Monday, March 17, 2014

If the Rest of the World Were Like Ireland

The Chicago River runs green once a year. (Image source: Bert Kaufmann, via Wikicommons)
by Tom Haushalter

Every year, right about this time, in America and at least the rest of the English-speaking world, everything begins to turn green.

(By that I wish I mean the grass and the trees in New England. But that's impossible.)

Today is, of course, St. Patrick's Day, the placeholder celebration of all things Irish. In cities like Boston or New York or Chicago, the parade is a one-day-only acceptable excuse to skip work, head to the streets, and join the throngs in bibulous dance and song. The rest of us come to the office in something green, lest we be pinched. And it could be anything from a pinned-on shamrock to a glittering emerald waistcoat. Wherever we find ourselves on St. Patrick's Day, no matter how gaudy or giddy we may be, on this one day we are all Irish.

Which is an idea that, more than a century ago, might have ignited a bar fight.

Even at the turn of the twentieth century, Irish-Catholic immigrants were still a marginalized ethnic group in the United States. Prejudice was born in part from America's trenchant Protestantism in the mid-1800s, which is when Irish families, fleeing the potato famine that was decimating their homeland, began an unprecedented migration to this country—nearly 2 million between 1840 and 1860. Many in that wave were forced to take low-wage factory jobs and to live in poor conditions, which added another dimension to their stigmatization.

Despite anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiments still simmering in 1900, Irish-American culture had firmly established itself, especially in the eastern U.S. And in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, as the era of dance halls and ballrooms heated up, the traditional stylings of Irish music and dance became all the rage.

If not for Susan Gedutis' book, See You at the Hall: Boston's Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance, published by Northeastern University Press in 2004, the stories and characters of this vibrant period would be harder to find—and certainly harder to commemorate. Gedutis spoke to dozens of the musicians of that era, which had its heyday in the 1920s and '30s, accounting for a social scene that crossed ethnic and religious boundaries, where what really mattered was the music and dance...and the infectious spirit of life that attends it. Gedutis writes:
Arm in arm, the dancers would toe-step their way across the hall to a highland fling tune, one of the more popular of which was "Johnny, Will You Marry Me." Unself-conscious fun was the order of the day, and no one thought anything of the silly antics associated with [dancing] to the songs.
For all our love of Van Morrison, the Pogues, and the Dropkick Murphys, our modern-day embrace of Irish heritage owes a great deal to the music-makers of the dance hall era. Names like Dan Sullivan's Shamrock Band, O'Leary's Irish Minstrels, the Emerald Isle Orchestra, and Johnny Powell and His Band were household then. And their songs always as festive as they were, often, wistful of their ancestral home, like Johnny Powell's "If the Rest of the World Were Like Ireland," the chorus of which Gedutis reprints in her book—and shall be internet-unsearchable no longer:
If the rest of the world were like Ireland,
What a wonderful world it would be.
For a friend is a friend in my Ireland,
Surely that's how God meant it to be.
You've a song in your heart if you're Irish,
And a smile ev'ry one likes to see.
If the rest of the world were like Ireland,
What a wonderful world 'twould be.
Copyright 1951 by William Carlton Bates for O'Byrne DeWitt's Sons

Also fortunately for us in the cyber age, the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) has done us the huge service of digitizing several live recordings from the 1920s-40s, available to stream in this excellent playlist. Go cue that up.

And this St. Patrick's Day, though sounds of fiddle and flute over loudspeaker compete with singsong-y limericks in whatever pub you find yourself, toast the dance halls that have all gone, then drink to the thriving, indomitable spirit of the Irish.


Black Powder, White Lace: The du Pont Irish and Cultural Identity in Nineteenth-Century America
by Margaret M. Mulrooney

Irish Titan, Irish Toilers: Joseph Banigan and Nineteenth-Century New England Labor
by Scott Molloy

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