'Danny Boy' not appropriate for Mass

Saturday, October 20, 2001

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The ballad "Danny Boy" has long been played at funerals, wakes and memorial services, its mournful strains conjuring up images of Ireland's green pastures and wind-swept hills.

New York Fire Chief Peter Ganci, killed in the World Trade Center attack, actor Carroll O'Connor and John F. Kennedy Jr. all were laid to rest with the plaintive melody.

So when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence banned "Danny Boy" and other secular songs from funeral Masses, it raised the ire of Irish-Americans.

"I want 'Danny Boy' sung at my funeral Mass and, if it isn't, I'm going to get up and walk out," retired Pawtucket police officer Charlie McKenna wrote in April to The Providence Visitor.

The weekly diocesan newspaper got dozens of letters, some from as far away as California, urging Bishop Robert E. Mulvee to reverse his decision -- at least when it came to "Danny Boy." So far, he hasn't.

"The controversy took on a life of its own," said the Rev. Bernard A. Healey, theological consultant to the Visitor. "I don't blame people, but really it's a lack of understanding of what a funeral Mass is supposed to be.

"It's about their connection with Jesus Christ and the church, not their connection with the Emerald Isle."

Other bishops have left the question of funeral music up to parish priests.

The Archdiocese of New York, which has buried scores of police officers and firefighters since Sept. 11, often playing "Danny Boy" at the service, usually discourages the use of secular music during Mass.

"All music played at church services should be liturgically appropriate music," said Joe Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "But we don't have a policy about any one song, or a list of songs that can't be used."

Besides lacking the appropriate piety, the song itself can counter what funeral services are supposed to accomplish, Healey said.

"Part of what I do at a funeral Mass is try to lift people's spirits," he said. "But the song is emotionally manipulative. Everything I've spent the last hour working toward is gone within two minutes because everyone is reduced to tears."

Connection to Ireland

Despite its popularity among Irish-Americans, the song's lyrics were actually penned by an Englishman, Frederick Edward Weatherly, in 1913, and set to the tune of the 17th century Irish folk song, "Londonderry Aire."

"Danny Boy" tells the tale of an Irish lad called to military duty by the sound of distant bagpipes, and a loved one who promises to wait for him. "'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow/Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so," go the wistful lyrics.

Mulvee's decision may be unpopular, but he's on solid ground from the church's perspective. Church documents plainly advise that popular ballads be excluded from Mass, said David Early, a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"These kinds of songs should clearly be avoided," Early said. "But it's not a matter of church doctrine. It's a pastoral decision left to the interpretation of the local bishop."

"If you allow 'Danny Boy,' then you open all kinds of other questions about what should and shouldn't be allowed," said Healey, who has rejected other song requests.

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