It begins with a swelling orchestra that evokes a dramatic landscape suddenly coming into view, like a grand vista beheld from a mountain summit, and then come these words:
“Tis a dear old land of leprechauns and wondrous wishing wells
and nowhere else on God’s green earth are there such lakes and dells.
No wonder that the angels love that shamrock bordered shore,
It’s a little bit of heaven and I love it more and more,
I love it more and more.”
These lines are from the song “A Little Bit of Heaven,” a 1914 song composed by a man born in Cleveland, Ohio on July 22, 1878—Ernest Ball. When I was growing up one of the record albums on the turntable in my parents’ home every year around St. Patrick’s Day was A Little Bit of Heaven, a collection of popular Irish-themed songs performed by the crooner John Gary. Gary, who died relatively young at the age of sixty-five in 1998, had a beautiful baritone voice well suited for Irish-American standards like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Mother Machree,” both of which appear on the album along with the title track. All three songs are part of Ernest Ball’s musical legacy.
The Irish-themed songs of Ernest Ball are part of the “stage Irish” tradition. Stage Irish refers to idealized sentimental portraits of Irish life on the vaudeville stage and in popular song during the late 1800s through the early 1920s. Songs like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Mother Machree” from this era are familiar to many of us. Some of you in the U.S. probably recall singers like Joe Feeney of The Lawrence Welk Show or Bing Crosby performing these beloved songs. Feeney was the kind of singer known as an “Irish tenor,” and Welk always counted on him for these over the top ballads. Stage Irishness also includes stereotyped Irish figures, such as drunken Irishmen, benevolent Catholic priests and winsome Celtic beauties. The comical, good-natured “Paddy” was a fixture in vaudeville sketches for decades.
This kind of stage culture references the Irish-Catholic tradition. Irish immigration to the U.S. has always included Irish Protestants and those people known as the “Scots-Irish,” who were from Scotland and even northern England who immigrated to what is now Northern Ireland, also known as Ulster. But much of the Irish culture we see celebrated in the U.S. is the one tied to those millions of displaced Irish Catholics, mostly from rural Ireland, who came in such vast numbers during the time of the Potato Famine and afterward.
But there was another album in our home that reflected a change in American culture in relation to Ireland—a live album by an Irish folk group called The Irish Rovers. The album was called The First of the Irish Rovers. It was recorded in 1966 at the Ice House in Pasadena, California and featured some real Irish folk songs, among them “My Boy Willie,” “The Rattlin’ Bog” and “The Irish Rover.” These traditional Irish tunes were part of a set list that included songs from other parts of the UK, such as a skiffle number by Lonnie Donnegan (“My Old Man’s A Dustman”), a Scottish novelty song (“Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?”) and a Scottish ballad (“Coulter’s Candy”). The Irish Rovers might have been a popular folk act, but the songs, accents and even the patter of these men between numbers was a glimpse of Irish culture that stood in sharp contrast to the romantic effusions of the stage Irish tunes.
The Irish Rovers are still around, based out of Canada. They had a crossover country hit in 1980 called “Wasn’t That A Party?” It wasn’t the first time they charted. The group had an earlier hit on the pop music charts with a Shel Silverstein song called “The Unicorn,” which was the title track of their first studio album released in 1967. We had a copy of that as well. My parents had a lot of affection for the Irish Rovers, enough so that we saw them in concert in Cincinnati when I was a high school freshman in 1981. I was surprised at the time to learn they were still around.
They were one of a number of Irish folk groups who became internationally known in the 1960s, the most popular likely being the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. The American folk boom of the 1960s spurred interest in folk music of different kinds, and the time was right for these artists to find an audience in the United States. The development of television allowed Irish-Americans to get a feel of the real Ireland, whether it was through Jack Paar interviewing playwright Brendan Behan, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem performing on Ed Sullivan or reporters covering the Troubles in Ulster. While singers like Joe Feeney continued to sing “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” or “That’s An Irish Lullaby,” the U.S. and the rest of the world were increasingly exposed to the real Ireland and its authentic culture.
In the years since the 1960s, Irish culture has made even more of a mark on the modern world. The novels of Roddy Doyle, Edna O’ Brien, Colm Toibin and Colum McCann; movies like The Commitments, Brooklyn and In The Name of the Father; the music of U2, Elvis Costello and Sinead O’Connor; the poetry of Seamus Heaney, all of these have exposed Americans and people of other nations to the richness of authentic Irish culture, and the realities of Ireland in the modern era as well. Frank McCourt’s international bestseller Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996, a memoir of an Irish Catholic childhood by a man whose life was deeply tied both to Ireland and America. The book attracted wide attention and rave reviews and was made into a successful movie. And since the heyday of stage Irishness, Irish Catholics in the U.S. have prospered mightily also, going from despised immigrants to the American mainstream, making it all the way to the Presidency with Jack Kennedy and the Vice Presidency with Joe Biden.
The kind of rose-colored, soft focus stage Irish tradition that Ernest Ball’s songs represent indicated a change in America’s relationship to its Irish-descended citizenry. The country had become more familiar with the Irish. Irish immigrants entered port cities like Boston, New York, and New Orleans, forming large populations in those cities but also spreading across the nation—to the gold fields and cities of the west, up north to states like Minnesota, deep into the South and through the Midwest and into other parts of New England, as men found jobs working on railroads and canals and in factories, mines, and mills. Women were employed as factory workers and domestics. By and by the Irish became American—the work of naturalization and assimilation took its course.
The discrimination against the Irish is a well known feature of the Irish-American story—the famous signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” testify to this prejudice, and cartoons and caricatures featuring ape-like Irish men and women were common. But the Irish made their mark and gained political power and respect. The nation was impressed by the fighting skills of Irish-American units in the Civil War, despite disparaging press resulting from Irish participation in New York’s Draft Riots of 1863. The Irish scored successes on the stage, the athletic field, in business and in politics. An Irish-American upper class took shape with the Kennedy family being the most notable example.
And as this remove from hardscrabble Irish origins settled deeper into the Irish-American experience, the notion of a mythic, dreamy homeland far from the bustling industrial cities of the United States became part of American lore. The simian Irishman was replaced by other stereotypes: the fair Irish colleen, the good-natured Irish cop, the uproarious Paddy, the benevolent ward politician. The anti-Catholic prejudices were still there—they bedeviled Al Smith in his 1928 Presidential campaign, and Jack Kennedy addressed them during his run for President—but by the early 1900s the Irish had come a long way.
Which brings me back to our man Ernest Ball. He trained at the Cleveland Conservatory, then went to New York City where he found employment spelling the regular pianist at the Union Square Theater and demonstrating songs for a song publisher called Whitmark. Ball would be affiliated with this publisher the rest of his life, despite being financially successful enough to start his own company. His first couple of attempts at hit songs were duds, but he finally struck pay dirt, thanks in part to a man who would make his mark in politics. In New York Ball became friends with the Irish-American politician Jimmy Walker, a New York state senator who later became mayor of New York City. Walker had earlier harbored musical ambitions, and he gave Ball some lyrics that Ball set to music, resulting in the song “Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May?” The tune was a hit, and by 1906 Ball was both writing and performing songs, often with his second wife Maude Lambert.
Ernest Ball’s artistic production, like that of other musicians and songwriters, was tied to collaboration. Ball was a gifted composer, but he needed good lyricists and sometimes worked with fellow composers. In 1910 he and Irish-American musician and performer Chauncey Olcott wrote the music for “Mother Machree” with lyrics by the actress and lyricist Rida Johnson Young. He collaborated with lyricists Olcott and George Graff, Jr. two years later in 1912 to create the beloved “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” for a production called “The Isle O’ Dreams.” In 1915 Ball wrote a follow-up song to “Mother Machree” called “She’s The Daughter of Mother Machree” with a lyricist named “Jeff Nanerb.” Jeff Nanerb was actually Jeff Branen, a composer who reversed the spelling of his last name to disguise his identify as he was under contract to another publishing company. Another stage Irish number of Ball’s is “Ireland Is Ireland To Me.”
Ball also wrote “A Little Bit of Heaven” for a 1914 production called The Heart of Paddy Whack in collaboration with a lyricist with the Irish sounding name of J. Keirn Brennan. Ball wrote many songs, many of them non-Irish ones, but it seems safe to say he is best known now for these classic romantic ballads heavy on the Irish sentiment. Ball was also fortunate that his songs became part of the repertoire of renowned Irish tenor John McCormack, an Irishman from Athlone in central Ireland who became a U.S. citizens and lived in America for many years before returning to Ireland, where he died in 1945.
Ball died young. He was only forty-eight years old when he died on May 3, 1927 in Santa Ana, California. He is buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. His last song published that year was an Irish-themed one: “Rose of Killarney” with music by Ball and lyrics by William Davidson. His life story was told in the 1944 movie “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” starring Dick Haymes as Ball.
Here are some videos featuring period renditions along with John Gary’s lush treatment of “A Little Bit of Heaven.”
Irish American Chronicle. Foreword by Maureen O’Hara. Consultant: Thomas Fleming. Essayist: Terry Golway. Various contributing writers. Legacy Publications (A Division of Publications International, Ltd. Lincolnwood, Illinois, 2009.
The Irish Americans by William D. Griffin. Beaux Arts Editons. Universe Publishing, 1998.
Songwriters Hall of Fame entry on Ernest Ball:
Parlorsongs.com entry on Ernest Ball:
Wikipedia entry on Ernest Ball