From as early as the 1630s immigrants from Ireland were arriving on the shores of North America, joining the mixture of nationalities in a steady stream, and sometimes in waves, up to this very day. They brought with them a strong devotion to their native culture, appreciated their freedom to express it here in the States, and shared it generously until many colorful influences from Irish culture became part of the fabric of American and Canadian culture.
So in this month of March, designated to celebrate Irish American Heritage in the US, we’ll take a look at three aspects of American culture and how the Irish left their mark on them.
Before the American Revolution, most Irish immigrants were Protestants from Ulster, also known as Scots-Irish. They tended to settle in the Appalachian Mountains. American bluegrass, folk, country, and Western music can trace its roots back to the Celtic folk tunes they played. There are many well-known American songs that sound a lot like their Irish counterparts.
One good example is the classic Western song “The Streets of Loredo”.
Compare it to “The Unfortunate Rake” and see if you can hear the similarities.
English is a language cobbled together from several languages, and American English is especially peppered with words from other languages due to our long history of immigration. And our Irish ancestors have contributed many. Here are a few examples:
“Slew” as in “a whole slew of dancers at the céilí,” comes from the Irish word slúa which means "many."
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish Americans began to sort into two classes known then as the “lace curtain” Irish and the “shanty” Irish. The lace curtain group had prospered and joined the middle class, while the shanty Irish lived in poorer conditions. The word "shanty" comes from sean tí, Irish for “old house.”
And there were plenty of political rallies where people chanted catchy phrases. These reminded Irish immigrants of sluagh-ghairm, the yell of a crowd or a battle-cry. That’s why we call them “slogans” now.
Two more Irish words will likely sound familiar: clann which means "family," and gleann which means "valley."
There’s a book called How the Irish Invented Slang by David Cassidy, but I only mention it to let you know that it has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Most experts in the Irish language consider it complete nonsense and an academic scam. So now you won’t fall for that one.
The Virginia Reel, a popular party dance throughout the 1800s, was influenced by English country dance and the Haymaker’s Jig, an Irish céilí dance. American square dancing, too, shows some aspects of Irish céilí and set dances.
But the Irish contribution to the most uniquely American dance form is probably the most significant. Tap dance originated when enslaved African people and Irish people saw each other’s dance moves in the 1800s. Somewhere along the line English clogging joined the mix. Then Vaudeville performers took this early fusion and refined the steps over time. Later, dancers took tap even further in movies and Broadway shows and it keeps evolving to this day.
Here’s an excellent 5-minute documentary, featuring some cool vintage dance footage, that traces the eclectic mix of cultures that gave us American tap dance.
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