Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, where the Irish in America march up 5th Avenue and stagger down 6th Avenue, and millions of Irish and non-Irish in the US will crowd into Irish-style pubs and sing “Danny Boy”. Or at least most of them will — with the exception of those at Foley’s in Manhattan, where the manager has banned the song. That might come as a relief to the actual Irish:
After 18 years behind a bar, Manhattan pub manager Shaun Clancy had decided he’d had enough of “Danny Boy,” the maudlin Irish evergreen that has haunted the hearts and ears of Irish bar owners for nearly a century. What’s more, the lyrics are constantly butchered by boozy patrons, he insisted.
Clancy banned the song from his tavern for the month of March.
Since banning “Danny Boy,” Clancy has been profiled in 70 newspapers around the world, from The China Post to the Derry Journal, as well as The Associated Press and dozens of television and radio stations.
He’s done 60 interviews for news outlets in six countries. And he’s taken more than one crank phone call from angry or simply bored citizens who laughingly — or bitterly — burst into the song as soon as he picks up the phone.
Widely decried among well-traveled publicans, the song has become to many the “Sweet Caroline” of Irish ballads — a once epic weeper that’s been bastardized by overuse into a gin-soaked, sing-along parody of itself.
“Danny Boy” is a beautiful, haunting song … the first thousand times you hear it. After that, it gets pretty tiresome, and even more so to those in the Old Country who tire of supplying renditions of it for American tourists. Irish music consists of much more than “the pipes, the pipes are calling” and “I’ll take you home again, Kathleen” — which owe more to America than Ireland. It started as an instrumental known as “Londonderry Air”, which became popular among Irish immigrants in this country. An American woman took it down and sent to to her brother-in-law in England, who added the lyrics. (Fred Weatherly would also later write “The Roses of Picardy”.)
The Irish tolerate Danny Boy and the other “Irish songs” of America, but only just. When my uncle visited Ireland almost 30 years ago, he asked one publican where he could hear authentic Irish music. The Irishman asked, “Oh, you mean like Danny Boy and I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen?” “Yes,” my uncle said. “Nearest place I know is Boston,” came the reply.
We visited Killarney in 2001 and caught a show at a pub popular with the tours. We had a great time with the show, but they made it clear what they thought of Danny Boy. The emcee kept promising a special rendition of it for most of the 90-minute show, and finally the moment arrived. Another singer took the stage and belched his way through it, which may have also been a statement about how the Irish think they’re perceived by Americans. It was hilarious; the audience laughed so hard we were in tears at the end, and not because the pipes were calling anyone.
If you want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with some authentic Irish music, try listening to The Chieftains, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Lunasa, The Corrs, or even U2. They may even have their own versions of Danny Boy — but it’s not the same without the belching.
Update: I failed to mention the Pogues, The Dubliners (how could I forget them?), and many others. I didn’t mean it as an exclusive list, and there are many other wonderful Irish bands and singers. Try Solas, or if you love the Irish language, Aoife Ní Fhearraigh can’t be missed.