Irish Identity via Music

Recently I explored identity with respect to music. With this I inquired into how Irish immigrants used traditional Irish music to create an identity in America. I myself feel some identity to Ireland. My grandmother is fully Irish and I have other relatives that are also heavily Irish. Through genealogy done by my mother, I know that I am around one-third Irish myself. So this topic is very interesting to me. My grandmother is Chicago-Irish and my discussion here is specific to the late 1800s Irish in Chicago as well as to American-Irish in general.

When the Irish first began to conjugate in America as immigrants they faced many challenges and persecution. To strengthen their standing in their new land they had to create an identity to hold them together as an ethnic group. This was more than just homeland pride; it was a means of survival. Many immigrants desired to maintain their ethnic background through traditional Irish music. In Chicago there was a split of Irish identities. Some Irish thought it best to blend their Irish ethnicity into the surrounding American culture. This was done most notably through adopting Catholicism. Many of the Catholic Irish saw the traditional Irish music of their homeland as outdated, unaccepted, unfashionable, and incompatible with the American-Chicago culture.1 In addition they found it useful to become nationalistic to the United States and create new American-Irish traditions – such as St. Patrick’s Day. This new type of Irish can be described as a hyphenated ethnic identity: i.e. Chicago-Irish.

In the late 1800s, there was still a significant amount of Irish immigrants who remained proud of their Irish homeland. They exemplified this through performance of traditional Irish music and dance. They intended to persist distinctly in their new cultural environment and they found this to be the most efficient means of doing so. Some also realized that they could lessen the cultural burden of being in Chicago with music. This was accomplished quite efficiently. They maintained true Irish jigs and reels as well as musical properties, including the instruments – such as the uillean pipes. What differed was the context. The music became a causeway between America and Ireland. Rather than using the music strictly for traditional means it became a medium to alleviate homesickness and create a nostalgic feeling of the homeland.1 Essentially, they saw their traditional music as a way of remaining connected to Ireland while existing in a new, and odd, culture.

Francis Walsh, a popular Irishman and political figure, wrote in a letter: “Each one of us has a memory of the dance at the cross-road, on the Sunday evening, or the merry gathering in the kitchen or barn, which we joined in long ago; and the merry strain of the bag-pipes will bring up these dear old memories, and we will once again in spring live in the old beautiful land, and be once more, among the pleasant and innocent boys and girls of dear old Ireland.” This is a good example of how the common Irish immigrant felt about their music and identity. They built a powerful identity to Ireland using their music. When an immigrant heard a good performance they felt a special connection and bond to their homeland. It was a means of medication and coping to the new American world.

This aroused a burning need to increase Irish music. Many Chicago-Irish were identifying their Irishness through Catholicism. Some Irish saw it a priority to bring traditional music up into the foreground. Many saw they could solve this cultural dilemma by combining Catholicism and Irish music. The melodies of Irish music emanate a spiritualistic sensation. This could be blended into church. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternal organization, informed of and performed Irish music at many of their events. Yet, they saw this as more of an American-Irish ethnic identity more so than an Irish homeland identity. It continued that many Irish chose Catholicism as their Irish identity rather than more traditional items such as Gaelic song, the Irish language, literary traditions, or most powerful of all: Irish folk music.

It must be said that the Catholic church of Chicago didn’t condemn Irish traditional music. The problem was how they allowed its application. They promoted pseudo Irish events. These events consisted of non-traditional Irish music and instruments that were deemed as Irish. Even pastors urged their congregations to show support for their native land and countrymen by attending these events labeled, “Irish Day”. “Irish Day” opened with “The Star-Spangled Banner”. This was defended by priests in that they claimed Irish need to honor their adoptive nation. The Catholic church of Chicago continued to urge Irish ‘to hold dear their Irish past but to embrace the American present.’

Consequentially, the ‘fanatic’ Irish took this Catholic intrusion as a serious attack on their ethnic identity. It spiked a nationalistic campaign amongst traditional Irish musicians. They began to emphasize their nationalism to the Celtic/Hiberian culture. They felt that the British Anglo-Saxon culture was trying to slowly assimilate them into nonexistence. Many Irish newspapers published in Chicago began to encourage Irish to proclaim their Sassenach descent. In a way, it was a rebellion against the American and Chicago identities that threatened to replace, or simply crush, their nationalistic Irish identities. An 1898 article in a popular Irish newspaper argued that Irish uniqueness must be maintained in America and that it seems to be slipping away and giving in to these other identities. It is very un-Celt-like to give into another culture. With this concept they analogized this cultural battle with that of what Ireland faced with the British. The cultural battle of Irish music versus America equivocates to the Celts versus the Saxons. The Irish culture meets conflict with the same type of cultural enemy on both sides of the Atlantic.

With this it is safe to say that many Irish found their traditional music and language to be a distinct marker of their cultural identity. It was used as a tool to rally the Irish immigrants and combat the oppression they faced by Americans. Many traditional Irish performances made very clear ties to Irish nationalism. The Irish used their performances to bring Ireland into Chicago. Many of the traditional Irish performances in Chicago mimicked those of Ireland. They were held in private homes, they were dance parties, and local musicians came to play their tunes. One performance was done at a Chicago corner butcher shop.

Nonetheless, the traditional Irish music did leak out into a more American setting. Some alterations that occurred were in the setting of traditional Irish performances. The stage shifted to concert halls. This really changed the context of the music. Rather than an engaging and expressive party with dancing, beer drinking, cheers and hollering, the atmosphere was silent and appreciative. Some even required paid admission. This was very unlike the traditional setting of Irish music. It is also a good example of the hybridization that was ever occurring between traditional Irish culture and American culture. Two Americans, William and Charles Taylor, furthered the transformation of Irish music to American culture when they created a concert uillean pipe. This version being much larger and tuned to D rather than the traditional B-flat or C-sharp.

Another example of the hybridized Irish culture was in the performance of traditional Irish music and holidays. In Ireland, holidays were a certain cause for celebration and music making. Especially in Pre-Famine Ireland, these holidays were based on agricultural occurrances, the traditional hunting of the wren, and various other events. After the Famine, and the Catholic penetration into Ireland, music was played for traditional events in addition to Catholic holidays.1 In the United States, Irish music no longer followed Irish holidays. It was played according to the local and American cultural events. The best example being St. Patrick’s Day. In Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day there was not much celebrating and music making; it was more of a solemn and respectful atmosphere. In The U.S. it was transformed into a beer drinking and musically festive event. The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration recorded in Chicago was in 1868 and was held by The Knights of St. Patrick.1 It was full of traditional Irish music and traditional Irish dancing. It was certainly a new means of creating a strong, Irish identity while accommodating to American culture and maintaining Irish nationalism. Unfortunately, by the 1890s traditional Irish music and dance had been pushed out of St. Patrick’s Day and was absorbed and diluted by American culture.

After the 1900s, true Irish traditional music was beginning to fade out. Yet, there were still resilient Irish who maintained their proud Celtic identity. Overall, traditional Irish music need not be pure to create an Irish identity amongst Irish Americans. It became easier to coalesce nationalistic Irish identity with an American identity. This was accomplished mostly by maintaining the love and authenticity of Irish music while creatively blending it with American traditions where appropriate. The original Hiberian cultural identity is powerful and proud. Those who identify with it can proclaim such with traditional Irish music.


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