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The Londonderry Air is an Irishmarker anthem. It is also popular among the Irish diaspora and very well known throughout the world. The tune is played as the Northern Irelandmarker anthem at the Commonwealth Games. "Danny Boy" is a popular set of lyrics to the tune.


The title of the air comes from the name of the county in Irelandmarker. The air was collected by Jane Ross of Limavadymarker. The descendants of blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry assert that he is the musician from whom she transcribed the tune but there is no historical evidence to support this speculation. A similar claim is made that the tune came to the blind itinerant harpist Rory O'Cahan in a dream, and a documentary detailing this version was broadcast on Marylandmarker Public Television in March 2000.

Miss Ross submitted the tune to music collector George Petrie, and it was then published by the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland in the 1855 book The Ancient Music of Ireland, which Petrie edited. The tune was listed as an anonymous air, with a note attributing its collection to Jane Ross of Londonderry. This led to the descriptive title "Londonderry Air" being used for the piece. The title "Air from County Derry" or "Derry Air" is sometimes used instead of "Londonderry Air", due to the Derry-Londonderry name dispute.
For the following beautiful air I have to express my very grateful acknowledgement to Miss J.
Ross, of New Town, Limavady, in the County of Londonderry--a lady who has made a large collection of the popular unpublished melodies of the county , which she has very kindly placed at my disposal, and which has added very considerably to the stock of tunes which I had previously acquired from that still very Irish county.
I say still very Irish, for though it has been planted for more than two centuries by English and Scottish settlers, the old Irish race still forms the great majority of its peasant inhabitants; and there are few, if any counties in which, with less foreign admixture, the ancient melodies of the country have been so extensively preserved.
The name of the tune unfortunately was not ascertained by Miss Ross, who sent it to me with the simple remark that it was 'very old', in the correctness of which statement I have no hesitation in expressing my perfect concurrence.

The origin of the tune was for a long time somewhat mysterious, as no other collector of folk tunes encountered it, and all known examples are descended from Miss Ross's submission to Petrie's collection. In a 1934 article, Anne Geddes Gilchrist suggested that the performer Ross heard played the song with extreme rubato, causing Ross to mistake the time signature of the piece for common time (4/4) rather than 3/4. Gilchrist asserted that adjusting the rhythm of the piece as she proposed produced a tune more typical of Irish folk music.

In 1974, Hugh Shields found a long-forgotten traditional song which was very similar to Gilchrist's modified version of the melody. The song, Aislean an Oigfear ("The young man's dream"), had been transcribed by Edward Bunting in 1792 based on a performance by harper Denis Hempson at the Belfast Harp Festival. Bunting published it in 1796. Hempson lived in Magilliganmarker, not far from Ross's home in Limavady. Hempson died in 1807. In 2000, Brian Audley published his authoritative research on the tune's origins. He showed how the distinctive high section of the tune had derived from a refrain in The Young Man's Dream which, over time, crept into the body of the music. He also discovered the original words to the tune as we now know it which were written by Edward Fitzsimmons and published in 1814; his song is 'The Confession of Devorgilla', otherwise known by its first line 'Oh Shrive Me Father'.

Lyrical Settings

Danny Boy

The most popular lyrics for the tune are "Danny Boy" ("Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling"), written by English lawyer Frederick Edward Weatherly in 1910, and set to the tune in 1913. While Weatherly intended the song as a parting message from a woman to a man, others have interpreted the parting in the song as that between a parent or grandparent and a son or grandson going off to war. The song has sometimes been taken as a call to arms or a rebel song, sometimes with the addition of verses of a more military nature.

The Confession of Devorgilla

The first lyrics to be sung to the music were, almost certainly, "The Confession of Devorgilla", otherwise known as "Oh! shrive me, father".

'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.

The first writer, after Petrie's publication, to set verses to the tune was Alfred Perceval Graves, in the late 1870's. His song was entitled 'Would I Were Erin's Apple Blossom o'er You.' Graves later stated '.....that setting was, to my mind, too much in the style of church music, and was not, I believe, a success in consequence.' (ref Audley, below).

Would I were Erin's apple-blossom o'er you,
Or Erin's rose, in all its beauty blown,
To drop my richest petals down before you,
Within the garden where you walk alone;
In hope you'd turn and pluck a little posy,
With loving fingers through my foliage pressed,
And kiss it close and set it blushing rosy
To sigh out all its sweetness on your breast.

Would I might take a pigeon's flight towards you,
And perch beside your window-pane above,
And murmur how my heart of hearts it hoards you,
O hundred thousand treasures of my love;
In hope you'd stretch your slender hand and take me,
And smooth my wildly-fluttering wings to rest,
And lift me to your loving lips and make me
My bower of blisses in your loving breast.

And when the dew no longer pearls your roses,
Nor gems your footprint on the glittering lawn,
I'd follow you into the forest closes
In the fond image of your sportive fawn;
Till you should woo me 'neath the wavering cover
With coaxing call and friendly hands and eyes,
Where never yet a happy human lover
His head has pillowed—mine to emparadise.

Irish Love Song

The tune was first called "Londonderry Air" in 1894 when Katherine Tynan Hinkson set the words of her "Irish Love Song" to it:
Would God I were the tender apple blossom
That floats and falls from off the twisted bough
To lie and faint within your silken bosom
Within your silken bosom as that does now.
Or would I were a little burnish'd apple
For you to pluck me, gliding by so cold
While sun and shade you robe of lawn will dapple
Your robe of lawn, and you hair's spun gold.

Yea, would to God I were among the roses
That lean to kiss you as you float between
While on the lowest branch a bud uncloses
A bud uncloses, to touch you, queen.
Nay, since you will not love, would I were growing
A happy daisy, in the garden path
That so your silver foot might press me going
Might press me going even unto death.


As with a good many folk tunes, Londonderry Air is also used as a hymn tune; most notably for I cannot tell by William Young Fullerton.

I cannot tell why He Whom angels worship,
Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,
To bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that He was born of Mary
When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home,
And that He lived at Nazareth and laboured,
And so the Saviour, Saviour of the world is come.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the cross was broken,
The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the brokenhearted,
And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
For yet the Saviour, Saviour of the world is here.

I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
How He will claim His earthly heritage,
How satisfy the needs and aspirations
Of East and West, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendour
When He the Saviour, Saviour of the world is known.

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
When, at His bidding, every storm is stilled,
Or who can say how great the jubilation
When all the hearts of men with love are filled.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
And earth to Heaven, and Heaven to earth, will answer:
At last the Saviour, Saviour of the world is King

It was also used as a setting for I would be true by Howard Arnold Walter at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales:

I would be true, for there are those that trust me.
I would be pure, for there are those that care.
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer.
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.
I would be friend of all, the foe, the friendless.
I would be giving, and forget the gift,
I would be humble, for I know my weakness,
I would look up, and laugh, and love and live.

"Londonderry Air" was also used as the tune for the Southern Gospel hit "He looked beyond my fault" written by Dottie Rambo of the group "The Rambos"

Amazing Grace shall always be my song of praise,
For it was grace that bought my liberty,
I do not know just why He came to love me so,
He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
I shall forever lift mine eyes to Calvary,
To view the Cross where Jesus died for me,
How marvelous His grace that caught my falling soul,
When he looked beyond my fault and saw my need.

Other hymns sung to this are:
  • I Love Thee So
  • My Own Dear Land
  • We Shall Go Out With Hope of Resurrection
  • Above the Hills of Time the Cross Is Gleaming
  • Lord of the Church, We Pray for our Renewing
  • "What Grace is Mine" by Kristyn Getty

In Derry Vale

W. G. Rothery, a British lyricist who wrote the English lyrics for songs such as Handel's "Art Thou Troubled," wrote the following lyrics to the tune of "The Londonderry Air":

In Derry Vale, beside the singing river,
so oft' I strayed, ah, many years ago,
and culled at morn the golden daffodillies
that came with spring to set the world aglow.
Oh, Derry Vale, my thoughts are ever turning
to your broad stream and fairy-circled lee.
For your green isles my exiled heart is yearning,
so far away across the sea.

In Derry Vale, amid the Foyle's dark waters,
the salmon leap, beside the surging weir.
The seabirds call, I still can hear them calling
in night's long dreams of those so dear.
Oh, tarrying years, fly faster, ever faster,
I long to see that vale belov'd so well,
I long to know that I am not forgotten,
And there in home in peace to dwell.

Other uses

The melody is given by Julian May as the anthem of the Tanu and Firvulag in her Saga of Pliocene Exile science fiction series.

The song has been adapted into You Raise Me Up, and also Ne Viens Pas by Roch Voisine.

The melody was used to words in Irish and sung by the Bunratty Castlemarker chorus during the 1970s. The title used was "Maidín i mBéara". The words are from a poem of the same title by Irish poet and scholar Osborn Bergin (ó hAimheirgin)(1872-1950).

Australian composer Percy Grainger wrote numerous settings, which he called "Irish Tune from County Derry", in his British Folk-Music Settings.

See also


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