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 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 Standard at a Glance: If I Knock the “L” Out of Kelly

"If I Knock the 'L' Out of Kelly": Ignore the delightful caricature of an Irish man.

“If I Knock the ‘L’ Out of Kelly”: Ignore the delightful caricature of an Irish man.

“If I Knock the ‘L’ Out of Kelly” was written in 1916, with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis & Joe Young and music by Bert Grant. The song was written for a musical called “Step this Way,” which debuted at Broadway’s Shubert Theater. The show was a rewrite of an earlier musical called “The Girl Behind the Counter,” and told of an heir to millions of dollars and plans to marry his daughter to a broke Lord to make his family titled gentry.

Lew Fields and Marguerite Farrell in "Step this Way."

Lew Fields and Marguerite Farrell, seated, in “Step this Way.”

Lyricist Sam M. Lewis was one of Broadway’s greats, having coauthored songs including the English adaptation of “Gloomy Sunday,” “Has Anyone Seen My Gal,” “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”, and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” among many others.

Lewis frequently partnered with lyricist Joe Young, himself the author of a number of classics, including “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” The pair of them were frequent songwriters for Al Jolson, and both collaborated on “My Mammy,” one of Jolson’s signature songs.

Rocky Road to Dublin

Along the Rocky Road to Dublin

Composer Bert Grant wasn’t as well-known as the song’s lyricists, but had a solid career as a Broadway composer, and, with Joe Young, authored a song titled “Along the Rocky Road to Dublin” in 1915, which shares its name with a popular 19th century Irish song, but little else.

One of the popular early recordings of the song was a 1916 Columbia record, sung by soprano Marguerite Farrell, who was also responsible for a recording of “Along the Rocky Road to Dublin” that same year.  Farrell was a stage singer who worked extensively with theater impresario Lew Fields, a former vaudevillian whose partnership with acting partner Joe Weber reportedly inspired Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys.” Both Fields and Farrell were in “Step this Way,” which Fields produced.

There's no actually fisticuffs to be found in the song.

There’s no actual fisticuffs to be found in the song.

Despite a title that suggests hooliganism, the song itself details a sign painter who accidentally misspelled the name Kelly with a single letter L in a sign.


Irish-American Standards at a Glance: Kathleen Mavourneen

Kathleen Mavourneen sheet music -- possibly pirated.

Kathleen Mavourneen sheet music — possibly pirated.

“Kathleen Mavourneen” was  composed by Frederick Crouch with lyrics by Mrs. Crawford in 1837. Although both hailed from overseas — Crouch was English, while Crawford was Irish or English — the song became one of America’s most popular parlor songs.

There is some question about exactly who Mrs. Crawford was. According to “‘Twas Only an Irishman’s Dream,” she may have been Miss Anthony Barry Crawford, an English poet, or Julia Crawford, the wife of Frederick Crouch, who was born in County Cavan.

A photo of Frederick Crouch; at least, according to the Internet.

A photo of Frederick Crouch; at least, according to the Internet.

Crouch also fell into obscurity. Although his song was enormously popular, he collected almost no money for it, possibly having sold the rights for almost nothing, possibly being the victim of sheet music piracy. Crouch came to America in 1849. He entered the Civil War as a trumpeter for the Confederacy and eventually wound up in Baltimore, likely spending his last days as a music teacher.

Irish singer Catherine Hayes.

Irish singer Catherine Hayes.

The song, which translates as “Kathleen My Beloved” and tells of a man begging his lover to wake before he leaves Ireland, became a signature song for  Irish soprano Catherine Hayes, who performed the song for Queen Victoria in 1849.

Hayes toured extensively in the United States, and, as a result, “Kathleen Mavourneen” became a popular American standard. It was especially beloved among recent Irish immigrants. James Parton wrote of opera singer Adelaide Phillips performing the song in the parlor of a “fashionable house” in New York, which caused a young Irish maid to stop in her duties and sit down, sobbing.

The song inspired at least one “answer song,” titled “Dermot Astore” and credited to Anne Barry Crawford. In it Kathleen wakes and tells her beloved that she hopes to meet him someday again.

The song was often adapted into other forms: A poem by Tom Moore, a play by Dion Boucicault, and an unrelated series of silent films, the first dating back to 1906.

The Vamp as an Irish lass: Sheet music from Theda Bara's disastrous film inspired by the song.

The Vamp as an Irish lass: Sheet music from Theda Bara’s disastrous film inspired by the song.

Famous film vamp Theda Bara starred in a film named “Kathleen Mavouneen” in 1919, in which she played an Irish woman kidnapped by the “evil Squire of Tralee,” who forced her to wed him. The film’s representations of poverty in Ireland drew complains from Irish groups. Crowds rioted across the country, damaging theaters — reportedly some of the objections were that Bara was Jewish. The film was quickly pulled.

A lyric from the  song was paraphrased by James Joyce in “Ulysses,” in which Molly Bloom at one point says “May be for months and may be for never,” when the original song says “May be for years and maybe forever.”

The song was often recording; one of the earliest recordings was from Edison in 1911, sung by opera singer and silent movie actor Thomas Chalmers.

Irish-American Standards at a Glance: Where the River Shannon Flows

Where the River Shannon Flows

Where the River Shannon Flows

“Where the River Shannon Flows” was written by James Russell at the turn of the century. The song is copyrighted about 1906, but newspaper sources indicated Russel had performed it several years before it was published.

The Russel Brothers.

The Russel Brothers.

James Russell and his brother John were vaudevillians and performed a routine called “The Irish Servant Girls” in drag, which is where they debuted “The River Shannon.” Their performance was one of the first targeted by “The Society for the Prevention of Ridiculous and Pervasive Misrepresentation of the Irish Character,” an anti-defamation group  composed of 91 Irish organizations.

According to “Street Scenes: Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880-1924,” the Society’s tactics included “flooding the theater and drowning out offensive acts by catcalls, boos, hisses, and the singing of Irish songs while throwing objects such as eggs, potatoes and bricks.”

The brothers protested from the stage, reminding audiences that they were Irish-Americans as well and supported Irish causes. They also eliminated elements of the act that were deemed objectionable, and eventually changed the act altogether to Swedish girls.

Matt J. Keefe

Matt J. Keefe

Despite the controversy about the brothers’ act, the song proved to be popular. One of the first credited performers was Irish-born minstrel Matt J. Keefe, who was also famous for yodeling. Harry Macdonough, a prolific early recording artist, also recorded a version of the song for Edison in 1906.

Another early performance was by recording artist Henry Burr, born Harry Haley McClaskey, who was born in Canada and first toured with a Scottish repertoire. He moved to New York and started recording with Edison, and his repertoire quickly absorbed many Irish songs (he was likely Scots Irish). Novelty performer Tiny Tim would draw extensively from Burr’s recordings for his act.

Other recordings of the song were offered by Irish tenor John McCormack in 1913, several times by popular singer Morton Downey (“The Irish Nightingale”), and Irish singer Birdie Gallagher.

Irish-American Standards at a Glance: Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?

    All sorts of things were thrown into all sorts of things belonging to Mrs. Murphy.

All sorts of things were thrown into all sorts of things belonging to Mrs. Murphy.

“Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” was written in 1898 by George L. Giefer. Not much is known about Giefer, although a man of his name ran as a candidate for Congress in New York in 1906 as a socialist.

The song has long been both popular and criticized, both for it’s presentation of Irish as ready-to-fight and ignorant, and because the chorus includes “I can lick the mick that threw the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder.”

The song was recorded, perhaps for the first time, in 1901 by vaudevillian Edward M. Favor, famous for his “Irish-American piping tenor.” Favor had started performing as a boy, doing German dialect comedy, and then partnered with a man named Shields as “The Irish Emperors.” Favor was one of the first recording stars. In the early days of recording there was no process for duplicating records, and every single record was from a live performance; Favor was famous for doing as many as 50 recordings per day.

From the State Times Advocate, Thursday, June 17, 1954.

From the State Times Advocate, Thursday, June 17, 1954.

Despite the fact that the question in the title of the song is answered in the lyrics, through much of the mid-20th century it was treated as an unanswerable mystery, a stand-in for all questions that have no answers.

The song has been the subject of many parodies, including “Who Put the Hand Grenade in Mrs. Murphy’s Orangeade?” by Woody Herman and the Blue Flames in 1946.

Another satire was “Who Put the Benzadrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine” by stride and boogie woogie pianist Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, recorded in 1947. Depending on who you ask, the song was either unexpectedly popular or was banned from broadcast and sent Gibson’s career into a tailspin.

Bing Crosby recorded the song several times, first in 1947 and then again in 1956.

In 1957, future  Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, then a Massachusetts Representative, called for the song to be banned from broadcast. The circumstance was the broadcast of the Derby, when a Stephen Foster song with racist lyrics was replaced with “Mrs. Murphy.” He was joined by a number of Irish-American politicians. “I, as an Irishman, resent some of the words in the ‘Chowder’ song,” O’Neill was reported to have said in a meeting of the House Rules Committee.

Maureen O’Hara refused to sing the song at St. Patrick’s Day events, but it was less out of offense at the lyrics than a general refusal to sing Irish-American songs. Shen explained this to the Baton Rouge Advocate in 1962, saying “I don’t hear them over in Ireland. The Irish songs that are generally sung in American aren’t even Irish.”


The Seattle Daily Times in 1966 credited the song with the wide use of “Murphy” to represent small and questionable things, such as “Mrs. Murphy’s Boarding Houses,” meaning the “type of small businesses that should be exempt from the public accommodations provisions of a civil rights bill.” Another example: “Murphy game,” where a prostitute lures a victim into a place where they can be robbed by an accomplice.

Irish-American Standards at a Glance: Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra

Just a simple ditty.

Just a simple ditty.

“Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” was composed in 1913 for a Tin Pan Alley musical called “Shameen Dhu.” The show was scripted by Rida Johnson Young, herself an accomplished songwriter, and wrote the lyrics and book to “Naughty Marietta,” one of the great successes for composer Victor Herbert. The comedy told of an anonymous poet in Kincannon, Ireland, who goes by the pen name Shameen Dhu, meaning “Black Jamie”

The star of the show was Chauncey Olcott, the American Broadway star who specialized in Irish characters and who introduced the world to (and got writing credit for) “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Olcott made a recording of “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” in 1914, released through Columbia, and it became a number one hit. “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” have strikingly similar melodies, but Olcott’s recording of the former went mostly unnoticed.

“Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra’s” composer was J.R. Shannon, whose real name was James Royce, an Irish-American composer from Michigan who also wrote “The Missouri Waltz,” which later became the state song of Missouri. Shannon spent much of his life in Detroit, where he was a drama critic and managed several music businesses, before he died in 1946 by stepping in front of an oncoming train.

It's actually an Irish-American lullaby.

It’s actually an Irish-American lullaby.

The song found new popularity in 1944 when Bing Crosby performed it in the popular film “Going My Way.” Crosby released the song as a single, selling a million copies and spending 100 weeks on Billboard’s charts, reaching the #4 slot. In the late 60s, when Crosby was a guest on the Joey Bishop show. Bishop asked Crosby to sing the song for his sidekick, who was a fan of Crosby’s. The sidekick was a very young Regis Philbin, who is half Irish-American, and who performed one of Crosby’s own songs back to him. The following day Crosby helped Philbin get a recording contract at Mercury Records.

When Crosby was buried at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles in 1977, “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” was one of the songs played at the church service.

Even if the song was not originally Irish, many Irish musicians have either covered the song or borrowed from it. Van Morrison performed a version of the song with The Band, captured on the documentary “The Last Waltz.”

Dexys Midnight Runners: Too-Rye-Ay.

Dexys Midnight Runners: Too-Rye-Ay.

Dexys Midnight Runners, led by English songwriter Kevin Rowland (whose parents came from County Mayo), not only used the song as part of the chorus for their 1982 hit “Come On Eileen,” but named the album that featured it “Too-Rye-Ay.”

Shane McGowan, formerly of the Pogues, borrowed the song’s chorus for his song “A Christmas Lullaby,” recorded with his band The Popes.

Irish-American Standards at a Glance: When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Sure 'tis like a morn in spring.

Sure ’tis like a morn in spring.

“When Irish Eyes are Smiling” was composed in 1912 for “The Isle O’ Dreams,” a musical that debuted at New York’s Grand Opera House and told of Ireland’s response to Napoleon’s threat to use the island as an invasion point for England.

Singer and performer Chauncey Olcott.

Singer and performer Chauncey Olcott.

Star and Lyricist Chauncey Olcott was a former minstrel turned Broadway star. The son of Irish immigrants, he specialized in Irish roles. Olcott suggested a song about “Irish eyes” as the last song for the show. Olcott’s plays also introduced “My Wild Irish Rose” and other popular Irish standards. His life was the basis for the 1947 Warner Bros. motion picture “My Wild Irish Rose.”

Lyricist George Graff, Jr. was of New York Dutch and German stock, and he wrote the lyrics in less than three hours. “I’ve never wrote a song that fast,” Graff told a newspaper in 1960, “although I’ve published more than 400.”

Composer Ernest Ball, the second man associated with this song to have a film made of his life.

Composer Ernest Ball, the second man associated with this song to have a film made of his life.

Composer Ernest Ball was born in Cleveland to German parents, and wrote the music to the song overnight. Ball’s life was the basis for a 1944 musical film titled “Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Ball was the father of guitar-string manufacturer Ernie Ball and the grandfather of actress Hannah Marks. Both Graff and Ball were early founding members of ASCAP, which would serve them well, as they would continue to get royalties on “Irish Eyes” for the rest of their lives.

Irish tenor John McCormack; the song really took off when Irish people started singing it.

Irish tenor John McCormack; the song really took off when Irish people started singing it.

While the song was initially well-received, a recording of it failed to find an audience and the song went mostly unnoticed in America. However, according to Graff, the song caught on in Ireland, and around the time of World War I famous Irish tenor John McCormack recorded a popular version of the song.

The song quickly became a standard, enjoying innumerable cover versions. Graff claims that every aspiring Irish tenor on a popular 1930s radio show called the Major Bowes Amateur Hour sang the song. “The range of ‘Irish Eyes’ is only an octave and one,” Graff said, “but the quick climb and the big bravura at the finish gives the impression that the singer is tearing the roof off.”

"Duffy's Tavern": "Irish Eyes" was its theme song.

“Duffy’s Tavern”: “Irish Eyes” was its theme song.

In 1941, “Irish Eyes” became the theme song to “Duffy’s Tavern,” a radio comedy set in a New York Irish pub. The show ran on various networks until 1951.

Versions of the song have been released by Connie Francis, Roger Whittaker, and, most importantly, Bing Crosby. The song is often included in collections of Crosby’s Irish-themed melodies, cementing its reputation as one of the defining Irish-American popular songs.

The Shamrock Summit: Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney sing "Irish Eyes."

The Shamrock Summit: Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney sing “Irish Eyes.”

In 1985, American President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney met in Quebec on St. Patrick’s Day. The event became known as the “Shamrock Summit,” and, as both politicians had Irish ancestors, they concluded the summit by singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” for television cameras. The event was not well received, and historian Jack Granatstein complained that this “public display of sucking up to Reagan may have been the single most demeaning moment in the entire political history of Canada’s relations with the United States.”