By Robert Walton
One place my wife and I had always wanted to see was the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. And conveniently now living in the Republic of Ireland, we were in the perfect position to visit this minor Wonder of the World. When we eventually did get around to catching up with the famous formation near Portrush Co Antrim we weren’t disappointed. Associated with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean in the Tertiary Period about 60 million years ago, this mass of basalt columns caused by volcanic activity left a lasting impression on us.
So, stimulated by Ireland’s most distinctive geological creation, my wife suddenly had a bright idea. “Let’s go to Limavady while we are in the area”. What’s so speciaI about Limavady, I hear you cry? It only happens to be the home of Danny Boy, that’s all! Knowing we weren’t a million miles from the market town, we followed the map in a southwesterly direction towards the origin of a ‘musical’ Wonder of the World... the Londonderry Air, better known as Danny Boy. Many musicologists believe it’s the world’s most beautiful melody. I wouldn’t argue with that. Certainly Mozart or Beethoven couldn’t come up with such a perfect composition.
After we parked, we were welcomed by a smiling traffic warden who assured us she had already done her rounds for the day and after our free hour we could stay as long as we liked. We were beginning to warm to Limavady! At the tourist office we received yet another greeting from a charming girl who was clearly impressed with our prior knowledge and interest in the song.
Right opposite on a pub wall was a huge picture of schoolteacher Jane Ross who first heard the tune on a market day in 1851. It was played by local blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry who was more than happy to repeat it so that Jane could write it down. The violinist was a native of a rural townland called Myroe. He used to perform outside the Burns and Lairds Shipping Line Office opposite Jane Ross’s house. Some historians believe the tune was influenced by an ancient ditty known as O’Cahan’s Lament. Perhaps, said sceptics, Jane composed it herself in the same way that Fritz Kreisler had fooled everyone that some of his tunes were attributed to various 17th and 18th century composers. However the general consensus was that Jane was merely the annotator.
She apparently sent the manuscript to a music collector friend in Dublin, George Petrie, President of the Society and Publication of Irish Melodies who published it in 1855. Eventually it went viral as The Londonderry Air. The haunting tune remained wordless for many years despite attempts at finding the perfect match. The world would have to wait until 1913 when Bath lawyer Fred Weatherly wrote the definitive lyric to the tune sent from his sister-in-law in America. In fact it had been written in advance. Incredibly Fred had the title Danny Boy already in his files, whose words miraculously fitted the melody.
So if you ever find yourself in Limavady spare a thought for Jane Ross the true saviour of Danny Boy. To this day a Blue Plaque hangs on the wall of her home at 51 Main Street Limavady commemorating one of the world’s most sublime songs. Jane is buried in Christ Church graveyard just across the road. Over the years Danny Boy has been recorded by thousands of artists and orchestras from John McCormack to Elvis Presley.
But in my experience one of the most moving versions of Danny Boy was by a 90 year old resident of a Ballinrobe care home, Mary from the Irish village of Ballyfarnon. And talking of Farnon, the greatest orchestral arrangement just has to be that of Robert Farnon.