cover image DANNY BOY: The Beloved Irish Ballad

DANNY BOY: The Beloved Irish Ballad

Malachy McCourt, . . Running Press, $18.95 (141pp) ISBN 978-0-7624-1124-5

"Danny Boy" is one of the best-known and most beloved songs in the Western world. Whether sung at funeral masses or by Elvis Presley, it nearly always raises a lump in the throat and brings a tear to the eye. The song itself may be simple and direct, but McCourt (A Monk Swimming) has written a lively and detailed cultural history of the tune's origins, cultural meanings and political import that is as fascinating as it is frequently provocative. While the tune of "Danny Boy" (also known as the Londonderry, or Derry, air) may well date back to Rory Dall O'Cahan, an Irish harpist who lived in Scotland in the late 17th century, the words as we know them today were penned by a British barrister and prolific song writer, Frederick Edward Weatherly. Having written the lyrics for another tune in 1910, Weatherly adopted them to the Derry air two years later and had an immediate hit, which despite its English origins became profoundly identified with Ireland and its struggle for independence. Unafraid of exploring all possibilities of the song's meaning—is it sung by a grieving mother or a desolate gay male lover? is it about the great starvation and emigration?—McCourt succeeds in making his case that the song is both specific and universal. Less sustained as cultural history than David Margolic's stunning Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, McCourt's reprise of "Danny Boy" is highly entertaining and idiosyncratically informative. (Mar.)

Forecast:Running Press is going all out with a 100,000 first printing, hoping to attract all those who've wept to the song. A book by a McCourt brother will do just that—especially because of the fortunate release around St. Patrick's Day.