A 'Danny Boy' for My Father

For years, singer Carol Noonan avoided the classic Irish folk song "Danny Boy." She rediscovered the powerful and sad spell it casts when she sang it at her father's funeral.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG DANNY BOY)

HANSEN: Plans for this week's St. Patrick's Day celebrations are in the final stages. You know, there are sacred and secular ways to mark the occasion, but music will be at the heart of both. One song firmly rooted in the tradition of the emerald isle is Danny Boy. It's hypnotic, but what exactly is the nature of the spell it casts?

Singer Carol Noonan says it's the melody, the sadness of it. The kind of sad that makes you weirdly feel good. Carol is Irish, but she gave up singing Danny Boy. In 1985, when her father died, Carol wanted an opera singer friend to perform it at the funeral, but she wasn't available. So Carol Noonan decided it was time for her to reclaim it.

CAROL NOONAN: I perched myself up in the balcony of St. Anthony's, and as they rolled the casket out of the church, I sang what would be my father's final goodbye. I turned my back to him as he went away. I couldn't bear to see the casket and the shaking shoulders of the crying relatives and friends who wouldn't miss him half as much as me.

As I sang, my throat tightened, and it took all my strength to keep from crying; but I was determined to make this Danny Boy the best one I'd ever sung. I tried to put my mind somewhere else, somewhere where my dad was healthy and happy; a time when, ironically, I really hated this song. Every year my Dad offered my Danny Boy services to the annual Irish Step-Dancing Recital at the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall.

They made me close the program after all the cute Catholic girls did their River Dance. My dad would proudly stand against the back wall, careful not to lean on the yellowed Irish flag. With a whiskey and cigarette in his well-worn Irish cap, he could have easily been a stand-in for John Wayne in The Quiet Man.

I would finish with a dramatic high note and the room would fill with cheers from old men and chubby mothers. They would tell my dad on the way out what a talented daughter he had. And as usual he tried to get them to stay and have another round.

Adults love my voice. My vibrato is mature for a nine-year-old, but freakish to the ears of my friends. Monday would come and I would endure a week of Glenda the Good Witch jokes and vow I would never sing that stupid song again.

When I turned 12, I did finally refuse to fulfill this annual engagement and never noticed the disappointment in my dad's face when I made the bold announcement. I would not sing this Danny Boy again until that day in the balcony of St. Anthony's. It was on that day that I heard this song for the very first time. I ached for the beauty of the melody and the meaning that it gave to so many.

I wish I was back at the AOH to see my dad at the back of the room, smoke swirling around his head, dabbing the tears away with his gray cotton handkerchief. But for now I can only cling to the memories and hope he is watching and listening.

And I will rest in peace until you come to me. Happy St. Patty's.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG DANNY BOY)

HANSEN: Carol Noonan lives in Brownfield, Maine. Her recording of Danny Boy is on the Carol Noonan Sampler, that's N-O-O-N-A-N, and it's available through her website at carolnoonanmusic.com.

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