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Ulster log: Fine-tuning the origins of our iconic Danny Boy

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 07/11/2015

Jane Ross
Jane Ross
Music hall: Mary Duff will be reviving old-time favourites at Belfast concert

Jane Ross, the collector who found what has been called Ireland's Most Famous Melody, died at 69 in 1879 without revealing the origins of The Londonderry Air, according to the late author Brendan Drummond in a new book in which he attempted to brush aside the folklore and controversy surrounding her discovery.

So the suggestion that spinster Jane first heard it being played by a blind fiddler on the streets of her native Limavady is untrue.

Dr Drummond (72), a graduate of Oxford University, the Royal College of Music and the University of Ulster, however, made it clear in his book called The Londonderry Air which has been published by The Bookwell, Belmont Road, Belfast, price £7.99, that it was indeed Miss Ross who presented the beautiful melody to editor George Petrie for his The Ancient Music of Ireland, where it first appeared in 1855 and was simply described as "very old".

Dr Drummond, a retired Coleraine Institute teacher, put together his absorbing chapters with the help of Pete Smith, the closest surviving descendant of Jane, who made old papers and manuscripts never before seen in public, available to him.

Sadly, Dr Drummond passed away just when his tome was becoming available in the shops, after he had spent several years researching the story of The Londonderry Air in spite of his poor health.

One manuscript to which he was given access was the only written account of The Londonderry Air's discovery by a member of the family, Jane's grandnephew, Canon William Manning, a Church of Ireland rector (1878-1955) who wrote his account in 1936 and left it in his desk - where it was only found after his death.

The melody was first referred to as a Londonderry Air in 1894 in an Irish Song Book, but had the official title back then of An Irish Love Song.

It was first recorded in 1913 by Australian composer Percy Grainger, but the recording that mattered most happened in 1915 when the lyrics of Danny Boy were added and sung by opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heink and became a hit all over the world.

Danny Boy, the ballad, was written by English songwriter Fred Weatherly (1848-1929), who never set foot in Ireland.

Mary to show she still has that Voice of an Angel

Easy on the ear singer Mary Duff, who has been appearing with Daniel O’Donnell for more years than she cares to remember, will be on the Do Ye Come Here Often tour this winter — and Danny Boy won’t be anywhere in sight.

The Voice of an Angel singer, whose new single is Breathe With Me, got her first taste of stage work when she appeared with her father’s band as a 12-year-old.

And after leaving school in Co Meath she joined rock’n’roll band Jukebox.

Her debut album Love Someone Like Me is still a seller years after its original release in 1988.

With Mary on Do You Come Here Often will be familiar names like Dickie Rock, Paddy Cole, Susan McCann, Hugo Duncan and Gene Stuart.

They will be at the Waterfront for promoter David Hull from December 28-30, and at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry from January 7-9.

The singer who was a cut above his rivals

Who was the Singing Butcher of the Shankill? I was asked this by a 25-year-old who had never heard of this celebrated tenor, who graced the Sadler’s Wells Opera when he wasn’t serving up prime meat in his Belfast shop.

Not surprising that this young lady was not familiar with the career of James Johnston — he died in 1991 at 88.

I knew the man well. I can tell you that when he was off to London to sing in the likes of Rigoletto, he always took a pound or two of the best Ulster steak with him to cook a meal or two for the cast.

Johnston had no formal training and began his working life as a butcher with his father.

He entered numerous competitions and won them all — and supplemented his income by singing in semi-professional performances around Ireland.

After positive notices of a performance in Dublin in 1940, he was offered a contract with Sadler’s Wells and stayed 10 years, becoming principal tenor.

James retired in 1958 at the peak of his powers, and resumed work in the family butchery business.

Play it again to clear up confusion

Is that much-quoted line "Play it again, Sam" really an uttering by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca?

Here's an opportunity to find out on Sunday, November 15, when the film is screened in Queen's Film Theatre as part of the British Film Institute's Love season.

From first crushes to fatal attractions, this season will be an affair to remember, featuring productions to fall in love to and others that will break your heart, claims Richard Gaston who is putting it all together.

Included are Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, Woody Allen's Annie Hall, and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's. For details go to Play it again Sam? You'll find it's a slight variation on what most people think.

Ungodly words to the faithful

One day in church I remember the minister announcing that the baptism of four babies would have to be delayed for a wee while because one of them hadn't arrived yet.

Another clergyman declared from the pulpit: "The sermon this morning will be called Jesus Walks on Water. And tonight the address will be Searching for Jesus."

Which leads me nicely on to another announcement in a certain church magazine that stated: the fasting and prayer conference will include meals.

Church magazines as well as the men in dog collars, are always good for a blooper or two. Like the one that said in its what's on section: "At evening service the topic will be 'What is Hell?'" And then added: "Come along early and listen to our choir practice." And this: "Weightwatchers, please use the double doors."

Is this really the root of all evil?

Never, ever cut or burn ferns in the winter or you will bring on a rain that will deluge down for days on end. Yes, it's a folksy belief, but even old Royalty took it seriously.

In 1636, Charles II's chamberlain Lord Pembroke took the precaution of ordering the High Sheriff of each county the King was going to visit to make sure no ferns were destroyed during the stay of the Royal party so that the weather would be fine.

Ferns, by the way, are supposed to be flowerless because St Patrick cursed the plant that he had been told was associated with the Devil.

On the other hand, the bracken is supposed to be marked with the initials of Jesus and is therefore feared by evil spirits.

Belfast Telegraph

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