Genealogy: The county that gave us Seamus Heaney and Danny Boy

This is the third instalment of our quick tour round the counties to remind us of the pleasure that versifiers give us.

Seamus Heaney.

In Co Londonderry, Bellaghy is best known for Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), the Nobel Laureate poet and described by many as the greatest poet of our age. He published many collections of poetry from Death of a Naturalist in 1966 to Human Chain in 2010 and in 2007 the BBC claimed that Heaney’s books made up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), in his Irish Sketch Book, was so taken with the daughter of the keeper of the inn where he stayed in 1842 that he wrote the poem Sweet Peg of Limavady, which begins:

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Riding from Coleraine

(Famed for lovely Kitty),

Came a Cockney bound

Unto Derry City;

Weary was his soul,

Shivering and sad he

Bumped along the road

Leads to Limavaddy.

and includes the lines:

Beauty is not rare

In the land of Paddy,

Fair beyond compare

Is Peg of Limavady.

Riding from Coleraine (famed for lovely Kitty) - this Kitty of Coleraine is thought to be by the barrister and balladeer “Pleasant Ned” Lysaght (1763-1811).

As beautiful Kitty one morning was tripping

With a pitcher of milk from the fair of Coleraine,

When she saw me she stumbled, the pitcher down tumbled,

And all the sweet butter-milk watered the plain.

Oh! what shall I do now? ‘twas looking at you, now;

Sure, sure, such a pitcher I’ll ne’er meet again;

‘Twas the pride of my dairy! O Barney M’Cleary,

You’re sent as a plague to the girls of Coleraine!

I sat down beside her, and gently did chide her,

That such a misfortune should give her such pain;

A kiss then I gave her, and, ere I did leave her,

She vowed for such pleasure she’d break it again.

‘Twas hay-making season--I can’t tell the reason--

Misfortunes will never come single, ‘tis plain;

For very soon after poor Kitty’s disaster

The devil a pitcher was whole in Coleraine.

The itinerant harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) was one of the last Irish harpers who composed and a significant number of his works survive. Having a talent for poetry and having been taught to play the harp and having been blinded at the age of 18 by smallpox, he was given a harp, a horse and some money and sent on his way to travel throughout Ireland composing tunes for his patrons.

The people of the Beneda Glen in Dungiven recalled a number of harpers, including the most famous; one story is that Allan Ramsay plied the blind Carolan with drink and then shipped him to Ayr, where he kept him, in great comfort, for a year – each morning Carolan would play his harp and Ramsay, the other side of a thin wall, would note down the airs, to which he set songs.

We cannot leave the county without considering The Londonderry Air. Legend has it that the original tune was written by a well known blind Irish harpist named Rory Dall O’Cahan (c1570-1650) and that the confiscation of the O’Cahan lands in the early 1600s drove him to write a deeply moving tune of pain and passion called O’Cahan’s Lament.

Another blind harper called Denis Hempson (1695-1807) from the Roe Valley, who married at the age of 86 and died at the ripe old age of 112, studied with Bridget O’Cahan, who was purportedly related to Blind Rory, and is said to have inherited a sizeable repertoire including O’Cahan’s Lament.

Hempson was one of 10 harpers, six of them blind, invited to attend the celebrated Belfast Harp Festival in 1792 arranged by Edward Bunting (1773-1843), later the organist of St George’s Parish Church in Belfast’s High Street, who wrote down the tunes played at the festival and subsequently visited the 10 harpers, in an attempt to revive and continue the tradition of ancient Irish music. Much later a tune in Bunting’s first volume, entitled Aislean an Oigfear (The Young Man’s Dream), was identified as closely resembling the modern version of Londonderry Air.

A blind, itinerant fiddler, Jimmy McCurry, who lived between 1830 and 1910, frequently played his fiddle at the Limavady market and living opposite was Jane Ross, who, in 1851, notated the music.

The first lyrics to be sung to the music were The Confession of Devorgilla, otherwise known as Oh! shrive me, father, by Edward Fitzsimons in 1814.

‘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.

In 1910, Frederic Edward Weatherley (1848-1929) wrote the song Danny Boy, which he fitted to the melody of the Londonderry Air and it was published in 1913.

Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling

From glen to glen, and down the mountain side

The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying

‘Tis you, ‘tis you must go and I must bide

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow

Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow

‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow

Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so

The North of Ireland Family History Society’s Research Centre and its branches, with their monthly meetings, are open to all: see