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Danny Boy : the story behind the song

Danny Boy the story behind the song. Who is the real author of Danny Boy? An upper class English barrister ravaged by the loss of his estranged son or a tragic Irish-American woman who died alone with bitter memories?

danny-boy-story 
It is the centenary year of the publication of Danny Boy, which became one of the best known and loved songs of the twentieth century.  Fred Weatherly (1848-1929), barrister and prolific songwriter wrote the words. In1910, a year of tragedy for him with the deaths of his father and only son within 3 months of each other, he had penned  some verses but  was unable to find suitable music for them. But in 1912, he states in his memoirs, a sister-in-law in America sent him the music of the Londonderry air with a suggestion he might put words to that melody. Fred claimed not have heard this traditional Irish air before but said it was one the most beautiful melodies he had ever come across. With modifications, his 1910 words could be fitted to it  and Danny Boy was published by Boosey and Hawkes, in 1913.

Its popularity was almost instantaneous, aided by a first recording in 1918. This is the currently accepted story of the birth of the song.

I am Fred Weatherly’s great-grandson, inheriting the copyright of his works in 1989 from my mother. I then became the person approached for information about him and his songs, but I soon realised, when asked about Danny Boy, that I couldn’t add to the accepted story.

I knew little of Fred’s private life, nothing about his son (my grandfather) and nothing about the sister-in-law in America.

Ten years ago, I embarked on family research to find out more, fitting this around a busy professional life as a psychiatrist. It turned out to have been quite a journey, greatly informed by the discovery of boxes of papers and letters archived at the University of Colorado at Boulder since 1936, after the death of Fred’s brother Eddie. In the boxes, I uncovered contemporaneous information about Fred , his family and about the struggles in the Depression of those in the family who had emigrated to the USA. Fred’s brother Eddie had tried and failed at silver mining in the San Juan Mountains.

His wife, Jess – a devoted and passionate Irish American, proud of her heritage – wrote copiously about the travails of their lives. Among her output I found her account of how the melody, the Londonderry air, was conveyed to Fred – an account considerably different to the accepted one above based on Fred’s memoirs. I have no reason to disbelieve Jess, details check out. Having seen this, it seems to me that Fred should have acknowledged her contribution. He didn’t. Eddie and Jess go on to die in poverty. In this centenary year, Jess’s voice should be heard.

Her contribution does I think, explain one mystery about Danny boy – how did an upper class Englishman who had never set foot in Ireland come to write a song that immediately resonated with and became adopted by Irish people? My discovery of Jess and her contribution to Danny Boy returns its genesis at least in part to the Irish.(pictured right, Fred Weatherly)
 fred weatherly 

The Danny Boy story is the central theme of the book, which covers the lives of three generations of the Weatherly family. Some members were successful, others died in poverty. Their lives were full of interest and have required me to read up on many and varied topics – including the letters of William Gladstone, Walter Pater and the aesthetic movement at Oxford, musical life in London in the 1890’s, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry on stage, the US dollar and the silver standard, the silver miner’s life in Colorado, silver fox farming in New York state, psychiatric hospitals and the treatment of mental illness in the early part of the last century.

A second and darker theme emerged as I researched  – that of mental illness which affected many members of the family. Sometime there were sufficient details for me to hazard a diagnosis. Such illness in his wife caused Fred to separate from her, though he immediately set up home with a mistress. Mental illness came close to my home when I discovered that my mother had a sister who spent the last years of her life in a mental hospital. Her existence was unknown to my father and me. My mother had jealously guarded this family secret, explaining her reluctance to talk about her family and thus my ignorance of them. Finding out her secret however, has helped explain a painful episode in my childhood and  gain resolution

I have decided to publish this story primarily to set the record straight about Danny Boy but also, hopefully, to interest others in my journey. I have gained great pleasure from this family research and hope others might do the same. It has involved meeting cousins, unknown to me, from around the world. As a psychiatrist, I was astonished to discover that among the numerous doctors that this family has spawned, there were three more psychiatrists, again completely unknown to me.

No research of this type is ever completed. I am eager for more information about Fred’s glamorous mistress, Maude Francfourt (nee Letouzel of Jersey), on the lives of Louisa Ethel Weatherly and her daughters in Richmond Va., of Freda Weatherly of Ballston Spa NY, of whom I can find no trace after the US census of 1930. If anyone has information about them or others in this book, please get in touch on [email protected]

Look out for a special BBC4 programme on Danny Boy for later this year using some of the material in the book. Broadcast date to be confirmed here later in 2013.