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Irish identities

Irish sheet music cover with Irishman dressed in green

Ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, UC art historian Theresa Leininger-Miller helps bring in the green this March with an exhibition at the downtown public library on American sheet music covers, in particular those that depict Irish and Irish-American culture.

Her exhibition and presentation illustrate how art and material culture helped reflect society’s values for 85 years — from 1840 to 1925. The exhibition is on display through March 29.

By Melanie Schefft

Media Contact: Tom Robinette, 513-556-1825
Published March 2015

Photos courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County  

St. Patrick’s Day gets a special kickoff this year with an exhibition, “The Wearing of the Green: Irish Identities in American Illustrated Sheet Music, 1840-1925,” at the main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCHC).  

University of Cincinnati’s Theresa Leininger-Miller, associate professor of art history in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), researched and assembled the unique collection of works that celebrates St. Patrick’s Day by examining the ways in which illustrators, composers and lyricists have envisioned Irish and Irish-ugeAmerican identities in sheet music.

Included in the exhibition are 32 compositions of colorful and detailed music covers. The exhibition is displayed on three floors of the library and runs from February 11 through March 29.

Leininger-Miller will present a public lecture about the exhibition at 7 p.m., Monday, March 23, in the community meeting room at the Symmes Township Library, 11850 Enyart Rd. in Loveland, Ohio. The talk also will include half a dozen performances of compositions on video. 

According to Leininger-Miller, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, song lyrics and their illustrated sheet music covers most often explored urbanity, upward mobility and material success, as well as the harsh realities of daily life. Romance, World War I and nostalgia for the beauty, rural simplicity and family connections of Ireland are among other common references that can be seen. 

The art on the covers also occasionally signifies the application of characteristics and stereotypes by others — primarily the dominant Protestant, Anglo-American bourgeoisie (middle class) -- which could be affectionate, humorous or deprecating. In this colorful collection, Gaelic names, shamrocks, shillelaghs, caubeens (Irish berets), clay smoking pipes and harps abound.

Irish music cover of When They Played the River shannon

A Labor of Love

To bring this anthology of visual renderings to public view, Leininger-Miller sifted through more than 10,000 pieces of sheet music in the library’s collection, but explains that it was truly a labor of love.  

“Even though they are dusty and sometimes smudged, ripped or taped back together, the physicality of them endears the sheet music covers to me even more because it shows that musicians and singers handled them,” says Leininger-Miller.

“People proudly displayed sheet music on their pianos. Sometimes such inexpensive, mass publications were the only art or visual culture people had in their homes.”

After selecting the best pieces and categorizing them into themes for a variety of exhibitions, Leininger-Miller researched each composer, lyricist, illustrator, performer (where known) and person to whom the piece was dedicated (if dedicated). 

Artists produced large quantities of bold, graphic work; however, the publishing companies, who commissioned the designs, didn't always recognize them on music covers, explains Leininger-Miller.

“Illustrators didn’t always sign their work,” says Leininger-Miller. “This means scholars cannot always search for work by specific artists. Libraries file sheet music by composers and composition titles.

“Some music covers included photographic insets of the performers who popularized the pieces, as on 'When They Play the River Shannon (I’m In Ireland Once More).' "

In the lower right of that cover, there is a photographic headshot of singer, pianist and dancer Bee (Beatrice) Palmer (1894-1967), who performed the song. She attracted significant attention in the late 1910s as one of the initial promoters of the “shimmy” dance, and first appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1918, explains Leininger-Miller.

On this green-tinted cover, a bearded older gentleman in a suit and bowler hat sits on a park bench at dusk. In the background, musicians perform on a bandstand silhouetted by a large, rising moon. In a cloud-shaped vignette at right we see what the man envisions — himself as a young lover embracing a beautiful girl on the shore in a hilly setting.

Irish music cover of Wearing of the Green

Erin go Bragh, Ireland Forever

Leininger-Miller describes the most common tropes in sheet music (many of which had striking chromolithographed or multi-colored printed covers) during the mid-19th century as:

  • the grieving emigrant
  • shaughrauns (wanderers)
  • the poor-but-happy Paddy
  • proud rebels and hopeful immigrants
  • a transformation from desperate Irishmen to productive Americans   

She also points out that the title of the exhibition, “The Wearing of the Green,” comes from a composition with the same name that is both literal and figurative. It concerns the donning of green apparel and accessories by Irish and Irish Americans –– especially working-class Catholics –– denoting pride in their ancestral homeland.  

While the most famous Irish nationalistic song, “The Wearing of the Green,” was written in the United States, Leininger-Miller found that the tune went back to the year just after the Irish Rebellion of 1798. 

Irish actor and playwright Dion Boucicault based his lyrical version on a half-remembered Dublin street ballad sung by his mother about the angst Ireland felt under British rule, but his third verse advocates emigration to America rather than staying in defiance:   

    Oh Paddy dear, and did ye hear the news that’s goin’  round?

    The Shamrock is by law forbid to grow in Irish ground! …

    "She’s the most distressful country that ever yet was seen,

    For they are hanging men and women there for the Wearin’ o’ the Green.” …

    But if at last our colour should be torn from Ireland’s heart,

    Our sons with shame and sorrow from this dear old isle will part; …

    I’ve heard a whisper of a land that lies beyond the sea,

    Where rich and poor stand equal in the light of freedom’s day. …

    Where the cruel cross of England shall nevermore be seen,

    And where, please God, we’ll live and die still wearing of the green!

Queen Victoria was apparently offended by the inflammatory lyrics and supposedly banned them from the British stage. But, Leininger-Miller adds, of course the song was a great hit here, as she learned from William H. A. Williams' book, "Twas Only an Irishman's Dream: The Image of Ireland and the Irish in American Popular Song Lyrics, 1800-1920."

Irish Comedy Inspires American Musical Theater

After the Civil War, portrayals of the Irish shifted from the romantic to the comic, Leininger-Miller explains. Stage performances were especially popular with Irish, German and black characters, which were drawn from everyday New York street life. 

She says the immigrant-based lower and middle classes were fans of such shows because they saw themselves comically, yet sympathetically depicted on stage, and the ticket prices remained the same for years.  

“The satires were full of ‘Harrigan hilarity,’” says Leininger-Miller. “Whirlwinds of singing, dancing, stage violence and buffoonery made actor, singer, playwright and lyricist Ed Harrigan one of the founding fathers of modern American musical theater.”

Irish music cover Since Arrah Wanna Married Barney Carney

Blended Irish Identities

The exhibition also reveals another consistent theme in popular Irish music. In the 1900s the image of an Irishman upsetting local culture or trying to assimilate into it in unexpected humorous ways –– often motivated by romance –– became popular.  

An example, according to Leininger-Miller, is the cover illustration of “Since Arrah Wanna Married Barney Carney,” where a Native American chief raises his hands to bless the marriage of Irishman Barney Carney to Indian princess Arrah Wanna, who sit beside each other on an animal skin in a dwelling made of hides. Wanna is portrayed as demure with her hands in her lap. Carney, on the other hand, is comically out of place in his top hat and suit coat with a shamrock on each and sits stiffly erect with his right hand on a shillelagh and his legs crossed.

The song’s lyrics suggest that this wedding completely disrupted Native American culture, for “no more do the Indians put paint upon their face,” “the tom-toms play the ‘Wearing of the Green,’” “the wigwams are full of Irish blarney,” and “the Pipe of Peace is made of Irish clay.’” Both American Indians now sport shamrocks on their clothing -- the chief on his headdress and the bride on her neckline and hemline –– and the chief wears a green European-style shirt.

“Arrah” was also a common stage-Irish expression for surprise or excitement, and Dion Boucicault turned it into a name for his play, Arrah-na-Pogue, in 1864.  By the early 20th century “Arrah” was a key word in American popular culture denoting things Irish.

Experience Irish History on Three Floors

The 32 compositions in this exhibition represent a fraction of the over 10,000 pieces of sheet music in the collection of the PLCHC. The whole show can be seen arranged thematically in seven glass cases:


Popular Library:    The Irish Emigrant and Shaughraun

                                The Irish Immigrant and the Wearing of the Green

                                Comic Novelty Songs

                                Irish-Indian and Hiberno-Hawaiian Love Affairs


Elevator Cases:     The Irish and Irish Americans in World War I

                                  The Sweet Girls of Erin


Elevator Case:        Longing for the Dear Old Emerald Isle

The “Wearing of the Green” exhibition is on display at the PLCHC from Feb. 11 through March 29, and a free lecture by professor Leininger-Miller will take place in the community meeting room at the Symmes Township Library, 11859 Enyart Rd. in Loveland, Ohio, on Monday, March 23.

Next Illustrated Sheet Music Project

To help commemorate the 140th anniversary of the invention of the telephone in 2016, Leininger-Miller is researching music covers that depict telephones.