In the New World, where so many million sons and daughters of Erin landed from the 17th century on, music was a way to remember what they had left behind as well as to celebrate their new lives.
Steeped in the Celtic tradition of storytelling, music is as much a part of being Irish in America as eating corned beef and cabbage or quaffing Guinness on St. Patrick's Day.
Whether it's a jaunty jig, or a tear-jerker like “Danny Boy,” or a strident anti-British call to arms like “Off to Dublin in the Green,” music is a matter-of-fact part of life for the 40 million Americans who claim Irish heritage.
But for singer and folklorist Mick Moloney, the songs also tell the history of an immigrant group that was not always welcome in the new land, even though they helped build its roads and railways, sweated in its mines and factories and even died on its Civil War battlefields.
“No Irish Need Apply,” was a common sign on factory gates in the 19th century, and for years, Hollywood movies perpetuated a certain image of the Irish with over-the-top portrayals of drunken, clueless Irish cops and politicians.
The very nickname of one of America's most revered seats of academia and sports, the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, is “The Fighting Irish” with a mascot of a red-haired leprechaun with his dukes up.
“We are still caricatured but we have come up the social ladder,” said Moloney, who teaches at New York University, but also sings and plays banjo, mandolin and guitar on a new CD, “Far From the Shamrock Shore: The Irish-American Experience in Song.” Now, it is the new immigrants from Asia or Latin America who are treated as the Irish were back then, he said in a recent interview.
The album on the Shanachie label, with a companion book by Moloney, is a collection of 17 songs by the Irish in America, from simple love songs to work songs to popular Vaudeville songs, most tinged with the mournful feeling of loss.
“Perhaps because (British) colonialism restricted our available means of expression for centuries, we have chosen to store some of our most profound cultural memories in song rather than in other ways,” said Moloney.
“Some of the most powerful and moving songs in the national repertoire are on the theme of emigration; whether it be caused by famine, poverty, a broken heart, a sense of adventure, banishment or political persecution.”
“Skibereen,” which Moloney calls “the grandaddy of all emigration songs,” tells of probably the most defining event in Irish emigration history - the so-called potato famine of 1845-49, in which 1.5 million people starved and another million left for America when a fungus killed four consecutive crops of potatoes.
Moloney sings the haunting melody, written decades after the famine, about a young boy who asks his father why he came to America. It tells of how 80 percent of the town of Skibereen in West Cork perished.
Moloney explains why the event is still ingrained in the minds of many Irish-Americans and fuels an animosity toward Britain that is as virulent today as it was 150 years ago.
“A combination of indifference, incompetence, prejudice and greed helped ensure that the famine victims did not receive the kind of assistance that would have been extended to mainland British citizens.
“As people lay dying all over Britain's closest colony, livestock and grain were being exported to England daily to pay rents and taxes,” he said.
If the potato famine is one of the most well-documented Irish-American experiences, Moloney found others, like mining in Appalachia or the Civil War, which were less known.
“I actually learned a lot, exploring something new,” Moloney said of his research. “I was unprepared for the sheer extent of songwriters over here.
“By the time of the Irish-American wave (of the second half of the 19th century), actual Irish traditional music had fallen by the wayside,” he said. That's when singers and musicians on this side of the Atlantic came into their own.
The vast majority of songs reflected the movement from rural to urban life, said Moloney. “Lots of songs were written about coal mining or the railways and of course the Civil War.
“And there are also the songs about leaving or arriving -- the cult of nostalgia.”
One song he includes on the album is “Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade,” which tells of the 69th Union regiment, which saw action at the first battle of Bull Run and at Fredericksburg in Virginia.
Veterans of the 69th then formed The Irish Brigade, led by Brig. Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher, who had actually been sentenced to death by the British for his part in the 1848 rebellion. (It was commuted to exile in Tasmania.) The Brigade fought at Antietam and Gettysburg, often under the Irish harp banner as well as the Stars and Stripes, and with a sprig of green in their bonnets.
“Many of the songs, such as 'Pat Murphy of the Irish Brigade,' expressed the hope that the sacrifice of these brave young Irishmen would not be forgotten while their countrymen back in the homeland still struggled for their freedom,” said Moloney.
Their service did a lot too, to quell anti-Irish sentiment in America and help their own families gain acceptance in the United States.
Moloney, who tours small theaters and colleges to sing the songs, said the Irish were not the only immigrants to feel the pain of leaving their homeland.
“Certainly it wasn't just the Irish alone, there was a surge in sentimental songs in the United States (in the 19th century). Loss of country and songs about lost innocence in America, too.
“At first it was not very nostalgic, but as more and more were doing it, it tended to mythologize what was left behind.”
Written By Steve James