Yes, the song is synonymous with Ireland. But did you know that it was written by a trio of songwriters that had only wee bit of Emerald Isle in their past? The song is an American creation with stronger ties to Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley than Dublin or Belfast.
Chauncey Olcott, George Graff, and Ernest Ball wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Olcott took up the Irish topic legitimately. His mother was Irish; she immigrated to America when she was a child, and Chauncey was born in upstate New York along the banks of the Erie Canal some years later. His songwriting partners were also born in the US, but unlike Olcott, they were not Irish. That’s not necessarily a big deal, though. Many songwriters and composers draw their musical influences from outside their own background. (Irving Berlin, widely known as one of the greatest American songwriters of all time, wrote “God Bless America” despite having been born in Belarus and “White Christmas” despite having been Jewish.)
The lack of Irish ancestry among the three writers was no reason to keep them from writing a song about Irish people, especially since Irish ballads and ditties were amazingly popular around the turn of the century. A few decades earlier, the Irish and all things Irish had been hugely unpopular among “native” Americans. But by 1900, being Irish had become cool. There was a huge market for Irish music, and professional songwriters like Olcott, Graff, and Ball, with an eye on the market rather than their ancestry, decided to cash in.
From the very beginning of our nation’s history, the Irish represented a significant portion of the British immigrants to America, but during the 1840s Irish immigration increased monumentally. The Irish Potato Famine (and a little push from the Irish government) forced hundreds of thousands to take flight to America. Earlier Irish immigrants had been a diverse lot, heading off to the New World for many different reasons, but this batch of immigrants were uniformly poor. Most were unskilled laborers and uneducated, and the sheer volume of Irish coming in—literally, “by the boatload”—left many “native Americans” alarmed. (We are clearly using the term “native Americans” ironically here.) They wondered if the United States could absorb so many immigrants. Would these poor, unskilled, and uneducated immigrants impose a drag on the American economy? What effect would so many Catholics have on the religious culture of America’s overwhelmingly Protestant population? (“My daughter wants to date an Irish boy! The horror!”)
Not all Americans resisted or feared the immigrants. After all, America has always been a land of immigrants. Many of those that did have concerns lashed out harshly, though, and sometimes violently. Businesses posted help-wanted ads with the reminder that “no Irish need apply.” Newspaper editorials predicted the rise of all sorts of social and economic problems. Cartoonists portrayed the Irish in ugly, stereotypical ways. Catholic churches, symbols of the immigrant threat, were even targeted for violence. In 1834, a convent was burned outside Charlestown, Massachusetts. In 1844, two Catholic churches were destroyed by nativist mobs in Philadelphia. Ever seen the movie Gangs of New York? You know, the one where Jack Dawson from Titanic basically goes to war against the last of the Mohicans? “Native” Americans vs. Irish immigrants.
More “civilized” critics of Irish immigration turned to the political process. These nativists proposed laws limiting immigration and redefining citizenship. Anti-immigration factions within both major political parties bolted to form their own party. This party was officially known as the Native American and then the American Party, but its critics dubbed it the “Know-Nothing Party,” based on the typical response given by nativists when asked about the activities of the secret organizations to which many belonged.
To be fair, the scope of Irish immigration did present some challenges. Between 1846 and 1855, roughly 1.5 million Irish came to the US, and the sheer volume placed a burden on the infrastructure of the eastern cities into which most moved. Insufficient and substandard housing forced immigrants into old, rat-infested buildings. Epidemics within these conditions were inevitable. Cholera, yellow fever, typhus, tuberculosis, and pneumonia were far more common among Irish city-dwellers than other sectors of the population. Crime rates were also higher. In 1859, 55% of all those arrested in New York City were Irish (although that statistic could be skewed as there were just so many of them).
Yet the reaction to the Irish immigrants was rarely shaped only by the facts. Most nativists rarely bothered to examine the larger social and economic problems that were at the heart of these urban problems. They simply didn’t like immigrants, Irish especially, and wanted them to go back to Europe where they came from. Similar sentiments can be seen all across the country today in response to the influx of Central and South American immigrants that have come to the United States in recent years.
Anti-Irish sentiment did not disappear overnight, but over the course of the 19th century, attitudes did slowly evolve. As the Irish dug in to their new homes, they gradually improved their economic position. By 1900, their earnings equaled those of the nativists, and they had established toeholds in several industries and occupations. Irish men held a disproportionate share of the jobs in certain urban services like the police and fire departments; and Irish women flocked to the teacher-training colleges of the Northeast. Sure, anti-Irish feelings persisted, but much of it was aimed at the strength, not the weakness of the Irish. For example, many natives resented the political power the Irish now wielded in cities like New York and Boston. (The Irish became so powerful in Boston in particular that the city once reelected an Irish American mayor who was being indicted for bribery. The man, James Michael Curley, spent several months in prison during his term of office.)
The commercial popularity of Irish ballads was thus part of the larger ascendance and acceptance of Irish Americans in the United States. When Olcott, Graff, and Ball wrote ”When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” they were aiming at a different audience than the one that filled music halls a half century earlier. This audience had slowly grown more comfortable with the Irish newcomers to America and appreciated the contributions that these immigrants had made to American life.
Unfortunately, many nativists found the Irish more acceptable because they had transferred their concerns to a different batch of immigrants. During the decades on either side of the turn of the century, “new immigrants” from Southern and Eastern Europe poured through Ellis Island. These Italians, Greeks, Poles, Slavs, and Jews seemed to represent a different sort of challenge. The Irish may have been poor, uneducated, and Catholic, but at least they spoke English and had fair complexions. These new immigrants spoke different languages, were often darker skinned, and were culturally more “foreign.” As a result, the Irish who had seemed so different and so dangerous 50 years earlier now seemed comparatively harmless. Despite their differences, they could be assimilated, but these others, these new immigrants, would never fit in—they would never overcome their foreignness and become truly American. (Obviously that wasn’t the case, but back then it was the end of the world. “Now my daughter wants to date an Italian boy! The horror!”)
There was both good and bad news lying behind the popularity of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” On the one hand, it demonstrated that America could absorb immigrants, even those deemed “different,” culturally and socially outside the mainstream. The song’s success demonstrated that, over time, residents with longer “American” pedigrees come to recognize what newcomers contribute rather than what they threaten. On the other hand, the hostility toward the new immigrants that existed alongside the popularity of Irish music suggested that the lesson would have to be learned over and over again. Even as non-Irish Americans sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” they didn’t seem to recall that just a few decades earlier the Irish had been hounded in the press, driven from the workplace, and condemned as a threat to American society. Nor did most Americans seem to translate their enthusiasm for Irish music into any sort of optimistic excitement about what the new immigrants pouring through Ellis Island would eventually contribute to American life.
Of course, eventually, even these new immigrants would be assimilated as well, and their music, art, and folk customs would become part of America’s cultural fabric. Which means that there is only question left unanswered: when will America’s new new immigrants be fully appreciated for what they can contribute rather than feared for what they seem to threaten?