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Sheet Music Spotlight: Irish-Americans in World War I

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Anna L. Hamilton. "The Fighting 69th." 1918: Peekskill, N.Y. D. Greenfest Music Co.
Anna L. Hamilton. “The Fighting 69th.” 1918: Peekskill, N.Y. D. Greenfest Music Co.

The follow is a guest post by retired music cataloger Sharon McKinley.

WWI was a time of conflicting loyalties for Irish-Americans. Many still felt strong ties to the old country, and their feelings reflected the sentiments of friends and relatives back in Ireland. Still chafing under British rule, Irishmen from the South as well as the North nonetheless volunteered to fight in the British Army. Unionists supported the English cause from the start. Nationalist leaders were, on the whole, committed to helping England because home rule was in the process of being instituted, although it wasn’t finalized until after the end of the war. The Easter Rising of 1916 was a bitter event that didn’t make life easier for Irish volunteers, but by then thousands had enlisted and were serving in Europe. Some men joined out of economic necessity. Many joined because they felt that the Germans were a threat that must be stopped.

Irish-Americans, whether long-established citizens or new immigrants, felt the tug of the sentiments of their brethren across the seas. Many wanted the United States to remain neutral rather than fight alongside England, but once the U.S. entered the war, thousands joined the Armed Forces and served with distinction.

Much of the Irish-themed music published during and just after the war reflects a vision of bravery and skill in combat. For example, the 69th Infantry Regiment (New York), started in 1849 by Irish revolutionaries and still heavily Irish in 1917, attracted many recruits. Poet Joyce Kilmer fought in the 69th and died in France in 1918. There are many songs extolling the skill and bravery of this often-decorated unit. Known variously as the Fighting Sixty-Ninth or the Fighting Irish, their reputation was well deserved.

Other songs took a humorous view of the same fighting spirit, telling of what would happen after the war. There is more than one song in the Library’s collections with references to the Blarney Stone; Michael Fitzpatrick’s “The Irish volunteers”  (New York : Fitzpatrick Bros., 1917) features the German Kaiser kissing it under duress.

Edwin Forrest Kamerly, 'The Irish Kaiser." Philadelphia, 1917.
Edwin Forrest Kamerly, ‘The Irish Kaiser.” Philadelphia, 1917.

Edwin Forrest Kamerly’s “The Irish Kaiser” (Philadelphia : Edwin Forrest Kamerly, 1917) takes a similar approach, but with a vaudeville feel. By the time World War I started, the Irish had been established in the U.S. for a few generations, and were moving into the ranks of the skilled working class rather than occupying only the bottom rungs of society as unskilled laborers and domestic servants. Still, they were often portrayed as drunks and ne’er-do-wells. The cover of this song portrays an offensive stereotype of Paddy, the new “Kaiser.” His face is brutish. He’s slouched on a throne smoking, holding his shillelagh, while dressed in a German military uniform, complete with a shamrock in place of the Iron Cross. One has to wonder what the real goal of this song is: to extol the virtues of the Irish soldier, or to make fun of him. Despite the cover’s apparent racism, the lyric paints a humorous depiction of life in Germany after the Irish vanquish the foe.

In a different kind of performance, actor Al. H. Wilson toured in a musical play, The Irish 15th, which featured  Dave Reed’s “The Irish will be There” (New York : William Jerome Publishing Co., 1917), an upbeat account of all the Irish boys in the military, with a photograph of Wilson in uniform on the cover. A preview of the touring show in Roanoke, Virginia’s The World News commends Wilson’s humorous but dignified portrayal of ethnic characters.

You may be wondering why  Harry Williams and Jack Judge’s famed “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” is not among these songs. This chestnut in fact predated the war and became a marching song for soldiers in 1914. It has a delightful, if slightly convoluted history you can read about at the BBC.

There are thousands of songs in the Library’s collection of World War I sheet music. Read informative essays and find links to over 13,500 digitized pieces of sheet music here. Finally, listen to famed tenor John McCormack and friends in this 1914 recording of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”



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