Belfast Telegraph

Row over Danny Boy origins confirms there is something in the Air

Future students of the conflict will struggle to understand our disputes over names and languages, says Malachi O'Doherty

I have a particular affection for Londonderry. I was nearly born there, for my father was a Londonderry man from the Holly Bush, just outside the city of Londonderry and near the border.

I was born in Muff, prematurely. Otherwise my mother might have been able to get to hospital in Londonderry for delivery there. In which case I would have been a child of Londonderry myself.

Throughout my childhood, we always travelled through Londonderry to visit relations in Donegal, and I was struck repeatedly by the Londonderry hills. It is a marvel that my father cycled out of Londonderry with the Derry Wheelers, for Londonderry is no town for riding a bike in, with all the steep hills.

But the views from Londonderry across to Donegal always lifted my heart. And south of Londonderry were the grand Sperrins, eastward the northern coast.

You couldn't but love Londonderry with its friendly people and cosy pubs and its history. The Londonderry walls are unique. You can stand on the battlements and recall the siege of Londonderry and look down on the Bogside and the remnants of more recent conflict and turmoil.

My own acquaintance with Londonderry deepened when I worked for a time as a producer on Radio Foyle. I made friendships with Londonderry people and those friendships have endured over the decades since.

It saddens me to think of the few times I have gone back to Londonderry for funerals.

Few of the people I knew in Londonderry were more than bemused by the dissension over the name of the city and the devices deployed to avoid the need to use it. So Londonderry was called The Maiden City. The BBC local radio station in Londonderry was called Radio Foyle. Londonderry hospital is called Altnagelvin, a lovely Gaelic name. And our beloved Gerry Anderson coined the term Derry\Londonderry or Stroke City, to oblige everyone, and at the same time to chide them for taking a trivial matter like the name so seriously.

During the campaign to make Londonderry a UK City of Culture, the name Legenderry was coined.

Now community groups will refer to the city as Derry-Londonderry to avoid giving offence to those who prefer two syllables to four, who would write the mercantile history of Londonderry out of the city's name.

And there are many who will insist on the name of the city being Derry. They include serious thoughtful people and people with strong commercial heads on their Londonderry shoulders. So flights having been arriving at City of Derry Airport to do business in Londonderry.

Not that anyone local would be confused about where they were, but it must cause foreign visitors some hesitation, enticing them to check their maps again to find Londonderry, the city beside the City of Derry airport.

And now the fretting extends to Limavady, where Sinn Fein councillors resent people being welcomed to the town with a notice recalling that it is the home of a tune called The Londonderry Air. This is the tune to which the lyrics of Danny Boy have been attached.

The signage helpfully guides the visitor to that understanding with a graphic of a clip of the musical score and the words of Danny Boy.

So you'd think there wouldn't be a problem.

But some Sinn Fein councillors think that the sign should claim that Limavady is the home of the song, Danny Boy, which would be a lie. Limavady has no claim to the lyrics, only to the tune. The song was written by an Englishman, Frederic Weatherly. The real problem is that the sign will bear the offensive word Londonderry.

And some glipe is sure to come out and deface it.

I have a notion that if we ever settle our political differences here - I can dream, can't I? - a future generation will look back aghast and bewildered by the disputes we have had over names and languages.

Future students of conflict will marvel that people from places with names like Enniskillen, Ballymena and Shankill or Rathcoole thought that their tongues would bleed if they ever uttered a word of the Irish language.

They will wonder why tens of thousands of people who could not speak Irish voted to endorse a Sinn Fein campaign for the right to use Irish in communications with the state, most of whose functionaries don't speak it either.

They will be similarly amazed that proponents of the Ulster-Scots tongue, insisting on it being given its place in public discourse, had to reinvent it.

For there is a fundamental problem with trying to revive an old way of speaking for the modern world. The world itself has changed, and your great granny who chewed tobacco in the chimney corner didn't have words for most of the implements of a modern kitchen, let alone for a computer, trainers, sun dried tomatoes, autism, tights or a wok.

Irish had the same problem when it was adopted as a state language and didn't have a vocabulary for the job. Railways? They decided to call it the Iron Road and spell it, Iarnrod. That was clever. I've no problem with that. But I don't know how it helps affirm my identification with forebears who were better acquainted with fairies than they were with public transport.

If I am to remake their language and demand respect for it, should I not also revive their culture and their beliefs too?

If I am insulted when people mock a language I don't speak, should I not be similarly affronted and appalled when they mock the leprechauns my great grandparents took so seriously?

Why should it just be the language of the past and not the things named in it, the use that it was put to, that is intrinsic to my Irish identity?

Hopefully our own grandchildren, whatever language they use, will recognise what amadans and gulpins we have deferred to in this generation. By then we may have arrived at sufficient good sense to name our airports after the cities they serve, or our cities after their airports. They can do it either way for all I care.

And when we want to tell visitors that our town is famous for the music it produced, then no one will doubt the good sense of giving that music its own name and not to shrink from it just because it is Londonderry.

What is special about Londonderry, after all, is not the names it has but the people and the landscape and the river and the music and the wit.

It would be a scandal if history recalled the place mostly for this petty squabble over names and language. Londonderry Abu.

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