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Irish Medley


The four pieces in the choir’s Irish medley, which were selected and arranged by musical director Richard Hoyle and went into rehearsal in January 2011, are remarkably similar in their provenance.  All were written in the years shortly before the First World War, and reflect a growing contemporary interest in Irish culture, at least as perceived in expatriate communities.   All four were recorded by Bing Crosby in the 1940s, when Hollywood took up Irish subjects.  They are similar in expressing themes of separation and longing, both celebrating and regretting the culture of the homeland, whether real or imagined.   Strikingly, none of the lyric writers, with one possible exception, were actually Irish.

Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral – An Irish Lullaby was written in 1913 by a US actor, composer and song-writer, James Royce Shannon.    He was born James Royce in Michigan in 1881 and established a touring theatrical company which performed in both the US and Europe.   Although of English descent, he adopted the name Shannon to give him street cred for the Irish-themed songs and plays he was writing and performing.     He wrote Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral for a musical production, Shameen Dhu, first staged in New York in February 1914.

Shameen Dhu was a classic musical love story set in 18th-century Ireland.   The Shameen Dhu of the title is the nickname of one of the lead characters, Dare O’Donnell, who is among a group of Irish patriots fighting to free Ireland from English rule.   The character sings the piece to evoke memories of his mother as he contemplates marriage.    It thus combines nostalgia for childhood and for the distant land – “Over in Killarney” – where he grew up.  Add the anti-British sentiments of the play, and you have a potent mix to appeal to the expanding Irish expatriate community of early 20th-century New York.  It remained popular as a parlour song for the next five years.

The same themes were picked up in the song’s second coming, when it featured in the 1944 movie Going my Way, starring Bing Crosby.  Crosby plays a young New York parish priest ministering to the Irish community, Father Chuck O’Malley, and he performs the song in a version which fully exploits its sentimental value.    The movie, directed by Leo McCarey, won seven Oscars, including Crosby’s award as best supporting actor.   After World War Two Crosby presented a copy of the film to Pope Pius XII and even showed the pope his Oscar.

The song was subsequently sung and recorded by performers ranging from Dean Martin and Steve Martin to Van Morrison and Carla in an episode of Cheers.

 

When Irish Eyes are Smiling has close links with Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, as it was written by the actor Chauncey Olcott, who played Dare O’Donnell (and sang Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral)  in the New York production of 1914.   Olcott, a producer as well as an actor, was another writer with an eye for the romanticised version of Ireland then popular in  the US and Britain.  He wrote the song for his production of the play The Isle O’Dreams, which ­– like Shameen Dhu – was first staged in New York, in 1913.  It too took place in the Ireland of 1790s, and once again featured a struggle against an English army of occupation.  Olcott encouraged the belief that he was Irish although he was born in Buffalo, New York in 1858. He retired in Monaco and died there in 1932.   His life story was told in the Warner Brothers movie My Wild Irish Rose in 1947.   Bing Crosby recorded the song in the 1940s.

Chauncy Olcott, "The Irish tenor"

McNamara’s Band, the third piece in our medley, emanates from the same period.  Sheet music containing the piece was published in the US in 1914 and our version carries writing and composing credits for John J Stamford and Seamus O’Connor  – a duo who have so far eluded all my attempts to discover anything more about them.  The song is said to be based on the tale of the St Mary’s Fife and Drum Band, which was formed in Limerick in 1885, and the band’s current website endorses this version.  Among the members were four McNamara brothers – Patrick, John, Michael and Thomas, who all played in the same row. The band won the All Ireland Championship in the first year of its formation.

In 1901, Thomas emigrated to the USA, followed by his brother Patrick, who had been the bandmaster in Limerick.   At this point the narrative is disputed, but by one version Patrick formed “McNamara’s Band” with another former band member from Limerick, Patrick Salmon.  On another version, the band was formed by Patrick with his brother Thomas.

Either way, according to the St Mary’s Band website, “the combination soon caught the imagination of a great songwriter and so the famous ballad was born.”   Whether this “great songwriter” is the aforementioned John J Stamford or his colleague Seamus O’Connor is unclear.   The lyric of McNamara’s Band once again evokes memories of the motherland, as the band is “a credit to auld Ireland.”  It makes clear that the band is composed of numerous Irish immigrants, together with “Uncle Yulius” from Sweden.

As for the McNamara brothers, Thomas returned to Ireland in 1914 and joined the British Army, surviving the war.   His brother John joined the Royal Munster Fusiliers and was killed on the western front in 1915. Michael McNamara was a member of the same regiment and he too survived.   Thomas returned to the US after the war and teamed up again with Patrick.  With Thomas on the piccolo, Patrick on the violin and Patrick’s daughter on the piano, they formed a trio which recorded for Vocalion Records and Aeolian Records – that at least is a confirmed part of the McNamara story.

One of the most celebrated recordings appears in the affecting British wartime movie, The Way to the Stars, where Stanley Holloway leads a crowd singing the song in a pub near the fictional RAF base Halfpenny Field.   Bing Crosby recorded the song in 1945 and it became a hit in 1946.  The song has also been adapted into an anthem by fans of Spurs football club.

The last piece, Danny Boy, is one of the most studied songs in the Irish nostalgia repertoire, and emanates from the same period as the preceding three.   The author was Frederic Weatherly, an Oxford-educated English barrister and lyric writer with several thousand songs to his name, including the WW1 song Roses of Picardy.  He wrote Danny Boy in 1910 but at first it was not a success.  Then his sister-in-law, who lived in the US, sent him the music for the old Irish tune, Londonderry Air, which fitted the lyrics perfectly.   He published the song in 1913 and it quickly caught on.  It was first recorded in 1915 and made popular by the English soprano Elsie Griffin.

Freddy boy Weatherly

The song is another piece about separation and longing.  It is open to two interpretations: by one, Danny Boy is going off to war; by another, he is emigrating, like so many Irish people.  The first reading struck potent chords throughout Britain during WW1, and Elsie Griffin often sang it with Weatherly’s Roses of Picardy, another song lamenting separation and loss.  Latterly the song has been adopted as an unofficial anthem in both Ireland and the Irish diaspora.

The tune Londonderry Air most likely dates from late eighteenth century Ireland.   It was said to have been collected by one Jane Ross of Londonderry – hence the title.  It has been used as a setting for numerous other lyrics and hymns but the most enduring has proved to be Danny Boy.   A wide range of performers have recorded it, including Bryn Terfel, Johnny Cash, Andy Williams, Eric Clapton,  Nana Mouskouri, Carly Simon, Tony Bennett, John Baez, Roy Orbison, Tom Jones, Harry Belafonte, Judy Garland, Gracie Fields and – wait for it – Bing Crosby.

 

 



 
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