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The Wearing of the Green: Irish-American History in Song

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The following is a guest post from Music Division Contract Archivist Janet McKinney.

As millions of Americans get ready to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and commence the wearing of the green (because “everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day”), it is easy to forget there was once a time in this country when no Irish need apply. The image of the Irish has changed greatly over the years from the first wave of immigrants through the 21st century. Here in the Music Division, the story of Irish–Americans is one that can be told and studied through popular song and commercial culture as seen through the medium of sheet music.

Emigration from Ireland began in the 1600s with the colonization of America, but the infamous Famine in the 1840s started a great wave of immigration that saw nearly 5 million Irish people leave the island over a period of less than 100 years. Many songs were written, such as “The Exile’s Farewell” (1865), that hold a wistful nostalgia for the homeland, but maintain a positive outlook for the future here in America.

Farewell to my home and its own happy hearth,

Farewell to thee, Erin, thou land of my birth.

I leave thy green valleys and wander from thee,

To seek for a home in the land of the free.

Popular songs convey the fierce patriotism felt for both Ireland and the new home of America.  “Engraved on an Irishman’s Heart” (1890) praises the Irish heroes Robert Emmet, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, and William Gladstone. “The Irish Brigade” (1864), on the other hand, proudly celebrates General Thomas Francis Meagher and his role in the Union Army during the American Civil War.

Sheet music also abounds with the unfortunate stereotypes about the Irish as they were played out on the theatre stage.  The three verses of “An Irishman’s Way” (1892) portray some of these stereotypes in turn; love of the drink, love of a woman, and love of a fight. Over time, however, the pride in Irish heritage overcame the comical stereotypes of previous years and Irish-Americans were portrayed positively upon the stage.  George M. Cohan, famous Irish-American actor and composer, wrote “Harrigan” in 1907 as part of the musical Fifty Miles from Boston.

H-A-double-R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan,

Proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me;

Divil a man can say a word agin me.

There would be many more Irish-Americans to follow that would make lasting contributions to our musical heritage. Mick Moloney, an author, musicologist, and internationally renowned performer of traditional Irish music, gave an excellent presentation here at the Library about a number of these musicians.  The lecture, sponsored by the American Folklife Center, explored the fascinating collaboration of Irish and Jewish influences on vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley.

Of course, what is shown here is only a small sampling of a long, complex, and intricate story of Irish-American history where music has played a prominent and important role.  To discover more of this story on your own, search our Performing Arts Encyclopedia, American Memory collections, or visit the American Folklife Center.

Perhaps Eamon deValera can say it better, but I wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for taking the time to research and post this – very informative. Appreciate it.

  2. Really interesting article, well researched!

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