Searching For the Irish in "Irish" Songs

The "Pluck" of the Irish

It's been 10 years now since we've featured an article about Irish songs (March 2002). Since March 17th is St. Patrick's Day, and in honor of our new green color scheme, we decided it was time to revisit the subject of songs about Ireland, or those that claim to be. A Google search for "Irish Songs" will take one to a considerable number of sites that list titles of "traditional" Irish tunes. While many are, in fact, songs whose origins go back hundreds of years and are derived from Irish folk music, one will also find listed songs which have been "appropriated", but which were not written either in Ireland or by Irish composers. This is not intended in any way as a criticism. It's quite natural for groups to appropriate a hit tune and make it their own. Some of these songs were deliberately written to appeal to the large community of Irish immigrants in America. Others, however, may surprise you as to their true origins.

What's In a Name?

Even if the word "Irish" or Ireland" appears in the song title, it is difficult to determine the tune's true origin, partly because of the use of assumed names (pseudonyms) by composers. In some cases, the reason for the use of such an assumed name is lost to history. An example was the use of "Alice Hawthorne" by the composer of Whispering Hope, Septimus Winner, in 1868. In others, the reason may be inferred. Perhaps the name change was to make a foreign name more "American", thereby making it easier to pronounce and remember. In the case of Irish songs, most likely the composer wanted to present an Irish sounding name in hopes of making the song more sellable. It may have also been due to ethnic prejudices. The use of assumed names was not confined to the Tin Pan Alley era, however. Here are some examples of similar name changes from more contemporary times:

Fred Astaire's real name was……………. Frederick Austerlitz

George Gershwin's real name was………… Jacob Gershowitz

Liberace's real name was…………………. Wladziu Lee Valentino

Walter Matthau's real name was…………. Walter Matuschanskayasky

Conway Twitty's real name was………….. Harold Lloyd Jenkins Engelbert

Humperdinck's real name was…............... Arnold George Dorsey

To enjoy the full musical experience, we recommend that you get the Scorch plug in from our friends at Sibelius software. The Scorch player allows you to not only listen to the music but to view the sheet music as the music plays and see the lyrics as well. Each month we also allow printing of some of the sheet music featured so for those of you who play the piano (or other instruments) you'll be able to play the music yourself. It's a complete musical experience! Get the Sibelius Scorch player now.

Note: Due to a problem with both Sibelius and Google, the Scorch player will only work in MSIE and Firefox browsers, not Google Chrome

Richard G Beil, March 2012. This article publishedMarch 2012 and is Copyright © 2012 by Richard G. Beil and The Parlor Songs Academy. Text, images or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission of the author..


Listen to this wonderful old song (Scorch format, be patient, long load time due to graphics)

Listen to MIDI version


Sheet music coverMother Machree


Music by: Ernest R. Ball, Chauncey Olcott Lyrics by: Rida Johnson Young

Although Chauncey "My Wild Irish Rose" Olcott's ancestors came from Ireland, Ernest Ball was of English descent and was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Even though it doesn't mention Ireland in the lyrics, it is the dialect in concert with the tune that clues the listener in on the nature of this song. It was this collaboration with Olcott and Young that made his fame, and led to the same team writing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling two years later. In 1914, Ball would team with J. Kiern Brennan and write what is perhaps the most famous of all Irish ballads A Little Bit of Heaven (Shure They Call It Ireland). Like Olcott, Brennan was of Irish extraction, but he was born in San Francisco. In 1915, Ball would follow with She's the Daughter of Mother Machree (March 2002 article). However, that tune would not enjoy the same popularity as its predecessors. The simple line of the Mother Machree melody makes this song a favorite for Irish tenors.

Hear this beautiful "Mother" song( printer Scorch format, be patient, all the Scorch files this month are very large file sizes, this sheet music is printable using the Scorch plug-in)

Listen to MIDI version






Music by: George W. Persley

Lyrics by:A. W. French

Little is known about the life and career of George W. Persley whose real name was George W. Brown. Likewise, we can find no information about the lyricist, not even his given name. In every publication and on every piece of sheet music, only his initials are used. Although written in America, this song is clearly reminiscent of Irish folk melodies, including the switch to the minor key in the second part of the verse.

Hear this singable song ( Scorch format, be patient, long load time, printable)

listen to MIDI version





Words and Music by:Thomas P. Westendorf


One of the most recognizable of the "non-Irish Irish" songs, this one will appear on almost every site that lists Irish tunes. It is immediately clear that Westendorf is not an Irish name. The history of this song is closely intertwined with the previous one.

Thomas Paine Westendorf was born Feb. 23, 1848, at Bowling Green (Caroline County),

According to a 1948 article by Richard Hill entitled Getting Kathleen Home Again,2 research that was later confirmed in 1967 by Herbert R. Collins, a retired employee of the Smithsonian Institution, Westendorf actually wrote the song while employed at the Indiana House of Refuge for Juvenile Offenders, Hendricks County, Indiana, where he had taken a job in 1872.3

G.W. Persley, a composer who was a close friend of Westendorf, sent him a copy of a song called Barney Take Me Home Again after it was published in 1875. Kathleen was written as a reply or "answer song" to Barney. Notably, Westendorf's wife's name was not Kathleen. According to Indiana marriage records, Westendorf married Jennie Morrow in Hendricks County on May 21, 1873.4 We have no way of knowing whether Persley wrote his song using his own wife as inspiration and, if so, what her name was. Since Ireland is not mentioned in Barney, and Westendorf's wife was named Jennie, we're left with the unanswered question, "Why Kathleen and why is this considered an Irish song?"

In any event, there's no question the song was an immediate hit. "During 1876, I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen became one of the most popular songs in America, second only to Grandfather's Clock. Henry Ford thought so much of it that he is thought to have gone to some pains to get an autographed copy for the Ford Museum. Thomas Edison once wrote a letter to Westendorf commending the song and, according to Westendorf's brother-in-law, Mancha Bruggemeyer, enclosed a check for $250.00 that he might feel free to use it on his phonographs. It was broadcast during Edison's funeral service".5

It is unknown exactly when the song became closely associated with, and assumed to be Irish. But, that association persists to this day, undoubtedly influenced by uses such as John Ford made of the song in the movie "Rio Grande" (Republic, 1950), which starred John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Here is the clip from the movie which featured Ken Curtis and the Sons of the Pioneers serenading O'Hara. Of course, O'Hara's character was named Kathleen. Ken Curtis played Trooper Donnelly, a good Irish name if ever there was one. One is left to wonder whether O'Hara's character was named Kathleen in the original screenplay, or if it was changed after Ford decided to use this song.

Hear and see the score to this song ( Scorch format, printable, be patient for images to load)

Listen to MIDI version


1. No citation

2. Richard S. Hill, "Getting Kathleen Home Again", JSTOR Notes, Second Series, Vol. 5, No. 3, published by the Music Library Association (June, 1948), pp. 338-353

3. Op cit

4. ibid

5. Hill, page 338



Words and Music by: J.R. Shannon

Who can forget the closing scene of "Going My Way" (Paramount, 1944), in which Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) has brought from Ireland the 90 year old mother of Father Fitzgibbons (Barry Fitzgerald), who he hasn't seen in 45 years. The new church organ starts to play, the boys choir begins to sing, and there's not a dry eye in the house. This one's just GOT to be a genuine Irish song, right? WRONG! This is another example of a composer using a pseudonym to make a song more sellable. In this case, Shannon's real name was James Royce, which is the old English form of the name Rice. Other songs by Shannon were Just An Old Sweetheart of Mine(1912) and Blue Rose (1917). But, it makes absolutely no difference. This song will always be thought of as a true Irish tune, and with good reason.

The vocal track on this video clip features our resident male vocalist, Rich Beil, singing all the voice parts.

Listen to and view this song ( Requires the Scorch plug-in, be patient, sometimes a long load time due to graphics)

Listen to MIDI version


 sheet music coverWhen The Moon Shines In Ireland



Music by: Bert Peters

Words by: Marvin Lee

Here's a tune that can't be found listed on any Irish song site, but should be. The melody lends itself to harmony and, if sung as a ballad, rather than at the original tempo, would make a great pub sing-a-long. Little is known about Peters. There are only 2 other titles that can be found which show him as composer, Morning, Cy (1907) and The Clock of Life (1909). He was also an arranger, teaming with Gertrude Lincoff in 1930 on "Drifting" and with Billy Baskette in 1932 on Same Old Moon. Marvin Lee seems to be just as obscure as Peters. We do know he wrote both words and music to the 1917 song Livery Stable Blues which is distinguished by having been recorded by the Original Dixieland Band and W.C. Handy's Orchestra. That song was briefly revived in 1938 by Bunny Berigan and his band.

Listen to and view an old song that resonates today ( Requires the Scorch plug-in, be patient, sometimes a long load time due to graphics)

Listen to MIDI version




Music by: James A. Butterfield

Lyrics by: George Washington Johnson


We end our St. Patrick's Day salute with another song that makes the list on every Irish song site. But, like Kathleen, it never mentions Ireland, wasn't written by an Irish composer, and wasn't written in Ireland. Coincidentally, this one was also written by a school teacher. Seeing the name of composer and lyricist, one immediately pictures them together at the piano working out the tune and words. However, like America The Beautiful, this song began as a poem, with music added later.

George Washington Johnson was born in 1839 near Toronto, Canada. At age 20, he became a school teacher in Hamilton, Ontario, where he fell in love with Margaret "Maggie" Clark, one of his pupils. It turns out that Maggie was suffering from tuberculosis, although it's unclear whether they knew of the illness before or after they were married in 1864. In any event, during one particularly harsh period of her illness, Johnson walked to the edge of the Niagara escarpment, overlooking what is now downtown Hamilton. There, he penned a poem to her that was first published in 1864 in his book of poetry titled Maple Leaves. Maggie died on May 12, 1865 at the age of 23, less than a year after their marriage.

James Austin Butterfield was born in England in 1837 and immigrated to the United States in 1856, first coming to Chicago where he taught violin and singing. He later established the music house of J.A. Butterfield & Co. in Indianapolis, where he issued The Musical Visitor, the first musical journal published in Indiana. It's unclear exactly how Johnson's poem came to Butterfield's attention, but in late 1865, he put music to it and it was published in 1866.

Johnson died in 1917. In 2005, he was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1878, Butterfield became the second president of the Music Teachers National Association. He died in 1891. The schoolhouse where the two lovers met still stands on the escarpment above Hamilton, and a plaque bearing the name of the song has been erected in front of the old building.

Listen to this song of lover's lament ( Scorch plug-in, printable, be patient, long load due to graphics)

Listen to MIDI version



Thanks for visiting us and be sure to come back again later to see our next issue or just to read some or all of our over 130 articles about America's music. See our resources page for a complete bibliography of our own library resources used to research this and other articles in our series.


If you'd like to contribute an article to us at Parlor Songs, we'd love to have your help and contribution. The "rules" for submissions can be found here, we'd love to have submissions by any of our readers, anytime and would enjoy having a "reader submission" or "favorites" feature from time to time. Heck, get involved, help us out and write a feature for us!

Parlor Songs is an educational website about American popular music and the history of the genre

If you would like to submit an article about America's music for us to publish, contact the email on the main page. I also welcome suggestions for subjects for future articles.

All articles are written by the previous owners, unless otherwise stated.

© 1997-2024 by Parlor Songs (former owners Richard A. Reublin or Richard G. Beil). Before using any of these images, text or performances (MIDI or other recordings), please read our usage policy for standard permissions and those requiring special attention. Thanks.

We respect your privacy and do not collect or divulge personal information see our privacy policy for more information

E-Mail us for more information or comments or read our FAQs to get instant answers to our most often asked questions.

Return to Top of Page