Happy St Patrick's Day to all our Irish readers around the world. This March 17th is also the centennial of one of the greatest of all popular singers, Nat King Cole. So here's Nat with an Irish song, written by a dear man, Jimmy Kennedy, born in Omagh in 1902, with a most unIrish composing partner, Wilhelm Grosz, a Viennese fellow who chose to publish this one under the ostentatiously anglicized name of "Hugh Williams".
Jimmy wrote this one dusk when he was sitting on the shore at Portstewart, County Derry and noticed a small yacht lazily sailing into the west as the sun met the horizon. It's all yours, Nat...
Just for the record, the yacht was called the Kitty of Coleraine and, if you're ever in Portstewart, you can see a plaque and statue commemorating ship, song and writer, and you can find the yacht itself beautifully restored and on display in a local museum.
Nat Cole died very young in 1965. I never knew him, but I had a small acquaintanceship with Mrs Cole and a rather longer one with Nat's longtime press agent Jo Lustig. So I'd been planning a special centenary celebration for today's Song of the Week, but unfortunately a pointless deposition for one of Cary Katz's wanker lawsuits intervened, and next week's there's some filings and a court date in two of his other crappy cases, and a full-blown trial commencing in a third the week after that. So I'm knocked for six, but I promise you we will get it together and I shall mark Nat Cole's centenary properly, starting with "Straighten Up and Fly Right", which is not something Katz ever does.
In the meantime, for St Patrick's Day, we reprise this essay adapted from my book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are available exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore:
If you're Irish, come into the parlor....
But, if you do, you'll probably notice that most of the fellers gathered round the old joanna are a bunch of foreigners. It's St Patrick's Day and that means all around the world desperate columnists will be dusting off the old standby about how St Paddy's is a ghastly synthetic shamrock-hued sham of a celebration peddling "Eiresatz" (as Maureen Dezell calls it) Irish culture by fellows who never went anywhere near the place till they'd cleaned up with some maudlin ballad of generic sentimentality about their auld Oirish mother that would have any person of taste and discrimination vomiting 40 shades of green into his official McDonald's shamrock shake.
Janice Kennedy delivered a standard St Patrick's assault a year or two back in The Ottawa Citizen. "Danny Boy"? Ha! Written by an Englishman. All the rest? Written by Tin Pan Alley hacks. Janice has no use for any of 'em:
So much saccharin. So much that is second-rate... Imagine a musical civilization without genuine Irish contributions -- without ancient harp compositions of delicate intricacy, without sweet ballads and rousing pub songs both bawdy and heroic, without the rich tapestry of contemporary composers and popular artists like Bob Geldof, U2's Bono and those ubiquitous global ambassadors, the Chieftains.
Well, we all like the Chieftains (whose promoter was the above-mentioned Jo Lustig). But, to be honest, I wouldn't regard the loss of Bob Geldof and U2 as that catastrophic a cultural calamity, partial though I am to Bob's seminal work for the Boomtown Rats, "Mary Of The Fourth Form". But come on, you're not seriously arguing "Danny Boy" is inferior to "(Feed The World) Do They Know It's Christmas?", are you? Fred Weatherly (lyricist of "Danny" and "Roses Of Picardy") had an unerring instinct for bringing forth not merely a lyric that fits but words that seem implicit in the very sound of the notes. If the objection is that he was English and a King's Counsel, well, both Sir Bob and Sir Bono have accepted knighthoods from Her Majesty.
So, perhaps sensing that U2 is somewhat boggy terrain on which to take a stand, Ms Kennedy wisely decides to rest her thesis on non-musical contributions:
Imagine a world of books and theatre without the words of Swift, Sheridan, Oscar Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett - oh, and Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, Flann O'Brien, Roddy Doyle, Frank McCourt, William Trevor, Joseph O'Connor, Patrick McCabe, Seamus Heaney. And so on.
You won't find an 'Irish Eyes Are Smiling' among them. Nor a drop of sap or trace of the faux-Irish sentimentality foreigners mistakenly think is part of the national character. You will find, however, plenty of heartstopping lyricism, plenty of devastating criticism, plenty of sharp and excoriating wit.
Yes, but that's easy for you to say. As for the fact that these men were born in Buffalo and Cleveland, well, St Patrick's Day in its modern incarnation is essentially an American celebration, and an ecumenical one - which is why Ireland's patron saint has a far higher global profile than St George (England), St Andrew (Scotland) or St David (Wales). The very day is testament to the mainstreaming of Irishness in America accomplished by all the "faux-Irish" dross Ms Kennedy reviles. The Irish-American peddlers of sentimental ballads at the dawn of the 20th century played an important part in changing the image of a people, and with far-reaching consequences.
Do you know the first "Irish" song to appear in America? The year was 1863 and S Brainerd & Co of Cleveland published this verse-and-chorus number "composed by" Miss Kathleen O'Neil. In reality, she likely did little more than produce a feminization of a song John F Poole introduced in London the previous year. Here's the version Miss O'Neil sang:
I'm a simple Irish girl
And I'm looking for a place
I've felt the grip of poverty
But sure that's no disgrace
'Twill be long before I get one
Tho' indeed it's hard I try
For I read in each advertisement
'No Irish Need Apply'.
Alas! for my poor country
Which I never will deny
How they insult us when they write
'No Irish Need Apply'.
Etc. To this date, you meet people who claim to have "vivid" memories of the "No Irish Need Apply" sign from Boston rooming houses in the Forties, or New York want ads of the Thirties. In fact, there is no evidence this slogan enjoyed any widespread currency in the United States, ever. Professor Richard Jensen of the University of Illinois went through every issue of The New York Times from 1851 to 1923, and found precisely two instances of the phrase - one advertising for a couple to take care of a cottage upstate, and one from 1854 reading:
A young man wanted, from 16 to 13 years of age, able to write. No Irish need apply.
The would-be employer was Cluff & Tunis, a harness shop on Wallington Street at the corner of Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, which has the distinction of bequeathing to posterity the only "No Irish Need Apply" male job ad that anyone has ever found. How did such an indestructible myth take hold? A clue can be found in the masculine version of Kathleen O'Neil's hit ballad, as sung a century and a half ago by the great Tony Pastor:
Why I tould him what I came for
Whin he in a rage did fly
No! says he, you are a Paddy
And No Irish Need Apply!
Thin I felt my dandher rising
And I'd like to black his eye
To tell an Irish Gintleman
No Irish Need Apply!
I couldn't stand it longer
So, a hoult of him I took
And I gave him such a welting
As he'd get at Donnybrook
He hollered: Millia murther!
And to get away did try
And swore he'd never write again
'No Irish Need Apply'.
So the Irish Gintleman gave him such a welting as he'd get at Donnybrook - ie, he clobbered him. Professor Jensen suggests the success of the song helped inculcate an almost entirely misplaced resentment among the Irish in America, and may even have led to the Civil War draft riots in New York in 1863. More broadly, the "dandher" once risen stayed risen, and a significant proportion of Irish-Americans adopted the chippy tribal solidarity exemplified by the singer of "No Irish Need Apply". When the Irish eventually took their place in American popular culture, it was as the boozy brawlers of an insular urban ghetto. Harrigan & Hart were the benign comic apotheosis of this image, and George M Cohan's "H-A-double R-I-G-A-N", a last affectionate tip of the hat, complete with a hint of barroom braggadocio – "Divil a man can say a word agin me".
It was the next generation of Irish-Americans who transformed the Irish image from urban to pastoral. The two men who did more than any other to lay the foundation of "Eiresatz" culture were Ernest Ball and Chauncey Olcott, who, separately and together, gave us "My Wild Irish Rose", "Mother Machree", "She's The Daughter Of Mother Machree", "Isle O' Dreams", "A Little Bit Of Heaven, Sure, They Call It Ireland", "Ireland Is Ireland To Me", and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling". Chauncey Olcott was a huge star in the first two decades of the 20th century. He turns up in novels, and in other fellows' pop songs. This is from 1903:
Bedelia, I want to steal ya
Bedelia, I love you so
I'll be your Chauncey Olcott
If you'll be my Molly O...
If Molly O is the stereotypical colleen of such songs as "Molly O" and "My Irish Molly O", Chauncey Olcott was her male equivalent, notwithstanding that, unlike Molly, he happened to be a real person. Nonetheless, he was America's notion of the quintessential Irish charmer, even though he was born in Buffalo, in 1860. He grew up in Lockport in what he called an "Irish shanty" on the Erie Canal near the Clifford lumber yard on West Genesee Street. At socials at the Washington Hose firehouse, young Chauncey would be lifted up and plunked down on the table to sing Irish songs. By the age of 19, he was in Chicago with Emerson and Hooley's Minstrel Company, and, though he was perfectly fine as a minstrel, his exquisite lyric tenor led producers to push him toward ballad-singing.
Unlike most opera and operetta tenors of his days, Olcott prioritized consonants over rounded vowel sounds. He was an actor and was anxious to communicate the meaning of the songs he sang, and in this he proved to be extraordinarily influential: Al Jolson, for one, adopted Olcott's techniques and became a kind of "Irish Jewish" tenor. And thus one Irish tenor's technique for Irish ballads beget American pop vocalizing, the first of several ways in which Olcott mainstreamed "Irishness". The critic Ethan Mordden makes a good case that, through the Twenties, Olcott was the only real male singing star on Broadway. Other guys certainly sang - Jolson, Eddie Cantor - but they were also rounded comic personalities. When you paid to see Olcott, the singing was really all you got - but it was worth it.
By 1894, when he appeared at New York's 14th Street Theatre in The Irish Artist, the Olcott style was established: He invariably played a loyal son of Catholic Ireland in some sentimental romantic melodrama that gave him the pretext to sing half-a-dozen Irish ballads. The problem was that Irish ballads were still pretty thin on the ground. On a trip to Ireland in 1898, a year after their wedding, he and his young bride Margaret took a stroll through Glengaris, County Cork, and a young boy handed Mrs Olcott a strikingly beautiful flower. "What is it called?" she asked. "Sure, it's a wild Irish rose," replied the lad. She put it in an album, and a year later, when Chauncey needed a new ballad for A Romance Of Athlone, Margaret pointed to the pressed flower and said, "There's the title for your next song." And there it was:
My Wild Irish Rose
The sweetest flower that grows...
Margaret O'Donovan Olcott was a wilder Irish rose than most, married to Chauncey but part of a more or less openly Sapphic coterie in Manhattan's social whirl that also included Anne Vanderbilt and the Broadway producer Bessie Marbury. In his professional life, Chauncey wisely confined his paeans to Irish womanhood to less complicated types - colleens were rosy-cheeked, big-hearted, hard-working, and life affirming; mothers were prematurely silvery-haired from toil and self-sacrifice. The mother of all Irish mother songs was "Mother Machree", which Olcott and Ernest Ball composed with operetta librettist Rida Johnson Young for Barry Of Ballymore in 1910. Two years later, Olcott, Ball and George Graff wrote the song that summed up the genre:
There's a tear in your eye
And I'm wondering why
For it never should be there at all
With such pow'r in your smile
Sure a stone you'd beguile
So there's never a teardrop should fall
When your sweet lilting laughter's
Like some fairy song
And your eyes twinkle bright as can be
You should laugh all the while
And all other times smile
And now, smile a smile for me...
But, as with "My Wild Irish Rose", no one cares about the verse. What counts is the chorus:
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling
Sure, 'tis like the morn in Spring
In the lilt of Irish laughter
You can hear the angels sing...
Sure, 'tis easy to mock, but, if it's that simple, you write it. Smiling eyes is a nice idea, and the Ball/Olcott tune is both beguiling and perfect for pub singalongs.
That's not how it was written, of course. Olcott introduced it in The Isle O' Dreams, playing a character called Ivor Kelway. It was set in 1799, when Napoleon was rumored to be planning an invasion of Ireland and Ivor, working at his mum's pub on an island off the coast of the auld sod, is mistaken for a French spy. And in the midst of all this hokum, Olcott introduced one of the most popular songs ever to come out of a Broadway show. His own recording of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" was one of the best-selling records of the decade. And in the years since it's never gone away: For one generation, it lingers in the memory as the theme to "Duffy's Tavern" on the radio. For another, it conjures the "shamrock summit" of St Patrick's Day 1985, when America's President Reagan and Canada's Prime Minister Brian Mulroney concluded a day of discussions by duetting on "Irish Eyes", much to the disgust of the Canuck press corps. And, naturally, it provided the title of the 1944 biopic of Ernest Ball.
"I am trying," Chauncey Olcott once said, "to help the world along with the genius of Ireland. That little island has much to teach, and if people will but listen, they cannot fail to be impressed and improved. The fortunes of war, the mischances of statesmanship, and the awful curse of poverty have combined to keep the world in ignorance of everything Irish, excepting its suffering, hopes, songs and dauntless courage. Yet these are a very small part of the Irish character as an entity. At an early period they realized the vital importance of exercise, sunlight, fresh air, and water as the conditions precedent of all health and happiness. They cultivated the horse and dog; they excelled in the chase; they were proficient in falconry, and they had many Izaak Waltons before that immortal angler was born... For grace and vigor nothing could be better than the old-fashioned game of handball, while in putting the stone and throwing the hammer the Irish still hold the championship. In music and song their genius is well known; nevertheless, it is greater than the public is aware. From the earliest years, the singer has been the honored member of the community, and in ancient days ranked with the great nobles in the courts of the Milesian kings."
Whether or not Chauncey Olcott and Ernest Ball would rank with the great nobles in the courts of the Milesian kings, they have their place; they did their part, and they and their contemporaries helped take the Irish in America a long way from The Mulligan Guard Ball and "No Irish Need Apply". Is "Arrah Wanna", the tale of an Indian maiden courted by an Irish lad, as good as Yeats? No. But it depends what your purpose is. A year before "Irish Eyes" was written, J M Synge's Playboy Of The Western World made its American stage debut. Years later Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy told Doris Kearns Goodwin that she sat "blushing and squirming" through the portrayal of the Irish as "drunken sods and quarreling fools". John Devoy, editor of The Gaelic American, jumped to his feet midway through the play and roared, "Sonofabitch, that's not Irish". How would he know? He hadn't set foot in Ireland for 30 years.
But the first generation of Irish-Americans in the 20th century were seeking respectability and anxious to get beyond the "drunken sods and quarreling fools" ever ready to give him "such a welting as he'd get at Donnybrook" or "Knock The 'L' Out Of Kelly". And, if you're prioritizing respectability, Olcott & Ball parlor ballads are more useful than J M Synge - never mind Frank McCourt, Roddy Doyle or Joseph O'Connor. Irish-Americans supported Irish nationalism but, as the historian Thomas Brown argues, less out of any genuine interest in any particular political arrangements than from a more basic feeling that Ireland's submission to rule from London somehow transferred itself to Irish social inferiority in the New World. In seeking respectability, they made themselves a more consequential force in American politics, and that in turn impacted broader American views of Irish nationalism, whose consequences were eventually felt across the Atlantic.
And, in mythologizing Mother Ireland (as Maureen Dezell puts it), Irish-Americans enlarged their inheritance and gave it to the world. As Protestant America urbanized and modernized, a bucolic idealized Erin of loving mothers, devoted sons, apple-cheeked colleens, neighborly strangers and genial clerics became a generic repository for rural nostalgia. To be sure, an impoverished backwater off the coast of northern Europe made for a curious kind of American dream, but the Irish-Americans who gave us "Mother Machree" and "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" and "Macnamara's Band" were doing what all successful immigrant groups do - universalizing their own culture. Purists sometimes refer sneeringly to "Bing Crosby Irish", but that's the point: you know you've been accepted when the world's most popular singer is selling a gazillion copies of a song about Galway Bay. Which, as Ernie Ball and Chauncey Olcott would tell you, is as good a reason as any for Irish eyes to smile:
Happy St Patrick's Day!
~adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season, which also includes songs for Valentine's Day, April Fool's Day, Easter, Mother's Day and Halloween - and don't forget, when you order through the SteynOnline bookstore, Mark will be happy to autograph it to your favorite colleen. Also: if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, remember to enter your promotional code at checkout to receive special member pricing on both those books and over forty other Steyn Store products.
If you ever go across the sea to Ireland for those red sails in the sunset, you're heading in the wrong direction: You should be cruising up Alaska's beautiful Inside Passage to Ketchikan and Glacier Bay on the second annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise. We'll be sailing from Vancouver this September, and, among the attractions, we can promise you a special live-music edition of our Song of the Week. Cabins are going very fast, and, as with most travel plans, the price is more favorable and the accommodations more varied the earlier you book.