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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With St. Valentine’s Day coming up, you may be thinking of sending cards or posting a message on your social media accounts to express your love and appreciation for your dear ones. But for these tender feelings, it’s sometimes hard to come up with the right words.
That’s when we turn to the poets, and Ireland has produced many excellent ones. Here we offer you three lovely examples of Irish word-weaving with a little about the poets who wrote them.
There’s nothing quite like hearing poetry read by the poet who wrote it, especially when he has a charming Irish accent:
William Butler Yeats
You can hear the melodious voice of British actor Tom Hiddleston reading this poem here:
John Boyle O'Reilly
Some brilliant animator on YouTube made this video bringing O’Reilly’s prison photo to life to recite the poem.
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In traditional Irish music, a “set” is a group of three tunes each played three times. So this year I thought it would be fun to put together a “set” of ideas that you can add to your holiday celebrations to make them a wee bit more Irish.
Irish Christmas Recipes
Delicious aromas from the kitchen are part of everyone’s festivities, so let’s start with a “tune” of three Irish Christmas recipes. (Click the titles on each recipe below to go to the complete directions.)
Irish Plum Pudding
Here’s a recipe developed by Mairéad, author of The Irish American Mom blog. Beginning with her mom’s recipe that she fondly remembers making when she was a child in Ireland, she gives detailed directions with her own adaptations that make it easier for us to make here in the USA. Important note: if you want to make Irish Plum Pudding this year, start now. It has to ripen for at least four weeks before you eat it.
Crisp Gingerbread Biscuits
Famed Irish foodie Donal Skehan says this recipe is a “must have at Christmas”. You’ll have to do some measurement conversions on this one, which takes a little effort on Google, but it looks like it will be worth it.
Most of the recipes I searched through online looked pretty complicated (like the plum pudding above). Christmas must be a time of serious culinary endeavor in Ireland. But I was able to find this easy one for those who’d rather not spend so much time in the kitchen.
Irish Christmas Gifts
For our second "tune," let’s take care of some gift shopping. What can you wrap up for your Hibernophile friend who has everything? Here are three ideas.
A Subscription to The Online Academy of Irish Music
Some famous names in Irish music are among the teachers of these very well-done video courses. They offer monthly, six-month, and annual subscriptions. And if your loved one doesn’t play an instrument, OAIM offers courses in how to sing in the Irish traditional style.
Kilkenny Design Centre
If your gift list includes someone who’s been to Ireland and already has all the usual items like an Aran sweater, a Belleek vase, and lots of Celtic knot jewelry, you might like to check out the Kilkenny Design Centre’s online shop where you’ll find many beautiful items made by Irish artisans.
If you’d like to keep your Christmas shopping dollars in Upstate New York, you’ll find Irish-themed gifts at The Plaide Palette in Cherry Valley, Cashel House in Syracuse, and Celtic Treasures in Saratoga Springs. In the Utica area, The Olde Wicker Mill in the New Hartford Shopping Center has an Irish gift department.
Irish Christmas Music
And finally, our third "tune" actually involves music. Here are three selections to add to your holiday playlists. All of these are available on CD, digital or vinyl, new or used on Amazon.com. You may also be able to find the albums, or tunes from them, on your favorite music app like Spotify or iTunes.
An Nollaig by Eileen Ivers
Canadian fiddler Eileen Ivers is one of our all-time favorite performers, having appeared at the Great American Irish Festival a number of times. This is her take on some familiar holiday classics and traditional Irish carols.
The Clancy Brothers Christmas by The Clancy Brothers
This old classic includes many songs you’ll recognize, like Jingle Bells, and some that may be new to you, like Christmas in Carrick. But they’re all rich with the Clancy Brothers’ characteristic sound.
The Wexford Carols by Caitríona O'Leary
Caitríona, a fine singer herself, did considerable research into Irish carols and poetry from the 17th-18th centuries, then teamed up with stellar musicians Tom Jones, Rosanne Cash and Rhiannon Giddens in 2014 to produce this authentic collection of Irish Christmas music.
I hope you found something in this set of three threes that you can blend into your holiday celebration this year. If this article has made you think of some of your own special finds, please share them in the comments.