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Old Mother Leary Introduction

In a Nutshell

There are few cows more famous than Catherine O’Leary’s. In 1871, as a giant fire swept through the city of Chicago, a newspaper published a rumor that was quickly embraced as fact: a clumsy cow started the fire.

Mrs. O’Leary’s cow quickly moved from the front page to the songbook. Sometime around the turn of the century (we don’t know exactly when), someone (we don’t know exactly who) turned the charges against Mrs. O’Leary and her cow into a song (though it shouldn’t surprise you at this point, we don’t know exactly why). Ever since, children in classrooms and at summer camps have paid tribute to the unfortunate couple by singing “Old Mother Leary.”

The song has become a part of American folklore, a rollicking fun tune often made even more enjoyable by singing it as a round and throwing in hand gestures. But all of the fun obscures a sadder truth: the Great Chicago Fire killed hundreds and displaced thousands. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow may now raise a chuckle, but in 1871 people wanted her turned into chuck roast.

In all fairness, though, did the cow really do it? Was the catastrophic fire of 1871 started when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern? Or was there some type of anti-bovine conspiracy at work in the implication of the infamous farm animal? You know us—we get to the heart of the big questions here at Shmoop.

About the Song

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“Old Mother Leary” commemorates one of the great tragedies in American history: the Chicago fire of 1871. In two days, the nation’s fifth largest city was reduced to rubble. Before that date, however, the city was one of the great success stories in American history. An isolated outpost when founded in 1829, Chicago first benefitted from the canal building boom of the 1830s and 1840s. Some goods flowed up the Great Lakes and then down the Erie Canal to New York while others were transported west via canal to the Mississippi River and ultimately New Orleans. Chicago next benefitted from the explosion of railroad construction during the 1850s and 1860s. By 1871, the Windy City was a transportation hub, tying the Midwest and the East Coast together within the same national market.

The 1871 fire brought this development to a halt, but only temporarily. The city was quickly rebuilt, and in 1893 Chicago accented its revival by hosting the Columbian Exposition, a six-month celebration of commerce and progress.

Not everyone prospered as Chicago rose from the ashes, though. Catherine O’Leary and her cow became hated scapegoats for the destructive fire, a public reaction fueled by the hostility toward Irish immigrants that plagued American cities throughout the century.

On the Charts

“Old Mother Leary” predates the modern method of charting popular music by several decades. Today it is mostly known as an American folksong enjoyed at camps and classroom sing-alongs.

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