Study Guide

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling Introduction

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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 U.S. 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

Writer(s)Chauncey Olcott and George Graff (lyrics), Ernest Ball (music)
Learn to play

Music Video


Influences on N/A

“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” was influenced by the popular vaudeville-era songs of Tin Pan Alley and the ballads that many immigrants brought over with them from Ireland. In turn, it influenced other American singers and songwriters interested in combining Irish heritage with American culture.

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling Resources


Jay Dolan, The Irish Americans: A History (2008)
Dolan, a Notre Dame professor, has written a book that is both comprehensive and—at less than 400 pages—fairly manageable. The basic plot is well known: potato famine refugees rise to middle class respectability and political and cultural power. Dolan adds interesting details and his own authority to the story.

Sean Williams, Focus: Irish Traditional Music (2009)
This book begins with an interesting exploration of Irish music and its origins and characteristics. From there it moves to an examination of the international dissemination and influence of this music.


Chauncey Olcott
The songwriter with his non-Irish setter

Ernest Ball
The man who co-wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” wrote several other Irish ballads, including "Mother Machree."

Nativism in the Press
An anti-Irish cartoon from the 19th century

Anti-Irish Stereotypes
An 1867 cartoon

Irish Peasants
Poverty and famine forced 1.5 million Irish to immigrate to the America between 1846 and 1855.

Movies & TV

Gangs of New York (2003)
In terms of historical accuracy, the film is far from perfect, but the visuals are terrific. You will never forget Daniel Day-Lewis walking the Five Points in his Sunday best.

The Molly Maguires (2004)
As with most Hollywood films, this one is more interested in drama than historical accuracy. But the Molly Maguires were real, and the conditions they challenged were horrific. You may be inspired to hunt down the equally dramatic but less sensational real story.

Out of Ireland (1995)
This is a solid documentary that explores the before and after of Irish immigration: the conditions that prompted the exodus of more than a million people and the struggles and achievements that followed their arrival in America.

On this fun site you’ll find everything from the number of Irish residing in California to a list of Irish blessings. Plus you will be serenaded as you tour.

Traditional Irish Music
For the fan of Irish music, this site is invaluable. It provides links to information on festivals, fiddle and harp makers, magazines, workshops, and a whole lot more.

Video & Audio

“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” John McCormack
McCormack, perhaps the greatest Irish tenor of the 20th century, recorded this around 1920.

“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” Bing Crosby
Der Bingle also scored a hit with the ballad.

“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” The Irish Tenors
Finbar Wright, Anthony Kearns, and Ronan Tynan perform the song.

“My Wild Irish Rose”
Chauncey Olcott wrote this song about a decade before he co-wrote “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

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