The following is a guest post from Gershwin Archivist Janet McKinney. Janet presented a Curator Talk entitled “My Irish Song of Songs: Irish-American Identity in Popular Song and Musical Theater” on Tuesday, March 15, 2016 that was recorded for webcast and will be made available on the Library of Congress website in the coming months.
Tuesday March 15, 2016 I had the pleasure of giving a talk about Irish-American identity in popular song and musical theater from roughly 1840 through the early twentieth century. The talk explored three different aspects of the Irish-American identity using materials from the Music Division collections.
First, we explored the romantic image of Ireland and its people through song. Since Moore’s Irish Melodies was published between 1808 and1834, songs about Ireland are replete with the romantic image popularized by Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Harps, shamrocks, the color green, and the beauty of the Irish countryside- all things we still associate with Ireland- filled his songs with a sad and nostalgic wistfulness. The language Moore used to convey a sense of loss after the Rebellion of 1798 later resonated with the Irish emigrant’s loss of home and loved ones in the nineteenth century. “The Dying Emigrant’s Prayer” (1847), “From Lovely Erin Sad I Come” (1848), and “The Irish Exile” (1880), all lament leaving Ireland to start a new life here in America. The romantic language that depicted the beauty of Ireland remained consistent throughout the century. Therefore, second and third generations of Irish-Americans who had no first-hand experience with emigration or the famine dreamt of going to the mythical, utopia of Ireland. Irish lasses, often compared to the beauty of the Irish countryside, were highly desirable for courting, such as in the songs “My Irish Molly-O” (1905), “My Irish Rosie” (1906), and “Noreen, My Irish Queen” (1916).
On the other hand, we also investigated the comic image of Irish-Americans. In the 1840s and 1850s the largest influx of Irish immigrants came to America, essentially creating the first noticeably large immigrant group. With this influx, racism against Irish Catholics ran high and the character of Paddy, a boisterous, lazy clown, became popular. This character of Paddy was exploited on the minstrel stage as a drinker, a fighter, and all around incompetent scoundrel. Paddy’s poverty was a focus of many early songs and a mention of his squalor, if not a complete comparison to animals, is prominent. Many sheet music covers depicted a caricatured cartoon of an Irishman, making him look more piggish or apelike than human.
The Irish started to move up the socioeconomic ladder and became notorious for finding work as politicians and policemen. This did not go unnoticed on the comic stage with songs such as “Whisper it to Noonan” and “Old Boss Barry” (1888). The propensity to rhyme Irish names was often used in comic song, ultimately creating a long laundry list of those who were attending a party or making up the company in general. Songwriters would try to capitalize on the success of other well-known Irish hits, such as in “My Irish Song of Songs:”
Sure you have all the charms of my Mother Machree,
You’re my Wild Irish Rose,
You remind me of Old Kilkenny,
Where the River Shannon flows,
When your Irish eyes are smiling,
I know where my heart belongs,
You’re a Little Bit of Heaven,
You’re my Irish Song of Songs.
Billy Murray (1877-1954), a prolific recording artist in the early twentieth century, was well known for singing songs with Irish themes. This recording from 1904 of “The Irish, the Irish” highlights many of the stereotypes heard in Irish-American song.
Of course, there had always been songs that conveyed Irish pride, but in earlier days they were more focused on the ideas of Irish freedom and home rule. Songs that conveyed a sense of dual patriotism were written during the Civil War and World War I. After 1900, many more titles appear that convey a general sense of Irish pride and self-esteem that did not have as much of an agenda. Irish-Americans sought out a new identity where they were proud of their Irish heritage, yet were very American. Titles such as “I’m Glad He’s Irish,” and “I’m Proud I’m Irish” extol the contributions and progress made by Irish-Americans. In the song “They’re Proud of the Irish Now” a father wears a shamrock on his lapel for his son’s wedding. The son, embarrassed, asks him to wear a rose instead. The father replies:
Don’t be ashamed of the shamrock, green, my country I’ll ne’er deny,
No other flower can take its place, I’ll cherish it ‘till I die,
I love the green flag with its harp of gold, There’s no stain on Erin’s brow,
Tho’ some have despised her in days gone by, They’re proud of the Irish now.
This is just a very small sampling among the many hundreds and hundreds of songs that were written about Ireland and its people. To learn more about this rich and prodigious heritage of song, please visit the Library of Congress website.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Moloney, Mick. Far from the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song. New York: Crown Books, 2002.
Williams, W. H. A. ‘Twas Only an Irishman’s Dream: The Image of Ireland and the Irish in American Popular Song Lyrics, 1800-1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.