While this piece is the unofficial Irish national anthem, the famous lyrics were written by an English attorney! Some sources list Rory Dall O’Cahan as the composer of the music, other sources claim that Blind Jimmy McCurry was the composer.
What we do know for certain is that the first known publication of this melody was in 1855, in the publication Ancient Music of Ireland, published by George Petrie. The untitled melody was supplied by Jane Ross of Limavady, County Londonderry, who reportedly claimed to have taken it down from the playing of an itinerant piper. The tune became known later as Londonderry Air, and alternatively as Air from County Derry.
Derry is the name of a city in Northern Ireland, reportedly one of the longest continuously inhabited places in Ireland. Queen Elizabeth I’s military leaders would spend most of the second half of the 16th Century trying to conquer the province of Ulster, which was the only part of Ireland still outside English control. By the end of the Nine Years’ War, England had gained a hold on Derry, and in 1603 a small trading settlement was established and given the legal status of city. However, it was razed in 1608 by Sir Cahir O’Doherty, previously a supporter of the English in Ulster.
In the same year, King James I, in a move to once and for all bring Ulster under English control, gave Derry to the City of London Corporation. In celebration of this event, the city’s name was officially changed to Londonderry.
When the Great Famine hit Ireland in 1845, many emigrants left their failed potato crops and traveled to America, bringing with them their traditions and their music. In 1912, a woman named Margaret Weatherley, who had moved to Colorado with her husband during the Gold Rush, heard gold prospectors believed to have originated in the Roe Valley playing an unfamiliar yet beautiful tune. She managed to coax the musicians into giving her a copy of the music, which she sent to her brother-in-law Fred.
Frederic Edward Weatherley practiced law for a living, but was also a prolific songwriter with over 1,500 works credited to him, including the hymn ‘Holy City’. In 1843, he had penned the words and music for a song he called Danny Boy. Unfortunately, that song was a flop. When he received Londonderry Air from Margaret, Fred immediately perceived that the melody fit his Danny Boy lyrics almost perfectly. He quickly created a new version of the song, which would be published by Boosey in 1913.
The first part of the piece is rather simple, compared to the second part, which has been fully “King James” reharmonized. Not only is this piece a great St. Patrick’s Day number, but it is a wonderful recital piece any time of the year.
Londonderry Air has been used as the music for numerous hymns, making it an excellent selection for sanctuary use.
Key: G Major
Mood: wistful, then bold; yearning, yet sophisticated.
Pedagogy: jazz chord voicings, finger substitutions, rubato, dynamics.