A MUSICAL MUSING, 17 March 2023–Saint Patrick’s Day, When Everyone is Irish (Sorta . . .)

Musical tales of the “Emerald Isle” and St. Patrick’s Day are low hanging fruit for Alison and me who indeed have bent over backwards and actually kissed the Blarney Stone!  There are, however, way too many blossoms and branches on this tree for a simple musical musing.  Nonetheless, with a dram or two (or three) of Jameson “in the jar,” try I must and do I will.

Because of the plethora of Irish and Irish-related songs out there, I’m just going on an un-thematic rove of some of the more interesting that I have found. Just a good listen and look, with the blessing of the Good Saint I am sure! Move to the next tune if you tire, or come back after you’ve drawn a fresh pint. Just be prepared to do a jig or two!

A rowdy celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal in the US but only lately in Ireland itself.  It was always a religious holiday over there but seldom rowdier than a night of music and good “craic” (definition later) at the neighborhood public house or “pub.” 

Sad to say, the ukulele is not a traditional Irish instrument although some can, of course, be found.

Surprisingly, however, the tenor banjo is traditional! It doesn’t quite sound like the bluegrass or old-time banjo playing styles we hear around here–a bit more like mandolin picking. So, tap or click on the triangle in the next image to listen to the late, great Irish banjo player with the Dubliners, Barney McKenna.

Of course, there is a long, long tradition of Irish music going way back to the early days.  Irish–and similarly, Scottish, Welsh, and English–traditional music has been collected, studied, and played to this day. It’s known as Celtic music, pronounced “Keltic.” That’s for music; for basketball its “Seltic.”

Leave it to say that the “Keltic” pronunciation (from the Greek “keltoi“) is preferred by those who study the Celtic culture, language, and history, to the point that if you call it anything else, they’ll be lookin’ down on you. But if you are attending a game in Boston, you’ll be rootin’ for the “Seltics” (from the old French “celtique“). Go figure.

Much of the early Celtic music we know followed the Ulster (Scots/Irish) migrations to the US and Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This “first wave” migration of mostly Protestant “Orangemen” settled in the mountainous frontiers of America, such as Appalachia, and their music became the foundation on which today’s old-time, hillbilly, country/western, and bluegrass music was built.

As another linguistic aside, Scots/Irish followers of William of Orange, in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 were known as “Billy’s Boys” and were identified by their bright red neck scarves. Settled in America, over the years they became “hillbillies” and “red-necks.”

The Wearing of the Green” is a traditional Irish ballad lamenting the repression of supporters of the “Rebellion of 1798” against British rule. It is based on an old Irish air, and many versions of the lyric exist proclaiming that “they are hanging men and women for the wearing o’ the green,” the color of the shamrock adopted by these supporters.

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image to listen to this early Irish song that is still sung today.

Later, during the potato famine–“starvin’ times”– of the mid- 19th century, these traditional dance tunes and nostalgic ballads from Ulster and the lower counties of Ireland were carried to towns and cities all over the world with the diaspora of mostly Catholic Irish immigrants. While the early migration brought traditional Celtic music to the countryside and mountains, the later, “second wave” migration also spawned newer, Irish/American music in the cities. 

It was in American cities where musical nostalgia for the “Old Sod,” or “Emerald Isle,” rose and “American/Irish songs were born. Here’s one from the early 1900s.

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a look and listen to this oldie.

Needless to say, American sheet music publishers profited, particularly as Irish immigrants found their way into the workplace, settled themselves in towns and neighborhoods, and brought their music into their pubs and parlors.

How about this one from 1915.

Tap or click on the triangle in the following image for the song and the scenery.

Now here’s one originally published in 1901 that has become a favorite among barbershop singers to this day.

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a “one-man quartet” version of this oldie!

And, another bit of nostalgia from the 1900s.

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a look and listen to this tearjerker.

Needless to say, the “Irish theme” was quickly picked up by enterprising songwriters—most of them non-Irish, many Jewish—on New York’s Tin Pan Alley and performed on Vaudeville stages and parlor pianos throughout the country. Needless to say, The whimsical, often satirical, and too often pejorative portrayal of the Irish immigrant rose.

Alas, no YouTubes of these. Perhaps for the better!

There are a few dozen YouTubes of the next one, however. It’s been around since 1898!

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a look and listen.

After 1860, Irish Americans also wrote songs to reflect the discrimination they felt first in England and then as newcomers in America. The protest song “No Irish Need Apply” was inspired by this. It’s the pride of this latter migration, however, that gave us St. Patrick’s day as we know it in this country and the “wearin’ o’ the green” that is celebrated today.

Click or tap on the triangle in the next image for a more contemporary take on this old, old lament.

And, let’s not forget the great Irish tenors of the past—a unique contribution to popular vocal music.  Anyone remember Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio show?  And that great English/American/Irish Song  . . .     

Tap or click on the triangle in the next image for a listen.

In Ireland, the fellowship, banter, and fun conversation over a pint or a few at the local pub is said to be “good craic!”  (Pronounced: crack.)  And, a pub is a favorite venue for song.  

Here, folks with pints in hand will shout/sing chorus after chorus as the house band runs through verse after verse.  Here is what is said to be the most popular tune of this tradition— “The Wild Rover.”

Tap or click on the the image below to join the crowd at the neighborhood pub!

To end on a bit o’ good craic, let’s not forget the other musical Irish saints, such as Saint Ukelelaigh.

So, Avoid rowdy Saint Patrick’s Day crowds, stay as masked as you need be, . . .

. . . enjoy whatever craic you may be given or give, wear a bit o’ the green, and . . . STAY O’TUNED!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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