Sentimental 19th-Century Irish-American Songs

The recent anniversary of the JFK assassination got me thinking about all things Irish-American, but especially all things Irish-American prior to the widespread availability of mass media.  The forty-odd years between the signing of the treaty and Kennedy’s visit to the old sod had been grim and drab and poor.  We were backward in so many ways.  We suffered from a national inferiority complex that we haven’t yet fully shaken off, though we sublimated the forelock tugging by transmuting it into an uncouth brashness that eventually gave us the disasters of the Celtic Tiger, but through it all,  we never stopped being suckers for a patronising word from a glamorous foreigner.

john f kennedy ireland

To the Irish of the mid-20th century, all foreigners were glamorous, even the tour-busloads of blue-rinsed grandmothers back to visit the homeland with their creaking old crimplene-clad husbands, so what must it have been like when the dashing young president, JFK, bestrode our world like a colossus?

I’m Irish, he told us, and we believed him, unlike the Berliners the previous day, when he told them he was a doughnut — Ich bin ein Berliner.

The entire Irish nation trembled before Kennedy’s  handsome, powerful charm and prepared to surrender its virtue to his tanned manliness in a collective act of sinful lust, but the truth is, all JFK wanted from us was more of the same Darby O’Gill cuteness that had enthralled previous generations of Irish-Americans, allowing them to remain secure in their diaspora bubble, imagining the Old Sod in a uniquely American, unchallenging way, devoid of complexity and nuance.

We were so accommodating that we even re-imported the ersatz, schmaltzy fake-Irishness that had been peddled to Irish-Americans and persuaded ourselves that it was somehow our own.  Who doesn’t remember some old uncle singing unmitigated saccharin nonsense like Goodbye Johnny Dear or The Garden Where The Praties Grow?  Shocking horseshit, you might agree, and yet this was the sort of tear-jerking sentimentality that sold big in the 19th century to a generation of Irish emigrants who were never going back to the old country.

But the very strange part of it, to my mind, is the way we re-imported these songs and began to sing them here, in our homes, as if they were the well-spring of Irish culture, as opposed to disposable dross, churned out by entertainers with an eye to an easy buck.  Why did Irish people do that?  How, in the 20th century, long after independence, did we continue to eschew genuinely traditional songs and replace them in our psyches with shallow musical doggerel?

Perhaps the answer is hinted at in the dramatic shrinkage of the Gaeltacht areas following independence.

With no external bogey-man to blame for that, maybe we’re finally forced to look to ourselves for explanations.  Maybe we desperately need the affirmation of outsiders and in the case of the Irish-Americans, though their reality might have been just as grim as ours, they were somehow seen as superior.  What Irish home didn’t at some time receive parcels from America?  There’s nothing unique in that, it’s true.  I’m quite sure that millions of Polish homes, Italian homes and German homes received the same parcels, but did those other nationalities demonstrate their gratitude by conforming to a national stereotype expected of them by their diaspora?  I don’t think so.

Maybe we adopt foreign ways, mannerisms and language because we don’t feel secure enough in our own skins.  After all, an entire generation of Irish people speaks with an accent that has its anchor-points somewhere between London and New York but with almost nothing in common with the accents of their grandparents.   Why did the Irish first abandon their language and then their local accents?  Answer that and you’ll unlock the secret to the entire Irish psyche.


Met Her In The Garden Where The Praties Grow 

Goodbye Johnny Dear 

Biddy Donoghue  

Shake Hands With Your Uncle Dan

Off To Philadelphia In The Morning

The Old Turf Fire

Barney Hare From The County Clare

The Dingle Puck Goat

Who hasn’t tried to keep a straight face at a family do when some old relative stepped up to the mike to sing one of these?   Please.  Kill me now.


Context is everything, however, and Johnny Patterson, the author of these schmaltzy, sentimental Irish-American songs, was a fascinating and rather tragic character.

Johnny was born in 1840 in Feakle, Co Clare and by the age of 14 had enlisted in the army where he learned to play an assortment of instruments.  He was a natural entertainer with a gift for engaging an audience, a clown,  and that’s how he caught the eye of Mr Pablo Fanque who took him on as a member of his travelling circus, or Pablo Fanque’s Fair, as John Lennon called it in Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite.

Johnny’s life knew tragedy.  Only a year after he returned from the USA having made a fortune from his songs, his wife died, and then he had to cope with the intolerable pain of losing his daughter, killed by an elephant in a circus.  Johnny took to the drink.

Finally, at the age of 49, Johnny himself died in a circus when a fight broke out during one of his songs — Do Your Best For One Another — in which he urged  peace between the two sides in the Home Rule debate.  Somebody who just happened to have brought a crowbar to the circus hit him over the head with it and Johnny died a few days later.

But not before leaving us a legacy of appalling, sentimental, sugary nonsense that many Irish people genuinely believe is their cultural heritage.

Let’s ponder on that.


7 thoughts on “Sentimental 19th-Century Irish-American Songs

  1. great article, its something Ive spoken about with friends myself, its all pretty sad.

    Personally I have to aim a little blame towards our schools, our history other than the feckin famine and 1916 is really all that is thought, theres more to us than that, and who wants to hang on to the famine as an identity? our culture other than the Irish language isnt really given any kind of spot light in schools either (nor RTE) or our fantastic mythology, bar maybe one or two lessons when we are very young, its never spoken about at all really, ask any child (or even adult) about Tir na Nog or Cu Chulainn and all you’ll get is a shrug. and many countless other things that count toward a nations identity.

    The majority of TV shows all through the years on IRISH TV have been American and British, and thats where I guess a lot of people have simply adopted whatever took their fancy since we had no Irish influence to base our own modern identity on

    only my opinion of course

  2. Bock,

    Being English, I have never understood the tendency of some/many Irish people to disparage all things Irish – particularly the language. Maybe such sentiments arose not because people weren’t secure in their own skin, but as an act of rebellion against the skin that was imposed upon them. Maybe the affection for American schmaltz and British television owed much to a spirit of independent thought? Here was something that could not be controlled by the theocracy – each movie, song and TV serial a blow against clericalism?

  3. Up until the executions of Pearse and co in Kilmainham in 1916 the majority in Ireland were happy with status quo of British rule. After independence the history taought in schools focused on the wrongs of the British rule era. 800 years of oppression, the famine, penal laws. There was no mention of the benefits of British rule, I’m not making it out to have been idyllic in any sense. So all this British were bad.

    Roll on the all things possible, wealthy image of the USA. The land of opportunity where everyone loved the Irish. All things American were good. There is never any mention of the sectarianism that the Irish experienced in the US. Hardly a peep of the thousands that died digging the New Orleans drainage. The Irish worked for a dollar a day because the locals wouldn’t risk the loss of an expensive slave.

    Along came Dev and took the entire country on a guilt trip that lasted until recently. I think we were ashamed of our stalag like society and grasped at anything that appeared modern or exotic and by extension showed Ireland to be modern if not exactly exotic.

  4. “Music Hall” is the reason these and other songs became popular, if it wasn’t Johnny Patterson it was Percy French, these songs got into the psyche and were dragged up at gatherings, likewise the Londoners will sing the likes of “My Old Man Said Follow The Van” etc etc and Yorkshire Folk will go for “On Ilkley Moor Baht’at”. Cultural heritage is another thing, people will believe any old shite play the Rolling Stones backwards and you can hear the devil. “Goodbye Johnny Dear” used to make my Grannie cry because 8 of her 10 children had to emigrate, there was no Ryanair in those days she was lucky to see them every four or five years, in the scheme of things it’s all harmless bollocks. I don’t think a song has ever been responsible for mass murder or genocide, but if I hear another singer or band introduce “Dirty Old Town” as a traditional Irish song there will be a public execution.

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