2016-06-30
Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy. I love you so.

But maybe after Mass.

The Catholic community in Rhode Island is in the midst of a debate over whether "Danny Boy," the treasured Irish-American ballad, is an appropriate farewell song at a Catholic funeral Mass.

The Diocese of Providence's music commission will "educate" its parishes' music directors that songs such as "Danny Boy," however beloved, do not belong in Mass. The Rev. Peter J. Andrews, director of worship for the diocese, said last week it would possibly be done in the form of a workshop or letter.
"I want 'Danny Boy' sung at my funeral Mass, and if it isn't, I'm going to get up and walk out."

No telling what could happen without "Danny Boy." Irish Catholics like Charles McKenna, a "retired Irish cop and proud of it," are predicting no rest.

He promised in a letter to The Providence Visitor, the Diocese's official newspaper: "I want 'Danny Boy' sung at my funeral Mass, and if it isn't, I'm going to get up and walk out."

"Danny Boy" is perfectly reverent, he said last week.

"We're not talking about 'Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder,'" he said, referring to another song popular with Irish-Americans.

Catholic doctrines say Mass must not be marred by secular tunes, that liturgical music must come from sacred text or be written specifically for Mass. Some churches, however, quietly make exceptions for "Danny Boy."

Many Irish-Americans consider the ballad, only formally known as "Londonderry Air," an adopted national anthem. They whistle the melancholy tale of the Irish lad, summoned to the military by bagpipes, to their babies. They sing it to sons named Daniel.

They want "Danny Boy" at their funerals.

But when a Rhode Island church refused, a letter to The Visitor opened an ongoing debate and brought stern reminders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop's official guidelines for worship music: No "Danny Boy."

John Lynch, of Smithfield, R.I., started the debate.

Not that Lynch, 67, wants the Irish ballad played at his funeral Mass. In fact, he told his son Danny, "Daniel Patrick, I won't do that to you."

But he became upset when a local acquaintance was not allowed to fulfill her father's last wish: to have "Danny Boy" played at his funeral.

Lynch wrote his concerns, about two years ago, to the weekly Visitor, whose publisher is the Most Rev. Robert E. Mulvee, bishop of the Diocese of Providence.

To approve 'Danny Boy' at one Mass will open the doors to approving 'Perhaps Love' by John Denver at weddings," he wrote, "or 'Happy Birthday' for a reception on Sunday just because the family for whom the Mass is offered may request it."

The paper's editorial staff responded to Lynch's letter, saying "Danny Boy" is not liturgical, meaning that it does not have a proper place in Mass. The paper's rebuttal said editors talked to Irish priests, who said "Danny Boy" would never be allowed in churches in Ireland.

Lynch would not give up. A friend's housekeeper knew of an Irish church where the ballad is sung, as did Lynch's cousin, Peggy. Lynch wrote back to The Visitor this spring, saying, "I challenge you...to dispute that 'Danny Boy' was sung and is sung at a parish known as South Chapel in County Cork."

Lynch had struck a chord, or at least a note on the bagpipe.

Brian Michael Page, director of music at Holy Name of Jesus Church, in Providence, recently wrote that any liturgist "in his right mind" would refuse "Danny Boy."

"To approve 'Danny Boy' at one Mass will open the doors to approving 'Perhaps Love' by John Denver at weddings," he wrote, "or 'Happy Birthday' for a reception on Sunday just because the family for whom the Mass is offered may request it."

Those who still insist on "Danny Boy" should save it for the wake or reception, Page said. At Mass, "let's put ourselves in the presence of the Lord."

It's believed that the music for "Danny Boy" was composed in the 1600s, and the best-known lyrics written in 1913 by an Englishman, Frederick Edward Weatherly. The ballad speaks of Danny leaving, and then returning, from the war, to perhaps declare his love for his father, or mother, who is in the grave. There are many versions. One goes:

"If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me.

I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me."

The song, explained a Pawtucket, R.I., man, "may be the one that Mom sang to us as a child while rocking us to sleep. Or, perhaps, it's the one Grampa hummed while we helped him tend the flowers in his garden."

"In any event," Vincent Coughlin wrote to The Visitor on May 31, "the song brings back comforting memories of happier times before death stood between us."

Father Andrews, the worship director for the diocese, said the controversy has gone on for years, just not so publicly.

Father Andrews said music selection is left up to the parishes, which are expected to follow Catholic guidelines. He doesn't want to police parishes, he said, just remind them what music at Mass, whether at a wedding, funeral, or on a Sunday, is supposed to represent--faith in God. It's not supposed to represent faith in Bette Midler. But for years, songs such as "Danny Boy," have "just been allowed to go on."

"Wind Beneath My Wings," and the "Theme from Ice Castles"--other popular requests--don't cut it either, he said.

"It's becoming more and more of a question as far as what's appropriate," said Father Andrews, who once had a request for a song from Phantom of the Opera at a funeral. "It's moving us to say, we need to address this in a more public and educational perspective...we need to get the message across more clearly than we have in the past."

Requests for popular, secular music in Catholic ceremonies is troublesome for clergy and music directors throughout the nation. In an online Catholic forum, they speak with disdain of polka Masses, and "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" at Communion.

"Barber shop, rap, and hip hop are also part of our culture, but we would not use those genres at liturgy," said one posting on www.catholic-forum.com.

Music directors of Rhode Island Catholic churches have written to The Visitor to offer a solution: a song, based on "In Paradisum," but set to the tune of "Danny Boy." World Library Publications of Chicago has published the song as "Celtic Song of Farewell."

Some in the church worry, however, that it might inspire impure thoughts of the musical kind.

"I personally think that when people hear the tune they're thinking 'Danny Boy,'" the Rev. Anthony Mancini, musical director of Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, in Providence, said last week. "I mean, I could take 'Wind Beneath My Wings' and put (the lyrics) to the tune of 'Holy God We Praise Thy Name,' but people are still hearing 'Wind Beneath My Wings.'"

Mancini tells parishioners that a funeral is not only a celebration of a person's life, and his "favorite tune," but also a celebration of his faith as he tried to follow Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Kevin Fisette, of Providence's Holy Name of Jesus Church, also thinks using a sacred text to the tune of Danny Boy is a bit sneaky.

"That's cheating as far as I'm concerned," he said.

The Rev. William O'Neill, at St. Mark Church, in Jamestown, R.I., is from County Donegal, on the northern tip of Ireland. He rarely heard "Danny Boy" there. But here, his Irish-American parishioners request it, especially if the funeral is for someone named Daniel.

He allows it. It's a song about love, and the Irish are a loving people, he said. Previous generations did not express their love in words, he said. The song allows them to do that.

"I think that it says for them, a father who never said to his son, 'I love you,'" O'Neill said in his Irish brogue. "Now, he's saying, 'Tell me you love me and even though I'm dead, I'll hear it.'"

Lynch, the man who started the local "Danny Boy" discussion, said last week that he does see the diocese's point. Yes, the church does sometimes have to draw the line.

He assures his "fantastic" pastor that he won't request "Danny Boy." Lynch says he's got another song up his sleeve, "Our Lady of Knock." An Irish song.


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