection. Although the hard-backed book appeared in 1855, subscribers were given the option to acquire the volume in parts of approximately 40 pages each as soon they came from the presses and the first of these parts was issued in 1853.
In his book Petrie lists the air as a 'song' in a category of 'Anonymous Airs'. It wasn't called the Londonderry Air in print until 1894 when this was the name given it as the tune accompanying Irish Love Song, written by Katherine Hinkson, in a book edited by Alfred Perceval Graves called Irish Song Book. Graves and Hinkson wrote three sets of words to the air between the late 1870s and 1894 but it became a popular success only after Fred Weatherly wedded his verses of Danny Boy to it in 1912 and published it in 1913 [see also appendix 2]. Besides the perceived beauty of the music, the factors which probably contributed to its popularity at this time are the sentiment of the verses, its availability as sheet music and the distribution in both America and Europe of an American recording made by the internationally respected opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1915.
Between 1913 and 1918 Danny Boy and its music gathered increasing attention within Ireland and Britain, and also internationally; in 1918 the publishers issued a new edition to meet demand. In that year an article on the air appeared in the Musical Times, London, in which the author, Henry Coleman stated
Of all the national tunes which have been rescued from oblivion....non has achieved such striking popularity as the old Irish tune known as the 'Londonderry Air'....this very beautiful tune seems to be taking such an extraordinary hold upon the people - for hardly a week passes by without its appearing in some form or another on concert programmes....within the last few years a perfectly bewildering array of settings and arrangements has appeared.
Charles Villiers Stanford, Percy Grainger, Frank Bridge and
others were attracted to write orchestral and solo arrangements
of the music. The tune also found its way into the choir books
of St Patrick's cathedral's in Dublin and Londonderry as the hymn
O Strength and Stay and also became adopted by the Royal
Inniskilling Fussiliers as the regiment's premier slow march.
In his book Petrie agreed with the opinion of the tune's collector, Jane Ross, that the air was 'very old'. However, in 1934, Anne Gilchrist put a musicological question mark against the music's heritage in an article called A New Light Upon The Londonderry Air [Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society ,vol.1, no 3. London, 1934, pp. 115-21] and this was amplified by Hugh Shields in his 1979 article entitled New Dates for Old Songs, 1766-1803 [Long Room, nos. 18-19. Trinity College Library, Dublin, 1979]. Their work cast doubts on Petrie's judgment that the tune was old and Shields suggested that the air may be a 'domestic adaptation' by Ross of a traditional tune. The arguments which have been raised against it may be outlined as follows; (a) if it were as old as was claimed its notated structure would be expected to fit a traditional Irish ballad metre (that is, a literary metre), which it does not; (b) as an old tune one would legitimately expect some evidence of variants, which there has seemed not to be, prior to its publication in 1855; (c) the distinctive high point of the tune pushes its pitch range to an octave and a sixth, making it so unusually wide for a traditional song that this part, at least, seems unlikely ever to have been sung in Ireland's lanes or streets - the suspicion being that it is a mid-nineteenth century, Romantic, creation of the contemporary drawing room.
In Gilchrist's 1934 article she suggested that the air's 4/4 time-signature - the metre in which the tune appears in Petrie and, by inference, the metre in which Ross notated the tune - could be a mistake. She speculated that Ross incorrectly perceived the tune's actual 3/4 time-signature as 4/4 due to the manner of performance by the musician from whom the tune was collected and argued that if the air were reorganised, in a specifically simple way, back to 3/4 it would match an identifiable old Irish literary metre called 'Ochtfhoclach Bec'. Gilchrist cited six songs with a 3/4 time signature which do reflect this metre and whose structure the reformed air would match - The Colleen Rue, The Star of Slane, The Ugly Thief, Sweet Castle Hyde, The Groves of Blarney and The Bells of Shandon. She made no comment on the melodies of these songs, the last three of which share the same music, but in the introduction to his book Petrie gave a clue to the air's source when he stated that he believed that the music of one of them, The Groves of Blarney, was related to an older tune called The Young Man's Dream. This connection was also indicated by Alfred Moffatt, in his book Minstrelsy of Ireland, (London, 1897). In a note on Thomas Moore's The Last Rose of Summer, the music of which is known to be based on The Young Man's Dream, he also mentioned the music's relatedness to Castle Hyde and The Groves of Blarney and reiterated Petrie's statement that the oldest of these is The Young Man's Dream. In 1979 Shields convincingly showed in his article that a particular version of The Young Man's Dream matches the Londonderry Air in much of its melodic contour and pitches, indicating that the air is a variant of this music. The version of The Young Man's Dream which Shields specifically cited was one collected in county Londonderry, not far from Limavady, sometime in the period 1795-1796, some sixty years prior to Petrie's publication. It was collected by Edward Bunting (1773-1843), from the hundred year old harper Denis O'Hampsey (c.1695-1807), commonly known as Hempson.
The Bunting Manuscripts.
Edward Bunting was a nineteen year old Belfast organist who was employed to notate tunes from participants attending the harpers' festival in Belfast in July, 1792. Hampsey was about ninety seven years old at the time and was able to pass on to Bunting many valuable pieces from his considerable repertoire which stretched back, at least, to the seventeenth century. Bunting continued collecting after 1792 and devoted much of his life to the publication of three volumes of Irish music: A General Collection of the Ancient Irish Music (London, 1796/7?); A General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland (London, 1809); The Ancient Music of Ireland (Dublin, 1840). His manuscripts lay in the archives of his descendents until Mrs Charlotte Milligan Fox discovered their existence and whereabouts in 1907 while shopping for a harp at Erards, the London outlet for harp maker George Morley, in Kensington. The possessors of the manuscripts, Dr Louis MacRory of Battersea, and Lady Deane of Dublin, entrusted the collection to Mrs Fox who subsequently passed as much of it as she held to Queen's University, Belfast, where it is now housed in the Special Collections Department of the library.
Fox drew upon the Bunting material for her publications, Songs of the Irish Harpers (1910) and Annals of the Irish Harpers (1911). In surveying the Bunting material and compiling the latter book Fox was assisted by her sister Alice.
The Collector of the Air.
The air was, almost certainly, collected by Jane Ross (1810-1879) of Limavady, county Londonderry. Jane's older brother, William, and one of her sisters, Theodosia, were also collectors of traditional music. There is a Ross family record written by one of Jane Ross's great nephews, the Reverend William Manning, concerning the air's collection. It has to be said that the first part of the story, that relating the composition of the air, is romanticised fiction but the rest of the story has a ring of truth, being more factual with more specific detail. Being the account nearest in time and personal connection to the air's collection, it demands attention
Manning's story is purportedly that told to him by his mother (Sophia Matilda, the daughter of Jane's brother, William) who, it is claimed, heard it from Jane. It is a six page account, written as if coming from Sophia Matilda's mouth, which says that the tune was first heard by William who told Jane about it and whistled it to her. He told her where to find the "...mountain cabin where he heard it played on a fiddle as he passed". She made "...a long drive from Limavady" and found "...a very old man" from whom she learned the tune and the story that the old man's father had got it from a harper. It also indicates that Jane collected the tune after the severities of the famine - possibly meaning sometime after 1849.
There is no reliable evidence pointing to a collection date. In 1928 Jane Ross's nephew, Rev. J.T.Trelawny-Ross suggested, in a letter to the Northern Whig [Belfast newspaper], that the tune may have been collected prior to 1853. He said,
She probably took her collection of old Irish music to Petrie about 1853, when I was an infant.
This speculative date for the passing of the music to Petrie
has been restated by subsequent writers as fact.
In his book Petrie introduces another tune from Ross's collection, The Advice, saying
This very characteristic air is one of the many interesting tunes sent to me, during the last year, by Miss Jane Ross, of Newtown-Limavady, in the county of Derry.
This would seem to indicate that he received Ross's tunes sometime
close to 1855, the publication date of the book. In fact, Petrie's
papers contain an arranged notation of the air with the appended
date "October 25, '53" thus providing the only reliable
current evidence of a date before which the tune must have been
collected and passed to Petrie.
In a 1941 radio programme, Sam Henry (1878-1952), a collector and folklorist from the Coleraine/Limavady area, related a story about the tune's collection. He began "About the year 1851 Miss Jane Ross.... heard a tune....." He continued, stating as a fact but with no supporting evidence, that "In 1853 she communicated the air and many more to George Petrie."
In 1963, Wilfreda Trelawny-Ross, the wife of Ross's great nephew, wrote a letter to London's Daily Telegraph in which she says, without substantiation, that "The tune was brought to light in 1851 by Miss Jane Ross." Neither Henry nor Trelawny-Ross offer evidence for the assertion that the tune was collected in 1851 and it seems likely that this date stems from the known date of the establishment of the society which published Petrie's book.
As stated above, the Manning document says the air was collected some distance away from Limavady, from an old man living in a mountain cabin. There is no other recorded statement by members of the Ross family to contradict this, until 1963, when Wilfreda Trewlany-Ross's Daily Telegraph letter said that Jane Ross
...heard it being played in the streets by an itinerant musician. Keenly interested in the traditional music of Ireland she brought him in, memorised the melody and later passed it on to George Petrie, the Irish antiquary.
Wilfreda was replying to a claim by a previous correspondent that the air may have been an old Scottish tune which found its way to Ireland. Her assured tone may be a reflection of her determination to refute this claim. The question remains, from whom, or how, did Wilfreda get this version of the tunes collection? It could be that she is simply repeating received wisdom created by Sam Henry's 1941 broadcast. In it he romanticised the air's collection and this version has, with variations, been repeated by subsequent generations of writers about the air. His radio script reads
About the year 1851 Miss Jane Ross, a lady who was deeply imbued with the music of her native land, was sitting at breakfast in her house in Main Street, Limavady, when she heard an itinerant fiddler play a tune new to her, although it was her life to nobly collect the music of her native district. She brought this wandering son of Orpheus into her house and regaled him with food. He then played the beautiful air again and again until Miss Ross had memorised it.
But Henry is not the originator of this 'itinerant musician' story. It seems to have started in the 1928 newspaper correspondence. A letter written by 'John Riky (Major), L.R.A.M.. Dublin' to the Sunday Times said
The Londonderry Air was rescued from oblivion by the late Miss Honoria Galwey (about fifty years ago). She heard it played by an itinerant musician on the street in Limavady, Co. Londonderry. Miss Galwey, an old lady, herself well skilled in music, jotted down, with much care, the tune, and brought it to her friend the Rev. Canon Armstrong (the celebrated musician, organist and composer) to whom she entrusted her MSS. Canon Armstrong harmonised the tune and became the first musician to do so.
While other letters clarified the issue of the air's first collector and publication, the nature of its place of collection was ignored, remaining neither confirmed nor denied. Riky's 'street musician' may well be the source of this part of the Ross story. However, one other man, writing to Henry from Canada in 1934 made reference to his street musician father as Ross's informant; see next section. [More on Honoria Galwey follows]
From whom was the Air collected?
One writer from Northern Ireland, Jim Hunter, is keen to promote one particular fiddler and song writer from the Limavady area, popularly known as Blind Jimmy McCurry (c1830-1910), as the musician from whom Jane Ross noted the air. While it is not impossible that McCurry was indeed the musician in question the evidence for this claim is scant and dubious, and became enthusiastically asserted only after Hunter's views were given publicity via an interview in 1995 for a British television documentary called In Sunshine or in Shadow. Hunter keenly supports the claims of cousins Hugh and Wallace McCurry, descendants of Blind Jimmy, who say their respective grandfathers told them that Jimmy passed the tune to Jane Ross. Their story conflicts significantly with Manning's. It is known that Jimmy McCurry did not live a long drive away from Limavady, in a mountain cabin nor would have been a very old man when the tune was collected - at the time when the tune was published he was, approximately, only twenty five years old. If it is claimed that the McCurrys' grandfathers learned their alleged facts directly from Blind Jimmy it leads one to ask why he would have passed on that particular piece of information. Jimmy died in 1910 and the Londonderry Air became popular only after 1913 when Weatherly's song, Danny Boy, was published and sung. So what reason would Jimmy have had, before 1910, to recall an incident from his twenties related to one tune in his repertoire? What would have stimulated him to claim the kudos. Being blind in later life, he wouldn't have seen any published versions of it, which were, in any case, mostly classical arrangements, and being for classical performance we can question the likelihood that he would have heard such a rendering. Petrie's book was limited in number and sold to subscribers. O'Neill's Music of Ireland, published in America in 1903, did contain simple versions of the tune under the titles Londonderry Love Song and Drimoleague Fair but this book only made its way to and through Ireland, via Dublin, around the time of Jimmy's death. The popularity of the tune really gathered pace only after Danny Boy was first printed in 1913, and recorded in 1915 by opera singer, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, in America.
The dependability of McCurry family memory, and also local tradition, may also be called into question. In the 1950's, '60's and '70's Hugh Shields spent much time in the Magilligan area, near Limavady, recording songs sung by traditional singers for his subsequent book Shamrock Rose and Thistle (Blackstaff Press. Belfast. 1981). He also recorded their stories and reminiscences on tape. One of the people he talked with extensively, and recorded, was Bob McCurry, born in 1900, a great nephew of Jimmy McCurry about whom Bob spoke freely. If ever there was an opportunity for a member of the McCurry family to establish Jimmy McCurry's place in Irish musical history as Ross's source of the Londonderry Air this would seem to have been it, but no assured claim was made.
Sam Henry wrote a weekly column called Songs of the People, in the Coleraine Constitution newspaper, during the 1920's and 30's. It comprised music and songs sung and collected in Northern Ireland. He printed and commented on the Londonderry Air in December 1923, ending his column saying
This series of Songs for[sic] the People will render a signal service to the musical world if it elicits from our readers some old words or titles for this air, which surely can not, with its arresting beauty, have come down nameless and wordless through the ages.
And in the 1941 BBC programme he said
I set myself the task of tracing the air and it has taken me some years of very intensive research and the path was full of glaring inconsistencies and palpable errors.
In spite of his 'intensive research,' and being in a position to look closely at any claim of a Jimmy McCurry connection, through having worked in Limavady as an Excise man, he never promoted Jimmy McCurry's name as Ross's source. In the television documentary In Sunshine and in Shadow I stated that Sam Henry 'made the connection' of McCurry, Londonderry Air and informant to Ross as a possibility, merely because McCurry was an obvious contender, being a well known nineteenth century writer of surviving local songs, and fiddler. I must emphasize that I was not claiming that Henry ever believed that the connection was true - there is no evidence at all to this effect, indeed it is all to the contrary. My information came from Jack McBride, a friend of Henry's and fellow folklorist, whom I interviewed in 1971/2. John Moulden, the spiritual custodian of Sam Henry's material, has informed me that
Although there is substantial material on the Londonderry air in Sam Henry's papers he did not associate it at any time with Jimmy McCurry.
This indicates the degree of credibility which Henry gave to
McCurry 's association with the Londonderry Air.
One is also drawn to ask the question - if, for some reason, Jimmy felt it important enough to pass on information about the tune, and indeed claim to be Ross's source, wouldn't he also have passed on a title for it? It is hard to believe that he continued playing the tune, for sixty years, as an anonymous air or that his contemporary relatives did not learn its title in the course of listening to numerous performances. The McCurrys have not said that Jimmy had a name for the tune though Hugh McCurry stated in 1996, in a letter to the Coleraine Chronicle
From the much talking that went on in my grandfather's house around the fireside, [This would have been in the 1940's] I also learned that the name given to this air at the time it was being played was O'Cahan's Lament, written or composed by a member of this clan for his leader.
This has echoes of a statement originating in Henry's 1941 broadcast in which, while speculating on the original words, he said
...the most likely would be a song called The Downfall of O'Kane by......the bard to O'Cahan, the head of the clan to which Rory O'Cahan belonged. To me the music vivadly conveys the story of the clan; its past glory and eclipse at the confiscation of their estates by Queen Elizabeth.
Henry, apparently, found more substance in a story of the air's collection from one Frank Thomson, an Irish Canadian, who wrote to him in 1934. This gentleman said that, while living in Ballymena, county Antrim, he bought a fiddle from a street musician sometime around 1911-12, whose name he thought was McCormick. The fiddle had been his father's who was also a street musician. McCormick claimed that his father told him that the tune of the Londonderry Air was copied from him by a man or woman, whose name he thought was Ross of Limavady. According to Henry's subsequent research, this man's father, one McCormick, was a member of a entertainment group called McCormick's Wee Show, which, he said in the radio programme, "Was well known in all the towns from Ballymena to Ballycastle." Henry does not give the period during which the 'Wee Show' was active. Thomson writes with seeming sincerity in his letters, however the story needs to be treated with caution. The first thing one must note in Henry's story is that Limavady does not lie within the compass of the area between Ballymena and Ballycastle. It is about thirty five miles, by road, from Ballycastle and forty five miles, by road, from Ballymena. Another point worth examining is the projected age of the people concerned. Using the most favourable projections one can postulate the following chronology and scenario. According to Thomson, and his mother, the street musician was estimated to be between twenty six and thirty years old in 1911-12. If we assume he was thirty in 1911 it means he would have been born in 1881. And if we assume that Ross collected the air in 1850 and the musician from whom she collected it was, not an old man as quoted by Manning, but a mere twenty year old - then by the time street musician McCormick was born his father would have been fifty one years old and also, quite likely, his mother. It's not impossible that his mother could have been around fifty years old and still producing a child, however, it must be remembered that this is a 'best case' scenario. The doubt that is raised here is that McCormick's father may not have been of sufficient age to be playing, competently, or at all, on a street in Limavady, miles away from his seeming home area of Ballymena. One may also ask the same question that was applied to McCurry - why would McCormick's father have bothered to pass on to his son information regarding the playing of the tune, perhaps some forty odd years previously, for someone who wrote it down, and have imparted this information at a time which preceded the tune's great popularity? Another question comes to mind; could the person to whom McCormick passed the tune, if at all, have been Honoria Galwey? In assessing this story it has to be kept in mind that, as far as dates are concerned, Thomson was reflecting on events in 1934.
The Composer of the Music; Rory O'Cahan?
Rory Dall O'Cahan was a harper composer whose history is vague but who has, through some handed-down stories and associated compositions acquired semi mythical status, part of which has to do with the fact that he has been, and still is, confused with another Rory Dall, a Scottish harper, Rory Dall Morison. O'Cahan was born in the late sixteenth century and died shortly after 1650 and came from the Limavady area while Morison's dates are c1656-1714/15. [Scholars wishing to investigate O'Cahan and Morison are directed to the book Tree of Strings by Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird. 1992.]. There is no existing historical or musicological evidence connecting O'Cahan with the composition of any of the Londonderry Air's preceding variants. There is a musically unrelated tune in a Scotttish manuscript, compiled in1620-7, simply called 'A Port' which, in a later book of Daniel Dow's, A Collection of Ancient Scots Music for the Violin c1775, is called 'Cumha Peathar Ruairi' (Lament for Rory's Sister). This tune was included in Captain Francis O'Neill's influential book of 1903, The Music of Ireland under the title Rory Dall's Sister's Lament. The first written mention of a connection between O'Cahan and the Londonderry Air came in 1912 from Charlotte Milligan Fox, the discoverer of the Bunting manuscripts and all claims of O'Cahan's authorship appear after this time. In all the collections of Irish music up to the beginning of the twentieth century, including Bunting, Forde, Pigott, Petrie, Joyce, Hardimann, Goodman, Roche, there is not a single collected variant of the air with an O'Cahan appellation. The nearest we come to any wording like O'Cahan's Lament is in Joyce's Old Irish Folk Music and Song (1909) where we find a variation of The Young Man's Dream called The Young Man's Lamentation.
Milligan Fox's misleading statement appeared in an article in the Journal of the Irish Folk Song Society (vol.12. October, 1912) in which she said
Some of the most beautiful airs have owed their origin to Northern genius, notably the compositions of the famous harper, Rory Dall O'Cahan, who composed such airs as Rory Dall's Purth, to which Robert Burns wrote Ae fond kiss and then we sever, The Minstrel Boy, and Emer's Farewell (I am giving the names of the modern poems to which they are set). Stanford, Percy Grainger, and Mrs. Needham have all tried their skill in bringing out the beauties of Emer's Farewell, which comes from Limavady, in the County Derry; but, fine as are their settings, none seem to me the genuine frame for an air of such remarkable character.
Emer's Farewell is the song written in the 1880's, by
Alfred Perceval Graves, to the music of the Londonderry Air.
Fox was writing at a time when Petrie's and Ross's statements
that the air was an 'old' one was still believed, and when she
uses the word 'origin' she is speaking of the composers rather
than the musical roots of the tunes. We now know that the tune
is not old (neither is The Minstrel Boy) but a nineteenth
century variant and that Fox's statement is wrong.
In 1928 there was considerable correspondence on the Londonderry Air in both the British and Irish press after someone requested information on the tune. Fox's claim, that O'Cahan was the composer, was mentioned and in reply to this her sister wrote a letter to the Belfast newspaper, the Northern Whig (August, 25th). She said
Though I helped Mrs Fox (my sister) to edit the Annals of the Irish Harpers and to scrutinise the Bunting collection, I have no distinct memory on this point. It is possible that it was a mere surmise on her part, founded on her knowledge of the style of melody in the few ascribed to this famous harper, and suggested by the fact that the part of County Derry in which Petrie took it down was O'Cahan's native territory.
Fox's coupling of the Londonderry Air and O'Cahan's name was not based on scholarship, as later studies have proven. Neither the structure nor the style of melody are anything like those reputedly composed by O'Cahan. Anne Gilchrist showed in 1934 that the air is clearly not a seventeenth century piece by demonstrating that it does not conform to any Irish ballad metre, which, if it had been composed by a seventeenth century harper/composer, it would have done. My research demonstrates its development as a nineteenth century manifestation. A comparison of Fox's book and her source, the Bunting manuscripts, does reveal Fox to be a less than scrupulous writer/researcher. In his 1941 radio programme Sam Henry surmised that O'Cahan could have been the composer of the air. He based this on two loose criteria (a) the harper's existence in the area, (b) the 'high musical excellence' of the airs attributed to him. He concluded
If it be conceded that the Londonderry Air is the world's finest melody, who but Rory Dall could have composed it.
Unfortunately this obvious and admitted speculation became translated, through the oral tradition, as fact. Henry also mentioned, in the programme, the correspondence he had with Frank Thomson, in which Thomson said he believed he had heard the tune called, Rory's Lament or O'Cahan's Tune, in Ballymena, County Antrim, sometime around 1910-1912. It should be noted that this period is close to the time of Fox's statement but of course it is not impossible that someone else, around the turn of the nineteenth century, coincidentally attributed the tune to O'Cahan and that some musicians called it by an eponymous name; if they did so they did without proof of connection. Also; Rory is a common name in Ireland and the Rory of Rory's Lament , if such a title ever existed, does not have to be Rory O'Cahan! It was, and still is, fairly common practice in musical circles to refer to a musician's 'party piece', or a piece without title, by the name of the person who plays it, such as 'Johnny's jig' and 'Conor's slow air'; indeed, a variant of The Young Man's Dream was collected by Bunting called Haly's Dream. Thomson could have heard the tune called 'Rory's Lament' and afterwards put two and two together when the myth of attribution to O'Cahan became popularly known, and come up with the second title O'Cahan's Lament; he was writing to Henry in 1934 and had plenty of time to be exposed to the developing myth. In any case, nomatter how the O'Cahan appellation became established, it must be repeated that research shows that any actual connection between Rory O'Cahan and the music of the Londonderry Air is entirely spurious: and any actual connection between Rory O'Cahan and the musical source/s of the Londonderry Air is entirely speculative.
The Genesis of the Air.
In a forgotten article, in a 1918 issue of the Musical Times, I discovered that Honoria Galwey (1829-1925), a contemporary of Ross's and also a collector of music living in the north west of Ireland, was reported to have said that the Londonderry Air was originally known as Oh shrive me father. She said that the song belonged as much to county Donegal as to county Derry. In the same article another authority, Annie Patterson (1869-1934), a university lecturer, was reported to have said that the song was common over the whole north west of Ireland. Neither of these people could remember the words nor was there any apparent printed evidence of a pairing of the words and music. My research confirms Galwey's title for the air and illustrates the air's development.
The tune, with words, was discovered in a rare book published in Dublin in 1814 called Irish Minstrelsy: A Selection of Original Melodies of Erin with Characteristic Words by Edward Fitzsimons, Esq. and Symphonies and Accompaniments by Mr.J.Smith. [This is the first book of a two volume set; the second volume appeared in 1816.] One of the songs in this collection is The Confession of Devorgilla. The music to this song, in spite of the title of Fitzsimons's book, is not original but a well known tune of the time which accompanied a well known song called Castle Hyde. Fitzsimons identifies the tune by this title. The first words of The Confession of Devorgilla are Oh shrive me father and these words were popularly adopted as the song's title. As has been already stated the music of Castle Hyde is a variant of The Young Man's Dream which has also been shown to be a close preceding variant of the Londonderry Air. Evidence shows that the air, almost certainly, evolved from the singing and playing of Oh shrive me father as it became subjected to the dynamic of tradition which reworks music and songs as they pass through the hands and voices of numerous musicians.
It is noticeable that the version of The Young Man's Dream, which was collected from the old harper, Denis O'Hampsey in 1795-6, is closer to the Londonderry Air than the music of Castle Hyde in Fitzsimons' book of 1814. This may be explained by (a) many musicians were aware of the relatedness of the two named tunes, indeed both titles have been found attached to a single variant; and (b) musicians freely attached their favoured versions, old or newly invented, of tunes to a song. It seems that, at some point, someone introduced the song to a version of the music which was similar to that played by Hampsey, from which evolved the Londonderry Air.
The Air's Pitch Range.
Arguably the most significant thing which made Hugh Shields, and others, suspicious of the air, and led to the suspicion that Ross may have tampered with its composition, is the tune's latter section which reaches to a height that is atypical in the vernacular song tradition. In comparing The Young Man's Dream and the Londonderry Air Shields said,
....what is chiefly missing [from The Young Man's Dream]... in order to make the parallel complete is that melodic development of the fourth phrase which makes the Londonderry Air almost unsingable in traditional style while endearing it to virtuosos eager for effects of vocal expression. This development no doubt arose in a context to which it was just as apt: in the keyboard divigations of a middle-class lady who like her sister played the piano and lived in a small country town, not ten miles from the harper Hempson's former dwelling'.
He continues, saying that Ross "....made intuitively judicious 'improvements' in her traditional source."
Evidence in the Bunting manuscripts proves that the high section of the air did not originate with Ross or her contemporaries. It was Bunting's practice when notating from the playing of the harpers to quickly indicate only the pitches of notes - not their durations - and later, when writing out a full version of tunes, to trust his memory to get the durations correct. Attached to Bunting's attempted full notation of The Young Man's Dream is a refrain which is scored out, presumably because Bunting couldn't quite get it right. In fact, there appears to be two attempts at it! A refrain doesn't appear with his printed version of the tune. This refrain parallels refrains which I found in two other variants of The Young Man's Dream - Castle Hyde and The Groves of Blarney, and is a close match for the Londonderry Air's high section. It seems that this refrain was incorporated as, or otherwise influenced, the fourth phrase during the air's development. [The discussion of this crucial element of the tune is considerably expanded in the JRMA article].
Gilchrist's Suggestion that Ross attributed an Incorrect
Time Signature to the Air.
Gilchrist argues the possibility of Ross having heard the tune played with excessive rubato by her musician and consequently causing her to interpret the tune as having a 4/4 signature when in the mind of the musician it was really 3/4. The purely musical part of Gilchrist's argument is impressive, and did indeed point the way to The Young Man's Dream, however her admitted 'assumption' about Ross's role carries less credibility. Adaptation by individual musicians is an irrepressible part of the dynamic of traditional music practice and the traditional music canon contains many examples of tunes which have variants in different time signatures. I argue, with examples, in the JRMA article that this dynamic seems a more likely explanation for the change of time signature from 3/4 in The Young Man's Dream and Oh Shrive Me Father to 4/4 in the Londonderry Air than a deliberate or accidental rendering by Jane Ross. It seems unlikely that a rubato rendition (in this case, probably several renditions) of a 3/4 tune with the structure and flow of the Londonderry Air could fool the ear of a listening musician to believing it to be in 4/4 while still being played in the mind of the player as a 3/4 tune. One would have to apply rubato to too many bars for ambiguity to be created and, depending on the sensitivity of the player, the resulting rendition would either be far from beautiful or begging description as a 4/4 variant. When one tries to revert the air to a 3/4 signature one finds that the notes sit with obvious discomfort in this new metre. Regarding the possibility that Ross may have deliberately constructed the air as a variant of heard or learned music, one is drawn to ask the question, would she have attempted such a deception on Petrie, claiming the tune to be an old one, knowing that he would publish it and that no one else would ever have heard it? In claiming that the tune was old, nomatter how wrong her assessment, she was inviting comment.
The First Words.
It is practically certain that the words which were first accompanied by the Londonderry Air, as we now know it, are those of The Confession of Devorgilla, otherwise known as Oh shrive me father. Here are the words as they appear in Fitzsimons's book.
The Confession of Devorgilla
AIR - Castle-Hyde.
'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.
While it is highly probable that the first words to be attached to the Londonderry Air are those of Oh shrive me father one must add the following rider.
The history of musical tradition shows that music was often borrowed to accompany more than one song, particularly if the music was popular. In the course of an evolving tune - and one which changed considerably like the Londonderry Air, moving as it did from an original time signature of three beats in a bar to four beats in a bar, the point at which it becomes, definitively, the tune we know is virtually impossible to detect. If this is unknown and the tune was used to accompany other songs it could just be that a song, other than that with which it has become generally associated, was the first to be sung to the tune, even if only briefly. The long period of association though, between the song Oh shrive me father and the source and standard music of the Londonderry Air weighs heavily in favour of these words being those which accompanied the first rendering of the Londonderry Air, as defined in Petrie's publication. In fact there is no evidence of the tune accompanying any other song prior to Petrie's publication but in the interest of historical accuracy it is important to note this possibility in the light of our knowledge of the dynamic of tradition. In any case, it was this pairing which unified the artefact into a musical landmark and which, therefore, confers unique importance to these words.
Ross's reaction to Petrie's published arrangement of the
As stated earlier, Petrie's arrangement was made by one of his daughters. The arrangement was, seemingly, not to Ross's liking. The Manning document states
The only directions for its rendering she felt safe at the moment in giving were, for the first few bars 'with melancholy'. This was the atmosphere surrounding its inception, and its reception by herself, and she hoped that the playing of the first part of it in this manner would in itself engender a natural and appropriate reaction for the last part and by this means promote in some degree its proper rendering and spirit. Dr Petrie did not respond in the manner she expected as he published it as a piano piece with the complementary harmonies filled in - technically correct no doubt, but far short of the real thing.
The tune, in Petrie, does not carry the marking 'with melancholy' but rather 'andante', meaning to be played moderately slowly, with a pendulum indication of 24 inches. It is arguable that the Petrie arrangement is not totally insensitive, at least in its harmony. A judgement of it, and Ross's dissatisfaction, needs to be tempered by the consideration that (a) the tune was translated from a legato instrument (the violin) to a percussive one (the piano), and (b) Petrie's daughter did not have a lyric to guide her in phrasing and emotional sensitivity nor the benefit of hearing the original rendition, as Ross had done, with its possible rubato. However, the 'andante' 24 inch pendulum length is demonstrably too quick to convey the tune's inherent melancholy.
Attention needs to be drawn to the inaccuracies and speculation
on one particular website, and in a related set of publications
since they have been quoted and used by some writers as an 'authoritative'
source, carrying, as they do, the imprimatur of The University
of Ulster. Readers and researchers seem to have trustingly accepted
the unsupported claims and statements contained therein. There
is the risk that others may be misdirected on time consuming and
fruitless searches. Regretably, the site and booklets, which are
the work of Mr Jim Hunter, lack scholarship. Mr Hunter was an
enthusiastic amateur local historian from Coleraine and a member
of the administrative staff of the Coleraine campus of the University
The site is www.theoriginofdannyboy.com and the booklets, written by Mr Hunter, are
The Blind Fiddler from Myroe (1997).
O'Hampsey - The Last of the Bards (1998).
Rory Dall O'Cahan, Chieftain and Harper (1999).
Jane Ross and the Londonderry Air (2000).
As previously stated, the tune is not listed in Petrie as Londonderry Air. It is simply called 'song' in a category headed 'Anonymous Airs'.
No first hand reports of Ross stating that she took down the tune in Limavady, or that she collected it in 1851, or from whom she noted it, have come to light. (The same criticism applies to Michael Robinson's statement on his website www.standingstones.com, where he asserts that "Miss Jane Ross.... claimed to have taken it down from the playing of an itinerant piper." Robinson's further claim that "She continued to maintain the truth of her original account" has no evidence to support it.)
There is no evidence to support the assuredness of this '1851' assertion.
There is no such statement by Henry.
Mr Hunter does not say what criteria he uses to justify his use of the words 'strong oral evidence'. Apart from the oral evidence of McCurry's descendents he offers nothing to suggest that his 'evidence' is anything other than relatively recent supposition. In the course of talking to local historians and academics during a thirty year period I have found nothing in the area that would justify Hunter's use of the phrase 'strong oral evidence'. It, also, did not present itself to Henry and Shields.
This passage indicates a cavalier use of Hunter's sources in the direction of myth making. It is actually a construct of three pieces of information from two different informants which he published two years earlier. In 1995 Hunter wrote an article for the Northern Constitution (June 24) which, essentially, is his booklet of 1997, and also called The Blind Fiddler From Myroe, in which the following three unlinked pieces of evidence are offered.
(a). The Limavady market was a favourite destination for Jimmy", recounted John Fleming. "All the farmers used to bring their horses and carts into Main Street. After they had unyoked their horses they left their carts with shafts on the ground all lined up along the street. Jimmy took up position between the shafts with his fiddle at his favourite spot outside Burns and Lairds Shipping Line Office." Interestingly, this office was just opposite the home of Jane Ross who annotated the music of the Londonderry Air from an itinerant fiddler in 1851.
Note that the information above comes from one John Fleming and that he does not mention the Londonderry Air.
(b). Ross was familiar with Jimmy's music. According to Wallace McCurry, a direct descendant of the fiddler, she would often slip him a penny as he fiddled in the Main Street. Wallace tells a story related to him by his grandfather Samuel McCurry who knew the blind Jimmy. "One day as Jimmy was walking along Main Street playing his fiddle, Jane Ross came out of her home and gave him a penny. Jimmy thanked her and when she departed he rubbed it against his lips as was his custom, and discovered it was a florin. He set off in pursuit 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 for her appreciation of his music".
Note that, (1) the above comes from Wallace McCurry; (2) he tells this story as one separate from that about the occassion of the air's collection. Hunter's text continues contiguously
(c). Wallace provided further evidence that Jimmy was the musician who played the tune for Jane Ross. "One day Jane heard Jimmy playing a beautiful melody and she came across and asked him to play it again. She noted down the tune which later became known as The Derry Air'."
This is the first mention of the Londonderry Air from
an informant. From these three statements by two people Hunter
amalgamates the elements of the cart shafts, the florin and collection
of the air and in his 1997 booklet (and website) puts the story
into the mouth of one informant, Wallace McCurry.
Evidence has yet to be produced which shows that the office of a shipping company was positioned opposite Jane Ross's house. The nature of John Fleming's information source is not offered.
All this is speculation and probably stems from Henry's admitted speculation.
Beyond the coincidence of the names, there is no evidence that Bridget O'Cahan was related to Rory Dall O'Cahan. There is also no record of Bridget O'Cahan having passed any version, or preceding variant, of the Londonderry Air to Hampsey. There is no record of a tune called O'Cahan's Lament in his repertoire. While Hampsey did travel through Scotland and Ireland, there is no evidence that he 'introduced' any tune to either country.
There is no evidence that Petrie was a 'friend' of Jane Ross.
There is one record, in Manning's document, of one visit by Petrie to Jane Ross for the purpose of discussing her music collecting. The year of the visit is not recorded. The document says that she did not give Petrie the Londonderry Air on that occasion.
The air was published in 1855. The first words, known to be written after the air's publication, were not written until the 1870's.
Regretably, there are numerous other mistakes and misleading claims in the booklets.
Fred Weatherly, the writer of the song Danny Boy, contributed to the newspaper correspondence which took place in 1928. Part of his letter in the Sunday Times reads
Ellen Terry's farewell words to her friends seemed to find expression in the second verse of Danny Boy, and the pathetic music, recalling the words, seemed a fitting requiem for that great actress and sweet woman. If you have space may I quote the second verse? -
But when ye come and all the flowers are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I may well be,
Ye'll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Ave there for me!
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace, until you come to me!
The following explains this reference to Ellen Terry.
Weatherly, who was an aquaintence of Terry's, was writing in August 1928. A few weeks previously Ellen Terry died and, it seems, the Londonderry Air was played at her funeral. Terry had written a verse inside a book, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, followed by a note indicating - "I should wish my children, relatives and friends to observe this when I die." The verse reads
No funeral gloom, my dears, when I am gone,
Corpse-gazing, tears, black raiment, graveyard grimness.
Think of me withdrawn into the dimness,
Yours still, you mine.
Remember all the best of our past moments and forget the rest.
And so to where I wait, come gently on.
This verse was pinned to the gate of Terry's house as she lay waiting to be cremated. Her wishes were carried out; no blinds were drawn and no one wore black.
Errata to JRMA article.
The following emendations were too late to be incorporated in the original article.
The quote marks are inappropriate. To be precise - Petrie lists the air as a 'Song' in a category headed, 'Anonymous Airs'.
This should read -
"This latter year is confirmed by a note in Bunting's handwriting which reads 'tunes published in 1797' at the beginning of an intended list containing the arranged music of his first volume, (Belfast, Queens University Library, Bunting Collection, MS 33)".
The named manuscript does not contain the arrangements of Bunting's first volume. No set of such arrangements exists within the Bunting Collection. Bunting's note is at the top of a blank page on which he intended to compile a list of tunes published in his first volume as an aid to deciding on material for his projected third book.
This should read -
"....the creation of the Free State in 1922 and the change of status and name to 'Republic' in 1949."
Acknowledgements: (as printed with the JRMA
I am indebted to the Special Collections department of Queen's University Library, for the helpful assistance given to me in working with the Bunting Collection and for permission to reproduce the photograph of the page from the Bunting manuscripts. Special thanks are due to the members of the Trelawney-Ross family who received me warmly and allowed me access to their archives. I am also particularly grateful to the following people; Marjorie Geary of the Irish Library, Coleraine, for her cheerful assistance over the years since this research began in 1993; Colette O'Flaherty of the Irish Department of the National Library of Ireland; Sandra Tuppen of the British Library, and Johanne Trew of University College, Limerick. I have also enjoyed the excellent co-operation of the staffs of the Royal Irish Academy; the music department of the Central Library, Belfast; the National Library of Scotland; the library of Trinity College Dublin, the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin, and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, London. Thanks are also due to Irish scholar, Tony McCombe, and to John Moulden and Olive Craig for access to papers in the Sam Henry Collection.
I also wish to express my appreciation of the foundations laid by previous researchers Donal O'Sullivan, Anne Gilchrist and Hugh Shields.
The British Library................................................. http://www.bl.uk
Irish Traditional Music Archive. Dublin................. http://www.itma.ie
Irish music portal.................................................... http://mag.irish-music.net/