By Denis J. Hickey
The plaintive air we know and cherish owes its origin to a blind harper Ruaidhrí Dall Ó Catháin (Blind Rory O’Cathan; c1570-1653).
On leaving for Scotland in 1601 following confiscation of the Ó Catháin lands, he played the air to a fellow musician and the tune was retained among Northern musicians.
Denis O’Hampsey, a fellow blind harper, is credited with introducing the melody to nineteenth-century listeners. Thus, we find Jimmy McCurry (1830-1910) a blind fiddler, plying his trade outside Burns & Lairds Shipping Line Office on a Limavady market day in the late 1840s.
A particularly beautiful air he played was heard by Jane Ross (1810-79) who lived at 51 Main Street across the way.
A collector of songs and airs, Miss Ross was captivated by the melody and she requested the fiddler to repeat it several times while she noted the tune in her book.
In 1851, Miss Ross passed the tune to Antiquarian, George Petrie (1789-1866) who included it in his Ancient Music of Ireland (1855) as the ‘Londonderry Air’ in which he credited Miss Ross for her annotation.
In the ensuing years there were several attempts to write a suitable lyric to the tune, notably by poet Thomas Moore and folklorist and songwriter, Alfred Perceval Graves. All failed to fire public imagination.