Irish Travellers in America: The Lost Cagney Film

Jimmy Cagney, Irish Traveller? Almost, in a film that was never made.

Jimmy Cagney, Irish Traveller? Almost, in a film that was never made.

To the best of my ability to tell, the first time Irish Travellers in America were represented on screen it was in the 1997 film “Traveller,” which, as I have detailed, represents the group as a loose-knit criminal enterprise.

But I recently discovered that there was very nearly an earlier film that would have presented Travellers far more favorably. It went unmade and forgotten, but it looks as though a fair amount of preproduction work was done on it, and I’d love to find out more.

The film would have been made in the late 1940s and would have starred James Cagney — indeed, he was the driving force behind it. A nationally syndicated interview in 1947 tells us the following:

After “The Stray Lamb,” Cagney plans a picture on the life of a group of Irish Gypsies who roam the southern states.

“They meet once a year at a sort of national headquarters on Peachtree Street in Atlanta,” says Jimmy, and hold all their weddings and funerals that have accumulated throughout the year. They conduct their tribal business, then set out for another year of trading horses, mules, second hand cars and anything else that comes to hand.

“They’ve adhered to the old Irish traditions, and around their campfires they still sing the songs that are as old and as beautiful as Ireland itself.”

Both Burl Ives and Dennis Day are “very interested” says Jimmy, and his writers are busy on the story.

The film certainly sounds like it would have been consistent with the way Irish Travellers were seen in the mid-Twentieth century, as exotic and fascinating but not criminal. Cagney was still one of Hollywood’s biggest stars — he was just two years from doing “White Heat,” one of his definitive roles, and he had one more Oscar nomination ahead of him, in 1955 for “Love Me or Leave Me.”

Burl Ives, in the meanwhile, gets a lot of the credit for the revival of interest in folk music in the mid-20th century, and released his own collections of Irish music. Dennis Day was a popular comic performer and singer on the Jack Benny show, and was about as well-known for his Irish ancestry as Cagney was for his. Their presence suggests the film was intended to be both a musical and lighter in tone than Cagney’s crime films, closer to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” — a fact confirmed by Hollywood reporter Bob Thomas on June 23 on 1947.

And that’s it. I can’t find any more information about this project, which presumably was shelved for some reason. It’s tempting to speculate that the film might have encouraged positive American interest in Travellers, rather than the suspicion and hostility they are burdened with now. But, then, there is no real sense that Irish Travellers wanted to be represented in a film musical starring Jimmy Cagney, and there is no real cause to think the film would now be remembered. Cagney did a film called “Torrid Zone” about the same time, about revolution in a banana republic. Nobody remembers that film now, and it doesn’t seem like it affected the way anybody felt about bananas or republics.

Still, it’s hard not to feel some regret that the film was never made, and curiosity about what it might have been. If I ever find out more about the film, I will follow up.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.