Hibernian Numbers: Irish Identity in Popular Song in the Early Twentieth Century

Immigration to America has always been an important component to American culture, but there is an era of history when making the choice of coming to America was not a matter of social preference, but one of life or death. During the summer of 1845, a disease in the Irish potato crop, which consisted of sixty percent of Irish diets, had destroyed crops and created a health calamity for three and a half million people on the island who relied on potatoes for food.[1] Immigration to the United States in total during this decade rose from 78,000 in 1844 to 428,000 in 1854; immigration statistics drop considerably beginning in 1855, when the Great Famine began to ease.[2] Trends in musical entertainment throughout the musical history of America have consequently been influenced by Celtic and Irish musical origins including bluegrass and folk music. During the Ragtime Era, specifically beginning in 1905, annual total immigration to the United States had grown to over one million people[3] and the social fabric and diversity of American had been changed forever. The Ragtime Era had a number of pop trends throughout the 1900s and 1910s like Coon songs, tech songs, Hawaiian songs and Foxtrots, but some of the most enduring and endearing songs came from the trend in Irish songs.Songs like “Danny Boy” (1908), “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (1912) and “Mother Machree” (1911) were not only some of the biggest selling sheet music and records of their relative year, but they continue to be sung and remembered fondly over a century later.

The Irish song trend of the early twentieth century was not only popular, it has the distinction of being one of the very few sub-genres of pop song in which the specific nationality of a population is the main focus of song lyrics. While Coon songs of the era focused on ethnicity, nationality plays an integral role in all aspects of Irish songs. This form of identification in Hibernian songs gives not only Irish description of people, but also geographical context of immigrants away from a land of origin; this identification of nationality is accomplished in various methods in these songs. There are some songs which tell a story of an Irish stereotype for comical effect in a similar manner that Coon songs described African Americans; the purpose of these Irish caricatures was for comical relief. When reviewing the biggest selling songs, the most popular and well-remembered songs reflect national identity in their wistfulness for the old country, express confident identity in their nationality and even share romantic memories and outright homesickness of their characters’ returning to the Emerald Isle. This identity is also articulated in the few nationalist songs in which an independent Ireland has an intellectual advantage of other powerful countries; some lyrics even express angry protest of British rule and oppression.What sets apart Irish songs from other trends of the early twentieth century is that the Irish quality of characters and their distinct point of view are the main features of the songs and that Irish identity, no matter how minute or exaggerated in scope, is always part of the song’s central point.

During the early days of Tin Pan Alley genres like Coon songs or Indian songs like “Navajo” (1904) or “Oglalla,” (1908), genres where a person’s identity is the characteristic feature of the song, often depict this identity by racial caricature. Irish people were also part of stereotyping in pop song, usually comic songs featuring anecdotal situations and stories to get a description of how “the Irish race” acts. Such a stereotype in Irish genre is that of the “Mick,” whose love of physical altercation, drink and boastful Irish pride often lead to compromising and farcical situations, usually told in comical narrative and dialect. Irish stereotyping was nothing new to entertainment by the 1890s, after Irish immigrants came to the United states in the 1840s and 1850, so-called “Paddy actors” brought Irish caricatures to the stage and even popular Irish singer John McCormack began his entertainment career bringing these caricatures to the stage.[4] In the 1889 comic song “Down Went McGinty,” the title character’s feisty personality leads to trouble again and again including falling from a stone wall, burial beneath a pile of coal, and even to his suicide by drowning; all the while “dressed in his best Sunday clothes.”[5] Another comical Mick song, written by George M. Cohan in 1896, “Hugh McCue (You Mick You)” has the title character in a furious altercation with Timmy Murphy, who taunts McCue with the refrain:

Hugh McCue, you Mick, you

You can bet your bottom dollar I can lick you;

Oh, you Mick, I’m going to kick you.

With a knife I’m going to stick you.

I can lick you, Hugh McCue, you Mick, you.[6]

The confrontation is so violent that McCue eventually beats Murphy to death. But there are some songs which are more light-hearted about the stereotypes of the Mick. In the song “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” from 1898, an attendee at a party throws a violent tantrum after finding overalls in the chowder, but after it is revealed that Mrs. Murphy left them there accidentally after washing laundry, the party subsequently breaks into celebratory refrain of the song.[7] It should be noted that the term Mick, although a racial slur today, was an easy rhyming mechanism for lyricists, note the Cohan refrain above, and that such songs were largely for comical effect to tell a humorous story; they were not intended to be taken too seriously and the caricature nationality of the people were meant for entertainment.

On the other hand, songs of a more popular topic, love, have few such caricatures of the Mick and, in fact, in some love songs, Irish nationality is merely a passing description to give lyrical context of the people in the song, not as a source of nationality stereotype of Irish identity. Unlike the comical Mick songs, which brought Irishness to caricature proportions, there is nothing remarkably Irish about love songs. The song “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” from 1896 for example, the title name is of Irish extraction, but there is, however, no inclusion of the word Irish at all in any verse or refrain.[8] Another song, one which also has an Irish love named Rose, “My Wild Irish Rose” from 1899, is more about the character’s expression of love for Rose and the memory of a flower “given to me by a girl that I know”[9] than it is about Irish identity and nationality. A mega-hit from 1903, “Bedelia,” has more detailed description of Irish identity than other love songs; its first verse contains descriptions which are based on Irish geography instead of personal Irish qualities of the object of affection Bedelia,

There’s a charming Irish lady with a roguish winning way,

Who has kept my heart a bumpin’ and a jumpin’ night and day,

She’s a flower from Killarney with a Tipperary smile,

She’s the best that ever came from Erin’s Isle.[10]

But love songs, even Irish loves songs are meant to express love and it appears as though, even when a character’s nationality is part of the environment of the lyrics, love is the central focus, not a character’s national identity. As ubiquitous as love songs are, the Irish version of them has little emphasis on the Irishness of the people in the lyrics and more focus on ideas of romance.

Romanticism included in Hibernian songs is not restricted to love, but also romanticism for the old country of Ireland, and sometimes geography and sentimentality combine to describe situations of lost loves who may still reside in the old country. Such songs are likely to attract the attention of recent Irish immigrants in the United States, some of whom were likely wistful for life in the old country. In these cases, there is more emphasis on nationality as an identity in the sentimental outlook of life in Ireland. An example of old country romanticism can be found in “Where the River Shannon Flows” from 1906, in which a character travels from the new country and returns to a girl in the old country, bridging the romanticism of Ireland and love by describing what will happen when the two separated loves eventually meet,

There’s a pretty spot in Ireland I always claim for my land

Where the fairies and the blarney will never, never die

It’s the land of the shillalah My heart goes back there daily

To the girl I left behind me when we kissed and said goodbye[11]

Romanticism for Ireland is also found in “A Little Bit of Heaven,” a rather fantastic story which narrates the creation of the island, with the land being sprinkled with stardust and then settled by angels.[12] Romanticism and nostalgia for times past in Irish songs, themes which are also found in some sentimental waltz ballads of the 1890s, also use geography as identity by reminiscing about childhood in Ireland and of being comforted by mother; Irish mothers consequently play an important part of this sentimental view of Ireland. In the 1905 hit “Mother Machree” a character shows obliged appreciation for his ageing mother and of all that her fingers “so toil-worn”[13] have done. Another mother song, 1913’s “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (An Irish Lullaby),” a character shares sentimental, comforting memories of childhood in Killarney, and the chorus of the song is composed of the melody of the lullaby that he had heard in childhood, describing it as “just a simple little ditty,” and that he’d “give the world if she could sing that song to me this day.”[14] Such romanticism is unique to songs tying personal identity to geography since it is for a foreign land by people who no longer live there, a topic which may have been popular with recent immigrants to the United States.

Related to the romanticism expressed by some Irish songs of love and of Ireland, there are others where characters feel longing homesickness for Ireland and a desire to go back to the old country. Romantic songs represent remembrances of the old country, but lyrics with homesick characters, describe themselves as physically wanting to return to Ireland since it is the place where their hearts are. In the song “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers” from 1909, an song of Jim O’Shea getting cast away on an “Indian Isle” where he enjoys a high life of luxury. After he sends for his wife Rose Magee to join him, and after her arrival, she pines for a return to the Emerald Isle despite the luxurious surroundings.[15] In “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary” from 1912, a man in the busy centre of London where “the street are paved with gold,” pines for his girl who will likely marry another if he does not go back to Tipperary. Even though there is obligation in his returning, there is genuine homesickness and the character notes that “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary/But my heart’s right there!”[16] “Where the River Shannon Flows” also expresses a character whose heart and love remain in the old country and he declares that he will go back to his homeland “where the fairies and the blarney will never, never die”[17] and in “A Little Bit of Heaven,” there are constant reminders of just how geographically distant Ireland is, presumably from the United States.[18] Homesick songs like these show that, as songs written about foreign people in new lands, they are examples where characters’ nostalgia and homesickness for Ireland, but not for unfortunate circumstances or bad experiences in a new place.

With nationality and Irish identity as the focus of Irish songs, so is the distinct pride in being Irish and while there are examples of an Irishman’s character being boastfully proud of their heritage in songs containing caricatures like in “Down Went McGinty,” in later songs, this pride is undemonstrative for the sake of admiration, not comedy. For example, the 1906 George M. Cohan song “Harrigan,” from the musical Fifty Miles from Boston, introduces the title character as genuinely nice and extremely proud of his Irish heritage; the first verse brings out these ideas, note that a chorus shouting his name according to the sheet music,

Who is the man who will spend or will ever lend?-(Harrigan!)-That’s me!

Who is your friend when you find you need a friend?-(Harrigan!)-That’s Me!

For I’m just as proud of my name, you see

As an emperor, czar or king could be

Who is the man help a man ev’ry time he can?-(Harrigan!)-That’s Me![19]

When Jim O’Shea was cast away in the song “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers,” “the natives there they liked his hair, They liked his Irish smile” so they made him “The Nabob of them all,”[20] then they lavish him with expensive gifts based solely on his Hibernian features. The very basic characteristic of Irish laughter and appearance can melt the whole world away according to the 1902 waltz “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” in which all things Irish are beautiful and awe-inspiring, describing Ireland as a land from which one would be proud and that Irish features and identity equate beauty.[21] However, one dissenting example in which it does not matter what nationality you are or how much pride you have, came from George M. Cohan, writer of “Harrigan.” In his 1907 best-selling march “Under Any Old Flag At All,” the refrain explains that nationality does not matter in the financial scheme of modern America.  

Makes no different if you’re Yankee, English, Irish, Scotch or Dutch,

If your bank checks there and it’s on the square,

You needn’t care if you’re here or there;[22]

Along with songs about a people from a geographically different place feeling sentimentality, there are also Irish songs in which people within their lyrics are proud of their nationality and their Irish extraction.

However the fact remained, no matter the romanticism or pride in Hibernian songs, in the early twentieth century, up until 1922 after the Ragtime Era had ended, Ireland was not an independent nation, it was a part of the United Kingdom ruled from London, and within a genre specifically about Irish identity come stentorian, yet infrequent, protests for Irish nationalism, particularly when calls for Irish independence escalated into violence during the later 1910s. Waltzes and marches were beautiful, sentimental and nostalgic, but nationalist songs made a statement to audiences about the reality of the political status of the Irish in Ireland. In these songs, there is also a collective treatment of Irish people in pop songs, instead of individual feelings of romanticism and memory. There is a slight reach beyond individual pride toward a more collective form of nationalism in the song “A Little Bit of Heaven” with the line “No wonder that we’re proud of that dear land across the sea,”[23] note the collective use of the subject pronoun we and the location of Ireland across the sea from the United States. But there are other examples in which pride goes beyond feelings of being Irish and toward a nationalism of Ireland. One such song, “It Takes the Irish to Beat the Dutch” from 1903, discusses the relative military might of powers Germany and Great Britain, yet the tenacity and whit of Irishmen will always beat both at their own game according to the song.[24] A scathing song of later origin in 1917 from composer Victor Herbert, “The Irish Have a Great Day To-Night” from the musical The Heart of Erin, openly discussed topic of oppression of Irish and the status of Ireland as independent from Great Britain,[25] part of a growing support of Irish Home Rule, with American Irish during World War I supporting Ireland becoming an independent republic.[26] While there are few instances of pop songs of the era expressing political views on the status of Ireland as a nation and the Irish as a collective people of collective origins, by World War I, nationality was turning into Irish nationalism.

During the middle of the Ragtime Era, a popular trend in Irish songs became one of the biggest-selling sheet music and recordings of the times. Recordings of “Harrigan,” “I’ve Got Rings on My Finger,” “Mother Machree,” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” became number on hits on the early Billboard charts.[27] Irish songs like these are different from other pop songs of the era in that they are specifically about being Irish, and their lyrics give social context to Irish identity and nationality in the United States including emotions ranging from longing and homesickness for the old country to enthusiastic pride in characters’ Irish heritage. The range of Irishness in songs is also quite wide from love songs in which Irish nationality is inconsequential to Mick song in which Irish personality traits are enlarged to caricature status, both of which are very different extremes for the genre. But what all of these songs say is that Irish nationality and identity for the characters in the songs is not only a particularly special topic, it is the feature which sets apart Hibernian songs from other genres of the times. Certainly some songs of this era have become standards in Irish song, still popular with audiences over a century after their publication.


Barrett, James R. The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City. New York: Penguin Publishers. 2012.

Coogan, Tim Pat. Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora. New York: Plagrave. 2002.

Quinn, Peter. “The Triumph of Bridget Such-a-One.” Contained in Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press. 2007. 211-230.

Joel Whitburn. Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music. Menomonee Falls, WI. 1986.

The World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1911. New York: The Press Publishing (New York World). 1910.

Song List

Ball, Ernest R (music) and Chauncey Olcott and George Graff Jr (lyrics). When Irish Eyes are Smiling. New York: M Witmark & Sons. 1902.

Ball, Ernest R. (music) and J. Kiern Brennan (lyrics). A Little Bit of Heaven (Shure They Call It Ireland). New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1914.

Cohan, George M. Harrigan. Contained in Fifty Miles from Boston. New York: F.A. Mills. 1906.

——-. Hugh McCue (You Mick You). New York: Spaulding & Grey. 1896.

——-. Under Any Old Flag At All. New York: F.A. Mills. 1907.

Flynn, Joseph. Down Went McGinty (Dressed in his Best Suit of Clothes). Brooklyn, NY: Spaulding & Kornder. 1889.

Geifer, George L. Who Threw the Overall’s in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder. Chicago, IL: Calumet Music Co. 1898.

Herbert, Victor (music) and Henry Blossom (lyrics). The Irish Have a Great Day To-Night. Contained in The Hearts of Erin. New York: M Witmark & Sons. 1917.

Judge, Jack and Harry Williams. It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary (The Song They Sing as they March Along). New York: Chappell & Co. 1912.

Morse, Theodore (music) and Edward Madden (lyrics). It Takes the Irish to Beat the Dutch. New York: Howley, Haviland and Dresser. 1903.

Nugent, Maude. Sweet Rosie O’Grady. New York: Jos. W. Stern & Co. 1896.

Olcott, Chauncey. My Wild Irish Rose. New York: M. Witmark & Son. 1899.

Olcott, Chauncey and Ernest R Ball (music) and Rida Johnson Young (lyrics). Mother Machree. New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1905.

Russell, James I. Where the River Shannon Flows. New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1906.

Schwartz, Jean (music) and William Jerome (lyrics). Bedelia. New York: Shapiro, Remick and Company. 1903.

Scott, Maurice (music) and Weston & Barnes (lyrics). I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers (Mumbo Jumbo Jijjiboo J. O’Shay). New York: T.B. Harms & Francis, Day & Hunter. 1909.

Shannon, J.R. Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s An Irish Lullaby). New York: M. Witmark & Sons. 1913.


[1] Peter Quinn, “The Triumph of Bridget Such-a-One,” contained in Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America, (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2007), 214.

[2] Immigration into the United States, 1822-1910, contained in The World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1911, (New York: The Press Publishing (the New York World), 1910), 184.

[3] Immigration by countries in fiscal years 1909 and 1910, contained in The World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1911, (New York: The Press Publishing (the New York World), 1910), 184.

[4] Tim Pat Coogan, Wherever Green is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora, (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 355.

[5] Joseph Flynn, Down Went McGinty (Dressed in his Best Suit of Clothes), (Brooklyn, NY: Spaulding & Kornder, 1889).

[6] George M. Cohan, Hugh McCue (You Mick You), (New York: Spaulding & Grey, 1896).

[7] George L. Geifer, Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder, (Chicago, IL: Calumet Music Co, 1898).

[8] Maude Nugent, Sweet Rosie O’Grady, (New York: Jos. W. Stern & Co, 1896).

[9] Chauncey Olcott, My Wild Irish Rose, (New York: M. Witmark & Son, 1899).

[10] Jean Schwartz (music) and William Jerome (lyrics), Bedelia, (New York: Shapiro, Remick and Company, 1903).

[11] James I. Russell, Where the River Shannon Flows, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1906).

[12] Ernest R. Ball (music) and J. Kiern Brennan (lyrics), A Little Bit of Heaven (Shure They Call It Ireland), (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1914).

[13] Chauncey Olcott and Ernest R Ball (music) and Rida Johnson Young (lyrics), Mother Machree, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1905).

[14] J.R. Shannon, Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s An Irish Lullaby), (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1913).

[15] Maurice Scott (music) and Weston & Barnes (lyrics), I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers (Mumbo Jumbo Jijjiboo J O’shay), (New York: T.B. Harms & Francis, Day & Hunter, 1909).

[16] Jack Judge and Harry Williams, It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary (The Song They Sing as They March Along), (New York: Chappell & Co, 1912).

[17] Russell, Where the River Shannon Flows.

[18] Ball and Brennan, A Little Bit of Heaven.

[19] George M. Cohan, Harrigan, Contained in Fifty Miles from Boston, (New York: F.A. Mills, 1906).

[20] Scott, Weston & Barnes, I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers.

[21] Ernest R. Ball (music) and Chauncey Olcott and George Graff Jr (lyrics), When Irish Eyes are Smiling. (New York: M Witmark & Sons, 1902).

[22] George M. Cohan, Under Any Old Flag At All, (New York: F.A. Mills, 1907).

[23] Ball and Brennan, A Little Bit of Heaven.

[24] Theodore Morse (music) and Edward Madden (lyrics), It Takes the Irish to Beat the Dutch, (New York: Howley, Haviland and Dresser, 1903).

[25] Victor Herbert (music) and Henry Blossom (lyrics), The Irish Have a Great Day To-Night, Contained in The Hearts of Erin, (New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1917).

[26] James R. Barrett, The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, (New York: Penguin Publishers, 2012), 253-254.

[27] Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music, (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc, 1986), 642-646.


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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

One response to “Hibernian Numbers: Irish Identity in Popular Song in the Early Twentieth Century”

  1. Jessie says :

    In awe of that anwers! Really cool!

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