- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 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 received 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 September 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, Mr. 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."
Despite its popularity among Irish-Americans, the song's lyrics actually were 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.
The tune has long been cherished by police officers and firefighters, who identify with its message, Mr. McKenna said.
"Danny's answering a call, and it's uncertain whether he's going to return or not," he said. "If you think about it, a policeman and a fireman, they do the same thing. What happened in New York is a perfect example."
Also, fire and police departments historically have been dominated by Irishmen, another reason why "Danny Boy" often is blown on the bagpipes during ceremonies for fallen officers.
Tom Deignan, a columnist for the New York-based Irish Voice newspaper, wrote about the ban in July and was inundated with letters from across the country. Some readers circulated a pro-"Danny Boy" petition that they intend to present to Bishop Mulvee.
"Ninety-nine percent were saying it was ridiculous," Mr. Deignan said. "Just to judge from the reaction we got, it's clear that song means a lot to a lot of people."
The song has been played at many funerals connected to the attack on the World Trade Center, he said, often by the New York Police Department's Emerald Society bagpipers.
"The Irish community was hit particularly hard by the tragedy," Mr. Deignan said.
Back in Providence, Bishop Mulvee's decision may be unpopular, but he is 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," Mr. Early said. "But it's not a matter of church doctrine. It's a pastoral decision left to the interpretation of the local bishop."
No other American church leaders appear to have taken as strong a stand on the issue as Bishop Mulvee.
Popular songs have long found their way into churches. Examples include "Morning Has Broken," popularized in the 1970s by Cat Stevens, and "America the Beautiful."
"If you allow 'Danny Boy,' then you open all kinds of other questions about what should and shouldn't be allowed," said Mr. Healey, who personally has rejected requests to have Frank Sinatra's "My Way," John Denver's "Annie's Song" and Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" played at funerals.
The diocese formed a committee to look at the infiltration of secular music, Mr. Healey said, and the group intends to send a letter by the end of the year to parishes detailing what is acceptable during Mass.
One alternative has been to play the song for other parts of the funeral rites, such as at the wake or during a procession. Some church music directors are using a version of the song with lyrics from the hymn "In Paradisum" with the music from "Danny Boy."
But even Mr. Healey says priests can be only so insistent with a family mourning the death of their beloved.
"I'm not going to fight with the family over 'Danny Boy,'" he said. "And with the tragedy the scope of what happened in New York, I can't fault any priest who's allowed it to be played in their church."


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