Irish-American Standards: My Wild Irish Rose

"My Wild Irish Rose," photo of sheet music by modernpoetry on Etsy.

“My Wild Irish Rose,” photo of sheet music by modernpoetry on Etsy.

“My Wild Irish Rose” was written by Irish-American songwriter Chauncey Olcott in 1898. Olcott was also the author of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”

From the Saginaw News, October 15, 1904.

From the Saginaw News, October 15, 1904.

The song was composed for a musical titled “A Romance Of Athlone,” which debuted at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York in January of 1899. The play is set in Athlone in the year 1800, a turgid romance set, in part, in an Irish Traveller’s camp.

 

From the Muskegon Chronicle, August 21, 1903.

From the Muskegon Chronicle, August 21, 1903.

 

Grand Rapids Press from October 24, 1903 told the following story of the creation of the song:

Five years ago when Mr. Olcott and his mother were in Ireland spending the vacation months, they were sailing on a pretty Irish lake. The mother spied some beautiful flowers. She asked the boatman what they were. He told her they were wild Irish roses.

“What a pretty name for a song,” she said.

“It is that,” the actor cried, “and I’ll write one to fit the title.”

“My Wild Irish Rose” was the title of a 1922 silent film, but the film was based on “The Shaughraun” by Dion Boucicault, and not Olcott’s play.

Olcott died in 1932 in Monte Carlo at 71. His funeral services were held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. On his death, it was revealed that Olcott had spent his life collecting cigar store wooden Indians.

A jubilee of joy, apparently.

A jubilee of joy, apparently.

There was also a film titled “My Wild Irish Rose” in 1947; this one retold the life of Olcott, based on “Song in His Heart,” a memoir by Olcott’s widow, Rita. Despite some dismal reviews, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.

Although the film starred Dennis Morgan, Olcott’s singing voice was provided by singer and radio personality Dennis Day.

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Troll 2 (1990)

George Hardy battles vegetarian goblins in "Troll 2."

George Hardy battles vegetarian goblins in “Troll 2.”

Troll 2 (1990)

Written by: Rossella Drudi
Directed by: Claudio Fragasso
Starring: Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, Margo Prey
Summary: A legendary bad film about vegetarian goblins, the film seems to borrow largely from Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

There is only one hint of Irishness in “Troll 2,” Claudio Fragasso’s notorious cult travesty from 1990: In the rural farmtown of Nilbog, the eccentric local farmfolk are actually disguised goblins, and their only tell is a scar of a shamrock visible somewhere on their body.

The filmmakers were Italian — Fragasso has a long resume of producing genre oddities in his native country, and the script was by his wife Rosella Drudi, who claims she was irritated by friends who had become vegetarian and so wrote the film to satirize them. Her idea of satire is puzzling: The film’s goblins turn people into plants and then eat them. But there is very little in the film that makes sense, and for a lot of audience members, this fact is delightful.

I have no evidence for the following theory, but I’m going to present it anyway: I suspect that many of the basic story elements in “Troll 2” were lifted from “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” which had opened almost a decade earlier to generally unfavorable reviews. Italian cult horror has a long history of stealing from America horror, and here are details the films have in common: Both tell of an insular rural cult of Druidic outsiders who take power from a segment of Stonehenge. Further, both cults are represented by a shamrock.

Even if these plot points are a coincidence, both films are examples of folk horror, which is a typically British genre in which interlopers discover a rural location has been taken over by ancient paganism. Neither films are especially good examples of the genre, but, well, between the shamrocks and the Druids I’m going to go ahead and call them Irish anyway.

I do rather like the implication that old world monsters moved to America and became caught up in its more flamboyant traditions, from fad diets to televangelist-style old-time religion.
“Troll 2” is a pretty well-known cult film, so you may already be aware that it’s an in-name-only sequel to 1986’s “Troll,” but was instead originally named “Goblin.” It’s not really a film about historical Druids, either, although the film’s rubber-masked (and genuinely ghastly) goblins do share the Druids’ fascination with trees. The monsters are some sort of cult, however — we witness a Revival tent-style meeting where a bearded preacher rails against the horrors of meat. And in a film that is generally nonsensical, I do rather like the implication that old world monsters moved to America and became caught up in its more flamboyant traditions, from fad diets to televangelist-style old-time religion.

The film’s problems are legion and well-documented: It was mostly cast with local non-actors, including at least two who suffered genuine mental illness. The filmmakers did not speak English, and so the film’s dialogue sounds like something that would come out of a Google translate prototype. (Sample dialogue, from a horny teenager: “I’m the victim of a nocturnal rapture. I have to release my lowest instincts with a woman.”) The story never comes anywhere near making sense, and, if scenes were meant satirically, the satire is invisible.

However, the results are fascinating. The actors provide line-readings that are so far removed from proper acting that they become strangely marvelous, such as one-young man who cries out in terror when he realizes he is about to be devoured, and whose terrified shout has become iconic:

There was a very good documentary about the making of this film, “Best Worst Movie,” directed by Michael Stephenson, who starred in “Troll 2” when he was a child. The documentary looks at the cult audience that has developed for the film, who show a unique mix of ironic appreciation, genuine fascination, and mild nostalgia for the film, which all seem to me to be valid ways to experience the movie.

The documentary also looks at the experiences of the non-actors who starred in it, especially focusing on the endlessly cheerful Alabama dentist, George Hardy, who played Stephenson’s father in the film.
The documentary also looks at the experiences of the non-actors who starred in it, especially focusing on the endlessly cheerful Alabama dentist, George Hardy, who played Stephenson’s father in the film. Hardy genuinely loves that he was in the movie, and basks in the attention that its growing cult audience provides for him. But as the film progresses and he more aggressively pursues his minor status as a celebrity, he realizes how shallow this pursuit is. There’s a marvelous scene at a horror convention, where he has gone to sign photos and sell merchandize, where he looks around at the row of horror movie has-beens and wonders what’s wrong with them, why they cling to roles they had decades before, and then realizes that he’s also talking about himself.

But, then, what’s the harm? We all get a few moments in our life when we do something surprising and extraordinary, and they’re worth revisiting and celebrating. And there is something genuinely extraordinary about “Troll 2” — here it is, a quarter-century after it was made, and I’m writing an essay about it, puzzling about how it fits in with the genre of folk horror, and the fact that it recalls Irish legend, even if only in the most oblique way. (And, in fairness, that’s the only way to approach the film, as everything in it is oblique.)

If George Hardy ever wants to go back to those conventions and sit among the has-beens, I will happily go to him and shake his hand, and I will proudly get his signature. What other dentist gets to battle vegetarian goblins?

None, that’s who.

Irish-American Crime Films: ‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)

Huntz Hall and a goon in "Neath Brooklyn Bridge."

Huntz Hall and a goon in “Neath Brooklyn Bridge.”

‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942)

Written by: Harvey Gates
Directed by:
Wallace Fox
Starring:
Leo Gorcey Bobby Jordan Huntz Hall
Summary:
The East Side Kids get caught up in a theft scheme in a Lower East Side that seems entirely populated by sailors.

I can’t help but like Poverty Row movies. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Poverty Row” referred to a collection of independent, low-budget movie production companies that churned out mostly forgettable genre fare from the 20s through the 50s. They are typically not very good, with lethargic direction, inconsistent performance, and are often shot on barely disguised soundstages. The storylines are often hackneyed and the dialogue unmemorable.

But forget conventional wisdom about what makes a good movie. Poverty Row films put their attention elsewhere, often taking a successful formula and toying with endless permutations. Because there was a built-in audience for this, and because they could make these films cheaply, Poverty Row studios became a sort-of primordial swamp, tearing apart elements of other films and recombining them into endless mutations. These weren’t the prestige films of the major studios, they were the Frankenstein monsters, and, as a result, you would often see things in Poverty Row films you could not see elsewhere.

As an example, in “Neath Brooklyn Bridge,” there is a bar owned by a hoodlum named McGaffey, and it is sailor-themed. The walls are decorated with ships’ wheels, while starfish and sailor’s caps hang above the bar. There seem to be sailors everywhere in the bar, dressed in costumes that make them look like extras from a live-action Popeye cartoon.

The Lower East Side was also a sailor hangout — it borders one of the world’s largest ports, and, in its earlier incarnation as Corlear’s Hook, was so famous for brothels catering to sailors that it was likely the source of the word “hooker.”
The film is set in the Two Bridges neighborhood of New York, which, for most of the film career, was Dead Ends Kids territory, and this is a Dead End Kids movie — although produced by Poverty Row’s Monogram Pictures, which had snapped some of the Dead End Kids up when Warner Brothers dropped their contracts and renamed them the East Side Kids. But the Lower East Side was also a sailor hangout — it borders one of the world’s largest ports, and, in its earlier incarnation as Corlear’s Hook, was so famous for brothels catering to sailors that it was likely the source of the word “hooker.” I rarely see films set in New York that show the world of its sailors at all, and this film is brimming with them.

In fact, two of the main supporting characters in the film are sailors. There’s a navy man, played by Noah Beery Jr., who is a grown-up version of the East Side Kids and still hangs out with them every so often — they have a basement clubhouse that seems exclusively devoted to model ships and airplanes. There is also an old man called the Skipper who is paralyzed but communicated by blinking in Morse code. Even the East Side Kids wear striped sailor’s shirts, as though this film were being marketed to the Sea Scouts, to be watched while members learned how to tie knots and and navigate by finding a pole star.

The film has a simple plot, and so I will dispense with it in a few sentences: McGaffey, The gangster who owns the sailor bar needs East Side Kid Leo Gorcey (here named Muggs McGinnis) to help him with a burglary. McGaffey kills a man and convinces Gorcey he is guilty of the crime. The gang bands together and solves the case. Spolier alert: They do this by gathering together a gang of friends and assaulting McGaffey and his lackeys in a silk warehouse, which is an example of the sort of surprisingly plotting that sometimes happened in Poverty Row films.

Leo Gorcey would be the leader of the gang for most of their work as the Bowery Boys, but in the early films he ping ponged back and forth between lead and supporting character, and it;s easy to see why, as he’s a squirrely lead. He has laconic and sometimes hesitant mannerisms coupled with wary eyes, and it feels as though his proper place in life is less to lead men than to cynically comment on their foibles, which he does often in famously mangled malapropisms.

But he’s also quick-witted and a bit of a bully, and you get the sense that he’s the default leader of the gang here. The other kids just defer to him, in part because he’s pretty bright, but in part because if they don’t, they risk a blast of his scolding wit and a sock on the shoulder. Nobody seems happy about this state of affairs — at one point he goes over to a kid making a model airplane and offers a suggestion, and the kid just hands him the model and tells him to finish it himself. Gorcey seems a bit taken aback by this, and doesn’t take to leadership easily; he spends most of the film keeping his own council, sorting things out by himself, and only enlists the rest of the gang’s help when he needs muscle.

Another of the kids, Huntz Hall, seems much more comfortable with the role he would later exclusively play — the gang’s clown. Hall was capable of more, as he showed in “Little Tough Guy,” but he had a talent for screwy goofballs, and the film gives him plenty of opportunity to goof around, including a scene in which he steals soup from ‘Snub’ Pollard, a silent film comedians. These Poverty Row films were full of slumming stars, and it’s fun spotting them in the background.

In fact, there’s one who goes uncredited who I think should be the subject of his own film: Frank Moran, who plays the bartender. Moran, the son of Irish immigrants, was an real sailor, having served in the Navy after having studied dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh. While in the military, he started prizefighting (and was a sparring partner for President Theodore Roosevelt), and he fought under the nickname “The Fighting Dentist.” He quickly went into movies, playing tough guys and criminals, including having been part of Preston Sturges’ stock company. He also played his share of sailor, including in Fred Astaire’s “Follow the Fleet” (he played “Husky Sailor”) and Raoul Walsh’s “Sailor’s Luck” (playing “Bilge Moran”).

Other roles played by Frank Moran: Dimwitted Goon, coarse slave seeking rich widow, Ape Man, Jack the Beefer, Sailor in Oyster Bed Cafe, East Side Pug, Louie the Lug, Sarcastic Townsman.
You just don’t get life stories, or resumes, like his anymore. Let me offer up a few more roles he played. So here we go; other roles played by Frank Moran: Dimwitted Goon, coarse slave seeking rich widow, Ape Man, Jack the Beefer, Sailor in Oyster Bed Cafe, East Side Pug, Louie the Lug, Sarcastic Townsman.

I think this demonstrates that a former sailor in New York could have a pretty interesting life, which “‘Neath Brooklyn Bridge” seemed to appreciate

Irish-American Interior Design: Irish Pub Dollhouse

I'm not the first to think of this. This one is from http://mysmallobsessionminiatures.blogspot.com

I’m not the first to think of this. This one is from http://mysmallobsessionminiatures.blogspot.com

This is a bit of an odd entry, but I find myself fascinated by dollhouses. I once went into a shop that sold items specifically for dollhouses and discovered it was possible to purchase a miniature box of condoms, and that’s when I realized it was possible to make a dollhouse version of anything. For a while, I considered making a dollhouse of my actual apartment, but then I would trash it, as though the doll versions of myself were slobby hedonists. It would be like a dollhouse version of Dorian Grey’s portrait, as though my pit-together real world were simply a masquerade covering for a dissolute private life, which would be true.

Lately I find myself thinking about making an Irish pub dollhouse. I have always wanted my own Irish pub, but am in no condition to buy one, so perhaps a tiny version will do.

I suppose one might start with an empty dollhouse room — those are easy to find — and then just start filling it with stuff. And there is a lot of stuff out there. I mean, whiskey bottles?

1. FIVE BLANK WHISKEY BOTTLES, $4.80.

Yes, whiskey bottles.

Yes, whiskey bottles.

 

Here’s your whiskey bottles. But perhaps you want specific brands?

2. DOLLHOUSE LIQUOR BOTTLES, $10

Branded liquor costs a little more.

Branded liquor costs a little more.

There are no lack of options for liquor bottles. And your going to need a proper bar to serve these from.

3. OLDE ENGLISH PUB BAR, $350

Look at it. LOOK AT IT.

Look at it. LOOK AT IT.

It’s not cheap, and there are more pocketbook friendly, but, my God, if I had the spare change I would live in this.

But you’re going to need some chairs.

4. DOLLHOUSE PUB CHAIRS, $4.75

These look cozy.

These look cozy.

There. And what about signage?

5. PUB SIGN, $2.50

Lidweld's? I guess that's the name of our bar.

Lidweld’s? I guess that’s the name of our bar.

And you’re probably going to want to set some pub rules.

6. PUB RULES SIGN, $2.50

Keeping the rules simple!

Keeping the rules simple!

 

 

Your patrons may want to play darts.

7. TINY DARTS, $2.50

Bullseye!

Bullseye!

And maybe you want to cook some proper Irish food for your clientele.

8. IRISH PUB COOKBOOK, MINIATURE, $6.95

I hope they have colcannon.

I hope they have colcannon.

And finally, just to give the place atmosphere, a collection of Irish magazines and CDs.

9. IRISH MAGAZINES AND CDS, $4.99

You're going to want music and something to read with your drink.

You’re going to want music and something to read with your drink.

\There’s more, much more, but I could get lost in this forever. Perhaps one day I will.

Irish-American Fashion: Tattoos

Samel O'Reilley's patented tattooing machine.

Sameul O’Reilley’s patented tattooing machine.

Irish-Americans like tattoos, which isn’t especially surprising, as Americans in general are maniacs for tattoos. I read a recent statistic that 40 percent of American households have somebody with a tattoo in it, which is tantalizing, as I don’t know who it is in my family. I saw my 8-month-old niece this past weekend, and I didn’t see any tattoos, but babies can be crafty.

Apparently, tattooing wasn’t much of a tradition in Ireland before the 20th century. Sure, the Picts in Scotland were supposed to be covered in tattoos — their name may literally mean “the tattooed people.” But there’s no evidence of similar marking on their Celtic brethren across the Inner Seas, according to tattoo historian Anna Felicity Friedman in an interview on NPR.

Additionally, the article interview points out that Celtic knot tattoos are actually American in origin. Not the knots themselves, of course — those are legitimately Irish. But it was Americans that started using them as permanent skin decoration, inspired by similarly ethnic “tribal” tattoos that grew in popularity on the American West Coast in the 70s, called “blackwork” in the interview.

I am delighted to discover that this tradition is Irish-American in origin, although not delighted enough to actually get a Celtic knot tattoo of my own. I’m a fan of Irish-American expressions of identity, sure, but I’m not going to get a Notre Dame Leprechaun on my shoulder either.

Instead, I want to explore an older tradition of Irish-American tattooing, and point out that Irish-Americans has a hand in the history of tattooing in this country. As an example, the first patent for a tattoo machine, dating all the way back to 1891, was Bowery tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly, an Irish immigrant.

Bowery tattoo artists tended to do a lot of business with sailors and soldiers, and O’Reilly’s clientele also included a variety of sideshow performers — because O’Reilly’s machine could produce finely detailed tattoos relatively quickly, he had a large hand in the creation of the sideshow tattooed man. One example: O’Reilly tattooed John Hayes, a performer with Barnum and Bailey who was a sort of forerunner to the blackwork tradition: He claimed to have been captured by Apache braves, who forcibly tattooed 870 images on him as a sort of torture; presumably the tattoos were vaguely Native American in style.

We can actually see some examples of O’Reilley’s work: Two of his other patrons were tattooed showpeople Frank & Emma deBurgh, and there are surviving photos of the couple.

DeBurgh, oh deBurgh oh have you met deBurgh.

DeBurgh, oh deBurgh oh have you met deBurgh.

Their tattoos are sort of a classic sideshow illustrated man type: He has a recumbent woman on his chest holding a banner reading “Forget Me Not,” while she has a recreation of the Last Supper on her back over the words “Love One Another.” The larger tattoos are surrounded by all sorts of decorative patterns and smaller tattoos, including some traditional sailor’s tattoos: As an example, he has a nautical star near his right arm.

While it’s nice to know that the full-bodied, very old-school carnival illustrated man is partly an Irish-American invention, the purpose of this article is to discuss what sorts of inspiration we can draw from this era for contemporary tattoos. And, thanks to Damian Shiels of the Irish in the American Civil War blog, we have some ideas.

Shiels looked at the the enlistment records of the New York Naval Rendezvous for July 1863, and of the 319 Irishmen who enlisted, 30 of them had tattoos. He lists them in this blog post, and I’d like to take a look at the most common and suggest how a modern tattoo enthusiast might be inspired by them.

1. CROSS

It’s not surprising to see this one show up — it’s still one of the most popular tattoo designs, and for the largely Catholic Irish immigrant population, this could be a great source of comfort while at sea.

This is a tremendously flexible design, as crosses can have other symbols wrapped around them, or be draped in banners that read significant text. For Irish-Americans who want a cross tattoo, this is an excellent opportunity to explore the endless variations of the Celtic cross, which, at its simplest, is an encircled cross. Celtic crosses can be exquisitely detailed — sometimes with knotwork — or quite minimalist. A warning, however: The Celtic cross has been used as a symbol by both white nationalists and the Zodiac killer, so if you’re thinking about getting tattooed with a Celtic cross, do some research. You don’t want to pick a design that will misrepresent your worldview.

2. HEART

Another classic, sometimes with the word “mom” written below it, or, in a risky choice, the name of a current girlfriend.

This is an easy one to make explicitly Irish — a crown and a pair of hands turns it into a Claddagh (you can also leave off the crown, making it a “Fenian” Claddagh.)

3. ANCHOR

This is probably one you should steer clear of unless you have a specific relationship with seafaring, and according to the Sailor Jerry website, the anchor symbolizes stability — it is sometimes emblazoned with words that likewise represent some stable aspect of a sailor’s life.

There have been some particularly Irish versions of this tattoo, including a number of logos designed for The Pogues, who has a taste for shanties and sailor’s songs.

4. WOMEN

Traditionally tattooed men seemed especially attracted to images of women — sometimes pin-up girls — on a bicep or across their chest. This is a motif that strikes me as being especially flexible — first of all, there’s no reason to be so particular about gender, so if someone wants to tattoo a saucy fella on their body, more power to them.

But, secondly, there are all sorts of Irish-Americans who would be ideal subjects for this tattoo. Looking for people from Samuel O’Reilly’s era: Pick a couple of characters from Gangs of New York, such as Sadie the Goat and and Dan the Dude. Something more modern? How about Texas Guinan and Owney Madden. All would look great rendered as folk art ink figures on your forearms.

5. NUMBERS AND INITIALS

Shiels spends some of his piece puzzling about the various numbers Irish sailors had tattooed on their bodies. He feels pretty sure about initials — they seem to be part of a long tradition of tattoos intended for postmortem identification, which could be complicated if a body washed up on shore. But why the numbers?

Some, he suspects, are numbers for fire departments, which seems a likely guess. Amateur fire departments were essentially men’s clubs in the era, and members were proud to show their allegiance to their department. Others might be auspicious dates, such as birth dates.

This is the sort of tattoo that can be adapted to whatever you want it to be. There are a large variety of Irish-inspired typefaces you can draw from, whether you tattoo a family name, an ancestral county, or a fate that has particular meaning for you. I also rather like the idea of borrowing from the amateur firefighter tradition.

6. STAR

This is likely the nautical star, a representation of the North Star, which was used in navigation. This tattoo is today primarily associated with the United States Armed Forces, so be cautious about using the traditional star unless you have a military background. There is also a tradition in the gay community of getting these tattooed on wrists.

However, there are people in the tattooing community who insist the star has an early history in Ireland, where it was found in Irish hospitals, although I cannot find any documentary evidence of this, and there is a green and black version of the star that is widely, and distinctly, associated with Irish-Americans.

Irish-American Dining: Leprechaun Cookies

Cookies decorated by Sugarbelle. I want to eat these right now.

Cookies decorated by Sugarbelle. I want to eat these right now.

Sometimes I worry that we Americans are putting the Irish off leprechauns. We’ve taken the little creature and run with him, and the results, including sports mascots and preposterous St. Paddy’s Day costumes, are a little embarrassing to the Irish, I hear. I can imagine a real-life leprechaun sneaking into some Irish farm house to do some late-night cobbling and being met with an Irish farmer, broom in hand, crying out “Away with you, to America, like all your kin!”

He’d live a welcome, if degraded, life here, as Americans affix leprechauns to just about anything they want to seem Irish. Let’s take a leprechaun cookie, as an example. I see no evidence it is made out of leprechaun at all, although, to be fair, the first time the treat is mentioned, on Thursday, March 16, 1922, in the Caledonian-Record, there is no recipe. The story merely mentions that Mrs. W.R. Prouty entertained her Fortnightly club with green-colored food in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day. Among the foods she served were leprechaun cookies, and, although it goes unmentioned, perhaps Mrs. Prouty did trap a leprechaun or two and put them in her food.

We don’t get a recipe until 1960, when the Lexington Herald offered the following:

To make 2 1/2 dozen cookies, cream 1/2 cup softened butter or margarine and 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Sift 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour , 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt together. Combine 1/4 cup chopped maraschino cherries, well drained (about 10 cherries), 1 slightly beaten egg and 2 tablespoons milk; mix well. Add dry ingredients and cherry mixture alternately to cream mixture. Mix well after each addition. Chill 1 hour. Roll out on lightly floured surface to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into rounds with floured 2 1/2-inch cookie cutter. Place on greased baking sheets. Arrange cherry halves on cookies to resemble shamrocks. Bake in moderate 375 F. over or until cookies are lightly browned.

The recipe isn’t explicit, but I expect the cherries should be green colored and not red, or one will end up with a cookie that looks made from a pulped leprechaun.

Some sort of leprechaun cookie made it into school lunch menus: Around St. Patrick’s Day in 1976 and 1977, the Rockford, Illinois Lexington Herald published the school meals for the day, and the cookie was there, along with St. Patrick’s Salad and cold meat. They made it to Michigan schools in 2004 and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2011. The last newspaper mention I find of the cookie is this past year: The Press of Atlantic City wrote about St. Patrick’s Day partying, and mentioned that Bally’s Boardwalk Cupcake were offering leprechaun cookies and Guinness Stout Intoxication Cupcakes. In most of these cases, it’s anyone’s guess about what is being called a leprechaun cookie, but I found an image from Bally’s and it is a gingerbread cookie in what looks to be green icing lederhosen.

Yah, Irish lederhosen.

Yah, Irish lederhosen.

As this little fellow suggests, there are great things that can be done with frosting, and I must say I genuinely marvel at the cookies decorated by blogger Sugarbelle, pictured at the top of the page. You supposedly can make these at home, and the creator is kind enough to offer step-by-stem instructions, but were I to attempt it I know the results would be better sent to the Nailed It blog than given out as food.

 

 

Irish-American Crime Films: Irish Luck (1939)

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in "Irish Luck."

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in “Irish Luck.”

Irish Luck (11939)

Written by: Mary McCarthy (screenplay), Charles M. Brown (story)
Directed by: Howard Bretherton
Starring:  Frankie Darro, Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland
Summary: Frankie Darro produced a comic turn as a bellhop breaking a bond theft ring; the first film to pair him with African-American comic Mantan Moreland, but far from the last.

As this project progresses, there will probably be more reviews of films that star Frankie Darro, as “Irish Luck” does. The athletic, diminutive actor isn’t well remembered today, but he was a legitimate star in his day, albeit typically of juvenile films and b-movies. He even was responsible for one of the best-loved performances in film, even if it was uncredited and unrecognized at its time: He was the man wearing the Robbie the Robot suit in “Forbidden Planet,” which makes him to a previous generation what Kenny Baker, the man in the R2D2 suit, is to ours.

Darro has already come up a few times in these reviews: He played the young Cagney (sort of) in “The Public Enemy” and played a juvenile delinquent is Cagney’s “Mayor of Hell.” Although I can’t tell whether Darro actually had Irish blood or not (his real name was Johnson), he played an awful lot of Irish youth — here’s a brief list of character he played: Barnie Finn, Tad Dennison, Mickey Grogan, Billy Ryan, and “Orphan” McGuire. He even provided the voice of Lampwick in Disney’s “Pinocchio,” the only redheaded character in the film, and his casting is likely based on his long career of playing Irish delinquents.

But if Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.” The film is a bit of a nothing, telling of a bellboy named Buzzy O’Brien who can’t help but stumble into mysteries in his hotel. But it’s an entertaining nothing, helped by pairing Darro with African-American actor Mantan Moreland. I’m a fan of Moreland, and even visited his grave when I lived in LA, and his reputation deserves reexamination. He’s notorious for playing bug-eyed, frightened African-Americans, which became something of a noxious cliche in Hollywood. But Moreland’s bug-eyedness was natural, and his comic skills impeccable and understated. He never plays his character’s fear as an exaggerated burlesque, but instead as a perpetually fretfulness.

If Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.”
Darro and Moreland would go on to star in a series of films together, and they were a good pair, with Moreland acting as a sort of weary commenter on Darro’s boundless enthusiasm. In fact, in this film Darro is almost nothing but enthusiasm. Dressed in a bellhop outfit that would look right at home at the Grand Budapest Hotel, he’s determined to be a boy detective, and his hotel, which is the center of a bond-theft ring, given him ample opportunity.

The title, “Irish Luck,” is deliberate. Darro has an Irish mother in this, and, moreover, when he meets a female suspect in this, he decides she must be innocent, as her name is Monahan. Now, my name at birth was Monaghan, so I sympathize, but I also have to admit this is an odd plot point. After all, at the start of the movie he manages to capture a pair of bond robbers, and while they are unnamed, they are played by Pat Gleason and Gene O’Donnoll, so it’s not as though Irish criminals are unheard of, even in this film’s universe.

But the kid has an instinct that Monahan is okay, and, in general, his instincts are right on the money — there’s some suggestion that he literally inherited his genius for deduction from his deceased father, who was a policeman. His father’s former partner, player by Dick Purcell (who himself would make a terrifically entertaining film with Moreland called “King of the Zombies”), is nonplussed at Darro’s boy detective ambitions. But if there is one thing Darro demonstrated in films, it was that he tended to get swept up in things, and once swept was unstoppable.

If only the same could have been said of his career. He did a stint in the military during World War II and contracted malaria. Reportedly, he suffered long-term effects, which he attempted to manage with alcohol. Although he managed to make regular, often small appearance on film and television, he was broke for much of his adult life and struggled with alcohol. This was probably exacerbated when he opened a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard called “Try Later” and named after the response he typically got when he contacted Central Casting.

I worked as background talent for Central Casting several years ago, and I know how frustrating those calls are to this day. Boundless energy and enthusiasm doesn’t stand a chance against the drudgery of making tens or even hundreds of calls per day, hoping a job has opened up and that you’re right for it. It’s just murder, and it’s a murder that even a former boy detective couldn’t solve.

Irish-American Standards at a Glance: It’s a Great Day for the Irish

It's a great day for Judy Garland.

It’s a great day for Judy Garland.

“It’s a Great Day for the Irish” is Judy Garland’s song. The song was specifically written for her, and she debuted it in 1940 in the film “Little Nellie Kelly.”

Little Nelly Kelly.

Little Nelly Kelly.

Although Garland had already made 16 films, including “The Wizard of Oz,” she was most often in supporting roles. “Little Nellie Kelly” was intended to test whether she could she could sustain a lead career. The film was based on George M. Cohan’s 1922 Broadway show and capitalized on Garland’s Irish-American identity. (She was 1/4 Irish, and had a maternal grandmother from Ireland.)

“Little Nellie Kelly” tells the story of two generations of romantic struggle, starting in Ireland, when the title character marries a man her father objects to and he promises never to speak to her husband again. She dies in America, and her daughter likewise grows up to fall in love with a man her father objects to. Both mother and daughter were played by Judy Garland.

“It’s a Great Day for the Irish” was written for a scene taking place in New York’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue, during which Garland marches with her family and points out the various Irish-Americans also in the parade. As a result, the song has become a St. Patrick’s Day favorite.

Roger Edens and Judy Garland.

Roger Edens and Judy Garland.

The song was authored by Scots Irish composer Roger Edens, one of the great arrangers during Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was Judy Garland’s original vocal trainer and worked with her over her entire career.

Leavenworth Bulletin, March 16, 1870

Leavenworth Bulletin, March 16, 1870

The use of the phrase “great day for the Irish” is older than the song. It dates back to at least 1870, when The Leavenworth Bulletin of Leavenworth, KS, used the phrase in reference to St. Patrick’s Day that year. In fact, there were earlier songs with the same title, although there is little documentation about them.

The 1940 song has been extensively covered; according to Wikipedia, singers include Bing Crosby, Ruby Murray, Daniel O’Donnell, and The Clancy Brothers.

Irish-American Fashion: Lucille Ball on St. Patrick’s

Lucille Ball!

Lucille Ball!

I have a few things to say about this image of Lucille Ball on St. Patrick’s Day. Firstly, adorable. Secondly, there is nothing especially Irish about this costume, which seems more inspired by Czech or German folk costumes than anything anyone in Ireland ever wore. Thirdly, I don’t care.

Ball was part-Irish, but America’s most famous redhead was a lot of other things as well, including Scottish, French, and English. If Ms. Ball wanted to dress in a costume on St. Patrick’s that wasn’t 100 percent Irish, well, that was her her prerogative, and how better to represent the diversity of the Irish-American experience than by taking something not-Irish and sticking a shamrock on it!

This is a pretty simple outfit to duplicate, if you want to. Let’s start from the top town.

1. ROBIN HOOT CAP, MOSS FETE, $95

I'll tell you a tale of Alan-a-Dale.

I’ll tell you a tale of Alan-a-Dale.

It may not be possible to find precisely the cap that Ball wore in the image, which was likely custom-made for the photo shoot, but a quick search on the web for “Elf cap” and “Robin Hood cap” brings dozens of possible substitutions. As long as it is green and elfen, it will do the trick.

2. GERMAN BLOUSE, ERNST LICHT, $34.

Puffy sleeves are a must.

Puffy sleeves are a must.

The shirt is a traditional German blouse with puffy sleeves; a nice selection can be found at Ernst Licht, but you’re going to want two accessories:

3. GREEN SLEEVE GARTERS, $5.95.

Top of the arm to ya!

Top of the arm to ya!

This will keep your sleeves puffy and give the costume a dash of green, and you’re going to want:

4. VINTAGE IRISH LACE COLLAR, VARIOUS PRICES

Irish lace.

Irish lace.

You’ll find this for sale on various vintage site, like eBay and Etsy.

5. TWILL BODICE, $66

Huzzah!

Huzzah!

Admittedly, this takes a costume that is already a bit Peter Pan and makes it Medieval, but if that’s what Lucille Ball likes, it’s what she gets.

6. WHITE FLARE SKIRT, LORD AND TAYLOR, $49.99

I don't like to talk about my flare.

I don’t like to talk about my flare.

You’re going to want a nice flared skirt, but it’s not going to be exactly right with the following:

7. SHAMROCK APPLIQUES, PIN MART, $.99

Good for both skirts and luck.

Good for both skirts and luck.

And there’s just one thing remaining:

8. HALF-SIZE APRON, BOOJIBOO, $38.75

With suspenders!

With suspenders!

Lucille Ball went for a simple, bold pattern, but I’m going to suggest that this is another place for a splash of green. I especially like the fact that this comes with suspenders, because heaven knows you don’t want your tiny apron to slip.

The Best Irish Pub in America: Bar Snacks: Tayto Crisps

Tayto Crisps.

Tayto Crisps.

If there was one recommendation I could make to Irish pubs in America that would instantly and inexpensively improve them, it would be to offer British and Irish pub snacks. Many bars — especially dive bars — already have snacks behind the counter, including candy bars, potato chips, and sometimes ice cream. People belly up to the bar and after a drink or two often get the idea they might like to snack on something, and here’s your chance to take them on a culinary trip to Ireland.

Other flavors offered now and then include roast chicken, pickled onion, and wuster sauce.
There’s never been a better time, and there’s no better an option. This food is easy to order on line, inexpensive, and have a long shelf life. Let’s start with today’s example: Tayto Crisps. It is just now possible to get a 25 pack on Amazon.com for $32.50 with free shipping. Sell each for $2 and you’ve made yourself a tidy profit of $17.50, and the only work required is to clip them to your bar mirror and hand them to a patron when they get peckish.

I’ve started with Taytos because they are one of Ireland’s most recognized brands, and they are potato chips, so bar patrons are likely predisposed to eating them in a way they may not be with other snack food I will write about. Tayto offers something called Pork Scratchings as well, made of fried pork rind and sold in little packets, and that’s probably not going to be immediately appealing to American tastes.

Tayto crisps, however, are perfectly recognizable as potato chips, albeit they are typically offered in a range of savory flavors:  Cheese & Onion, Salt & Vinegar, Smokey Bacon, and Prawn Cocktail; other flavors are offered now and then, including roast chicken, pickled onion, and wuster sauce.  The texture is recognizable to American palates; its a bit like Pringles. But it is the selection of flavors that make chips from Britain and Ireland so unique, as they are almost always flavored in this way.

The snack originates in County Meath, and have proven to be so successful in Ireland that “tayto” is sometimes used as a general word for potato chips, and there is Tayto-themed amusement park in Ashbourne that, for some reason, has several Native-American styled attractions. The smiling, red-jacketed mascot proved recognizable enough that Tayto ran him as a candidate in the 2007 Irish General Election, and he has his own fictional biography, “The Man Inside the Jacket.”

A number of Irish venues in America have already started to experiment with offering Taytos, and seem to have had success with them. They are one of the snacks offered by the gift shop in the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago, which was a source of much amusement for Conan O’Brien when he filmed a visit to the center in 2012.