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When Irish Eyes Are Smiling Introduction

In a Nutshell

“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” is an Irish ballad from 1912. Somewhat surprisingly, it was written by three Americans, only one of which had any Irish blood. Even more surprisingly, it was tremendously popular in the United States. Just a few decades earlier, the Irish had been tremendously unpopular. The more than one million Irish immigrants who reached the US during the 1840s and 1850s had left many older residents fretting that this massive wave of poor, uneducated Catholics would destroy American society. By 1900, everybody was singing Irish songs and celebrating Irish smiles.

So what happened between the 1840s and 1900? Is there an explanation for this remarkable transformation in American attitudes? What might this song’s story tell us about immigration today?

About the Song

Artist Musician(s)
Writer(s)Chauncey Olcott and George Graff (lyrics), Ernest Ball (music)
Learn to play: http://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/e/ernest_r_ball/when_irish_eyes_are_smiling_crd.htm
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Shmoop Connections

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“When Irish eyes Are Smiling” was just one of dozens of Irish songs that became popular in America at the turn of the 20th century. It began with the massive wave of Irish immigrants that reached America during the 1840s and 1850s. Driven by poverty and the Irish Potato Famine, 1.5 million Irish settled in the US over a ten-year period. Their poverty, their religion, and their numbers frightened many “native” Americans, prompting the rise of anti-immigrant political movements

But the song was written and became popular at a time when the Irish were no longer struggling newcomers. In fact, by 1900 the Irish had dug out a solid place in the American economy and exercised significant political power in America’s cities. For example, in New York, the Irish political machine known as Tammany Hall dominated city politics for close to 60 years.

Anti-immigrant sentiments persisted, but they were directed primarily at the “new immigrants” from Southern and Eastern Europe. Ironically, the popularity of Irish music, which signaled an acceptance of Irish immigrants, came at a time when America’s newest immigrants were being told that they would never fit in. While Americans implicitly celebrated diversity by singing Irish ballads, they debated the imposition of severe limitations on immigration. These limitations—the immigration acts of 1921 and 1924—would curb diversity by reducing the percentage of newcomers from outside Northern and Western Europe.

Even though Americans were singing Irish songs in the early parts of the 20th century, it still took a while for the Irish to be truly accepted within American culture. When John Fitzgerald Kennedy, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, ran for President in 1960, people were worried that he might be more worried about pleasing the Pope than the public. However, once he was elected and proved to be a strong and loyal President, Americans finally embraced Irish Americans as proper members of culture and society.

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