Celts in America – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – March 2012
By Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell © Halloween Queen
Celebrate March 17th? Doesn’t everyone? The Irish are part of the Celtic people who immigrated to America bringing with them the folklore and traditions of not only themselves but that of all the other Celtic groups that had intermingled with them. With the many immigrations of the Irish, the Scotts-Irish, and the Celtic people to this country, a wealth of folk lore and legends was incorporated into the American psyche. Certainly the Wee people and the Leprechauns are one of the most beloved of all. With Darby O’Gill & The Little People, Yates’s Land of the Heart’s Desire, Charles E. Carryl’s Davy and the Goblin, Finian’s Rainbow etc., Fairies, Banshees, Pooka, all the creatures from pagan times became the folk lore of latter times.
St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland but as poisonous snakes did not populate the Emerald Island what were the snakes? The snake was the symbol of the Druids. A snake swallowing its own tail making up a circle unending, with no beginning or end, was the symbol of the Druids and represented infinity, the unknown, and the immortal. St. Patrick ordered all the Druids to be exterminated, their temples destroyed or incorporated into churches and hence the opposition to the new order and the snakes being the age old tradition of the new supplanting the old. However, folklore does not die easily, it either goes underground or is revised and incorporated. For a long time, fairy tales were banned but then it was realized that they were needed for teaching morality. Out came the old woman, the hag, the witch and she was made socially acceptable in the form of Mother Goose; the old woman who lived in the shoe, the woman who swept the cobwebs out of the sky, Old Mother Hubbard, etc. Down trodden, poor women who had chores to do and knew their place in the scheme of things populated these tales. Brownies came and helped shoemakers, and fairies made the flowers grow or became flowers themselves. There was a definite softening on the perception about these creatures as they were utilized in the teaching of right from wrong.
The Leprechaun was the fey in all of us that has become the image or persona of the Celts as seen in music halls and theater from before the American Civil War through to the Bing Crosby, Dennis Day era and beyond. It is through music and comedy that the theater brought acceptance to the Irish. There never was a “No Irish Need Apply” sign on stage doors!
The Irish may have been downtrodden in the mines but they were still treated better than the Chinese who were treated worse than everyone else. If you worked in a mine you were just expected to be treated as if you were less than nothing. The existence of the miner was one of the reasons Unions were born. Movies such as The Molly Maguires give a false impression of what really happened as the Pinkertons and the mine bosses were 20 times worse than ever portrayed even in songs that begin “You load 16 tons” and end with “I owe my soul to the company store.” It is to be remembered that in West Virginia planes actually dropped dirty bombs on the miners and their families because they protested their inhumane treatment. Mother Jones, a woman of Celtic ancestry (Welsh) fought for and with the miners for better treatment. Mine cave-ins and explosions took thousands of lives because of total lack of regard for the lives of the miners. “Your husband died in a mine explosion yesterday, and today lady, you and your brats have to leave company housing and we don’t care where you go.” And that was how it went. Coal ruled and the people were no more than serfs.
How Green Was My Valley was an incredible mining story and the miners who suffered in Celtic lands faced even worse conditions in the coal fields of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, etc. The Robber Baron’s employed the Pinkertons and the Thugs and they had absolute power to do whatever they chose to do. The workers were powerless as they were gunned down by those who were in power and were supposedly the law. The Celtic involvement in the birth of the unions was a shining star in how the general populace would see these emigrants and begin to identify with them.
The amount of immigrants who honored the shamrock came in waves and with each new wave life became progressively easier. They at least did not have to suffer the problems non English speaking immigrants did even if they did speak English with an accent which was quite distinct and very noticeable. This worked out to their advantage as it was extremely adaptable to the stage. Not only were Irish poets and authors becoming fashionable but so was the music and slap stick comedy where one made fun of one’s own foibles and turned them into caricatures. “It’s the Same Old Shillelagh” by Pat White is just one of the many songs that were popular in their day.
Everyone knows “Danny Boy,” “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” “Christmas in Killarney,” “Mother Macree,” etc., but thousands of these types of songs were heard being sung and hummed by Americans of all nationalities even through the American Civil War. The Irish found by utilizing their humor and love of singing they opened doors that had been closed to them before. Irish joke books were very popular as were St. Patrick’s Day greeting postcards (1900-1920) which were basically sent to and from the Irish themselves. Some celebrated the beauty of the Irish colleen, some the close ties that Uncle Sam had with the patriotic new Americans. Some showed lace making and spinning and other crafts of women while others were made out of peat, which is from the bogs of Ireland or had real packages of shamrock seeds attached to them. The rarest and most collected are cards like Ulster’s Solemn Covenant Heroes of the Union. This $200 card is of Sir Edward Carson and when his photo is lifted there is a copy of the Ulster Covenant. The Wargan illustration of Ulster as a woman also declares for home rule and is worth $125. On the whole, Saint Patrick’s day cards are one of the most undervalued holiday cards on the market especially those that show views of Ireland. Cards that are simply view cards are very coveted in Ireland but not these American holiday cards. Early advertising trade cards which show humor (Mike Murphy is admitted to some of the first houses in the country) is a workman delivering coal to the back door and is only worth about $4. A carte de visit (Pat and Father Mathew) is also, comic and worth $12. One of my favorites is a hand painted card with a lucky Irish half penny glued onto the Leprechaun’s hand. Signed JD and made in Dublin in 1971 it is worth $15., because it is such an interesting vignette of folk art.
When television began to come into homes after the New York 1939 World’s Fair variety shows and comedy shows were all the vogue. Jack Benny had the Irish Tenor Denis Day on the show who acted so dumb it was as if he was a proto type for all the awful dumb blonde jokes that were to follow in the next decades. One of the songs he was most famous for was “Clancy Lowered the Boom!” by Johnny Lange and Hy Heath. When Day left to go to the war he was replaced by another Irish Tenor but it just wasn’t the same. Bing Crosby was a frequent guest on radio programs singing many Irish songs but when TV came along he just added that to his busy schedule. The Bells of St Mary’s, Going My Way, are just a few of the many movies which took the Irish from being foreigners to being plain old Americans. However, without the early music halls and theater and plays like Abbe’s Irish Rose which cushioned the time changes that the new technology brought, the transition would not have been so fluent. Abbe’s Irish Rose was of a Jewish boy and Irish girl and was one of the bestselling books of its day as well as a hit play. The mingling of the nationalities was taking place culturally and in the crowded neighborhoods and in the work place. Certainly the sweat shops integrated all nationalities that had to work in them just as it did with the miners who slaved deep under the earth. When you read of terrible mine disasters and read the number of different nationalities working together and perishing together and when you hear of the Triangle fire in the garment district of New York it is amazing how many different ethnic groups of new Americans worked and died together. America was a melting pot as we had learned what was meant by “Divide and Conquer” and America didn’t want that. Let’s face it the only color discrimination should be whether you prefer the outfit in red, blue, or green or what color you decide to dye your hair or paint your home!
River Dance and Celtic dancing which took the country by storm isn’t something new. Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers were keeping Irish music alive as they were one of the favorites of the baby boomers. “Thistle and Shamrock” on National Public Radio incorporates all Celtic music and features some of the best singers and musicians worldwide. Collecting Irish theatrical and music memorabilia can be quite daunting due to the amount and variety that has been produced over the past few hundred years. The Abbey Theater in Ireland is one of the premier theaters in the world and their programs boast some of the works of great writers like Oscar Wilde.
Disney’s movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People is to me, one of the best movies they ever produced. One can see a young Sean Connery as the romantic male lead. However, the main part of this story is not just about Leprechauns, Pooka, and Banshee, but it is about love and sacrifice as well and shows we can be better than even the best we may expect of ourselves.
Fred Astaire starred along with Tommy Makem in Finian’s Rainbow. Astaire is older and the old song and dance man does few moves but if you stop to watch the movie a few times you will see a young Tommy Steele doing what Astaire once did. This movie was a flop. But…why? It was made in a day when civil rights were just beginning to become a major issue. Here are a group of Irish including a Leprechaun who was bit by bit becoming mortal, intermingling with the mountain people including a girl who could not speak so danced what she needed to communicate…a completely charming form of sign language. Who are the bad guys? The Senator who is a land grabbing, dishonest, bigoted, politician who is turned into a black man by one of the wishes (an accident) on the stolen pot of gold. This did not sit well with many people and what the Senator learned from his experience was not about to be learned by many who were scandalized by the movie. Watching it today is vastly different than what the audiences in the late 60s felt and saw. Would we have liked to have seen Fred Astaire young again and dancing as he did 30 years before? Certainly, but you only get three wishes from a pot of gold, even if some of those wishes are made unknowingly. For its time this is an incredible movie even if you think some of the casting is bad. I should have liked to have seen Carmel Quinn or Ella Logan playing the part that Petula Clark played, but Clark does and okay job. This is a movie all Celts and all Americans should ponder over.
How many versions are there of The Canterville Ghost? No one but Oscar Wilde could have conceived of this zany war movie. Margaret O’Brien should have received an academy award for her performance. She was the greatest child actress of her or any other time. Charles Laughton is usually a villain one can only despise and wish ruination on but in this movie this cowardly lion is totally lovable. Wilde is one of the greatest authors of all time.
In modern times Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes has written about growing up Irish and poor. His novels are autobiographical but it is his short stories that show what a brilliant writer he was. His “First Communion” ranks as the second best short story I’ve ever read.
Because of the books, postcards, movie memorabilia, theater programs, sheet music, posters, etc. there is a wealth of Celtic and Irish collectibles for us to enjoy and learn from.
Peter Pan asks us to “Believe in Fairies” and on March 17th I ask you to believe in the Leprechauns and perhaps, the magic in the pot of gold and the rainbow that emits from it. A wish come true will spread over the earth and bring harmony in a world that desperately needs to be covered with shamrocks and daffodils, thistles and leeks, and be as green as the Emerald Isle in the days of King Brian.Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell
(TM) The Halloween Queen
Castle Halloween Museum
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