The Confession of Devorgilla

PICA Volume 2, 2005


The Confession of Devorgilla

Arranged—and with an Introductory Note—by BENJAMIN BIERMAN

The tune for ‘The Confession of Devorgilla’ is better known by other names: often as ‘The Londonderry Air’, and, since gaining a new text by Fred Weatherley in 1913, even more famously as ‘Danny Boy’, with which words it is known throughout the English-speaking world.

My arrangement for English concertina and mezzo-soprano, which was commissioned —and has often been performed—by the New York Victorian Consort, draws on the earliest known (and possibly the original) words for the tune: ‘The Confession of Devorgilla’, seemingly published for the first time in Edward Fitzsimons’s Irish Minstrelsy (1814). The song refers to historical events in twelfth-century Northern Ireland. Briefly, Dermott McMurrough, King of Leinster, kidnapped Devorgilla, the wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, Prince of Brefni. O’Rourke avenged the kidnapping by driving McMurrough from his stronghold; McMurrough then enlisted the help of Henry II, thus setting the stage for the first English invasion of Ireland. Eventually, Devorgilla returned to her husband, and the song finds her in a confessional, pleading, ‘Oh! shrive me, father…’ , as she asks for absolution. The history of the tune—its many versions and sets of words—is told brilliantly in Brian Audley, ‘The Provenance of the Londonderry Air’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 125/2 (2000).