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 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.