Ross, Jane (1810–79), folksong collector, was born 5 August 1810 in or near Limavady, Co. Londonderry, eldest child among four daughters and two sons of John Ross (1781–1830), captain in the Limavady yeomanry and owner of land, flour mills, and a bleach green, and his second wife, Jane, daughter of John Ogilby of Ardnargle. William Ross (b. 1814), one of her brothers, became rector of Dungiven and was canon of Derry cathedral. Her grandfather William Ross had been a linen merchant, land agent for the Conolly estate, and (1789) provost of Limavady. The Rosses were related to other local gentry families.
Jane Ross lived, unmarried, with some of her sisters in the town of Limavady. Sometime c.1853 she collected a number of traditional airs in the vicinity of her home and sent them to the Dublin folk music collector George Petrie (qv), who published them, along with many from other sources, in Ancient music of Ireland (1855). One of the airs, published as a melody for the piano and without name or lyrics, came to be known as ‘the Londonderry air’, or ‘the Derry air’. Many composers produced arrangements, and it became uniquely popular, particularly after its association with words written (1912) by an English lawyer and lyricist, Fred Weatherly (1848–1929); it is this text, rather than one by Alfred Perceval Graves (qv), that is best known. The plaintive sentiments of ‘Danny boy’, fitted so well to a beautiful melody, form a song that is known worldwide, and is strongly associated not only with the north of Ireland but with the experiences of the millions of emigrants who left Ireland in the last two centuries. It has sometimes been interpreted as a nationalist allegory, despite the fact that Weatherly was gratified that his ‘Danny boy’ was sung by ‘Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike’, and that there ‘was nothing of the rebel song about it’ (Weatherly, Piano and gown (1926)).
As well as differing views on the meaning of Weatherly's lyric, there are serious disagreements about the provenance and age of the tune; musicologists lack evidence on which to base a definitive analysis of its development in the traditional repertoire. Some suggest a Scottish origin, or allege that Jane Ross altered the original folk melody to suit her more genteel taste; she has even been accused of writing it herself and passing it off as ancient. Most scholars, however, agree that Ross heard a traditional musician play a tune similar to one collected by Edward Bunting (qv) from the old Magilligan harper Denis Hempson (qv). It will almost certainly never be known whether Hempson or a forgotten musician was the composer. Some have speculated, using rather limited evidence, that even if transmitted by Hempson, it was the work of a celebrated seventeenth-century Roe valley musician, Rory Dall O'Cahan. Some local people believe that the tune was collected from, if not written by, a travelling musician called Jimmy McCurry (b. c.1830), but there is no contemporary evidence to support this hypothesis.
As both the composer and the original folk performer of the melody are unascertainable, Jane Ross of Limavady has been given credit for collecting it, and in the twenty-first century her home town celebrates her with a plaque on her house in the town (51 Main St.) and with an annual music festival named in her honour. She died in 1879 and is buried with her Ross relatives in Christchurch Church of Ireland graveyard, Limavady. Music sent by her to Petrie is in the RIA; the ‘Ross Archives’ (compiled 1998) and genealogy are with family descendants in Bristol, as is a photographic portrait of Jane Ross in later life (the jacket illustration of Hunter, Jane Ross (2000)).