Who is Danny Boy?

o'cahanEvery year around this time, when Irish and wanna-be Irish alike celebrate St. Patrick, we hear a dozen different renditions of the sorrowful and haunting Irish air “Danny Boy.”

So who was this fellow Danny? In doing research for my “Dawn of Ireland” novels, I found out a few amazing things about dear old Danny, and I share them with you.

To start with, an Irish clan called the O’Cahan clan (pronounce it like “O’Cain”) were kicking around as early as the 5th C AD (the time of St. Patrick) in and around Coleraine and Limavady, in the northern Ireland area then called Ulster.

The O’Cahan clan became strong and influential. But by the 17th century, they were mercilessly targeted and murdered by the British.  The last of the influential lords, Domhnaill (Danny) O’Cathain, was captured and held in the Tower of London, where he died in 1626.

Around that time, an Irish harpist named Rory Dall O’Cahan wrote a lament for the fall of the proud clansman; and that song has survived to this day in the form of “Danny Boy.”

So when you hear those mournful words, raise a glass to an immortal Irishman. For thanks to his kinsman Rory, he has survived to this day.

Erin O’Quinn, Author

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8 thoughts on “Who is Danny Boy?

  1. All I know is that it was really sad song that seems to get some Irish-Americans crying. Plus, there was funny version of the song given from the muppets. ;P It’s on youtube.

  2. Gotta love research, right? I’d like to add my own little bit of knowledge to yours – the most well known and popular arrangement of Danny Boy, whose proper title is Irish Tune From County Derry, was an Australian composer/pianist by the name of Percy Grainger, 1882-1961. He was a collector of folk songs, among other things, and also had an extensive collection of folk singers who were willing to “sing into his machine” as he recorded them on cylinder.

    A fitting tribute to St. Paddy’s Day, nice blog!

    Julie Lynn Hayes, Author

    • Thanks, Julie. Your comment about Grainger tugged at my memory until I looked up an American named Alan Lomax who did the same thing, no doubt well after Grainger. He recorded such luminaries as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and many unknowns all over the world; and his old recordings have been preserved by the Library of Congress. And now you introduce us to Grainger. Because of him, we can treasure probably the most famous Irish tune of all time.

  3. My husband has bugged me about the meaning of ‘Danny Boy’ for almost as long as we’ve been married – and that’s a loooooong time. He had a cousin named Danny who died young and although the family had no Irish blood at all that song brought tears to all who heard it. I’m delighted that I can finally tell me what the real origin of the song was. Don’t you love research?

  4. Thanks, Allison. I don’t think I really uncovered a “meaning,” except that in my mind I see a kinsman weeping on the grave of his beloved relative. All my life, I had imagined Danny as a young man struck down too soon, and the mourner as his father. I think the meaning depends on whatever the listener hears in those tear-drenched words. (PS Does your husband respond deeply also to the Elton John song “Daniel”? That one’s a heart-tugger too.)

    Happy Paddy’s Day to you and your husband too!

  5. Very interesting. I am sure yours is correct but I also heard another origin story for “Danny Boy”. It is that when ‘Boonie Prince Charlie ‘ had to be spirited away and the Scots were fighting the British the song was sung by a mother to her son, who was called to war. In any case it is a beautiful song.

    • Yvonne, I agree with you that the origin matters little, and the words and melody matter much. “Danny Boy” is one of the most well known and best loved songs ever written. Thank you for visiting, and I hope you’ll return.

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