WINDSOR TERRACE — Everyone familiar with the story of St. Patrick knows that he was a missionary who helped introduce Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century.
Folks may also know about his renowned exploits such as banishing snakes from the country. What they may not know is that he was born in Great Britain and is venerated and celebrated by not only the Catholic Church but also the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Lutheran Church.
As such, anyone can claim to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day while enjoying the timeless Irish ballads that help us to celebrate the life of the venerated saint.
Many of those beloved ballads date back to the 19th century and revolve around emigrants who left Ireland for America but were still bound by the emotional chains that found them longing for home and the stark beauty of the Emerald Isle.
Among the most notable recordings is Conway Twitty’s unique Top-10 rendition from 1959 that gave “Danny Boy” a pop-rock makeover, and crooner Andy Williams’ 1961 recording, which remains one of his most popular. The song is both sentimental and poignant as the opening verse pleads for the soldier’s safe return, “But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow, or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow; I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadows, oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.”
One of the most renowned Irish tenors at the turn of the last century was John McCormack, who was born in Athlone, Ireland, and charted 73 singles between 1910 and 1929.
McCormack, known as “the original Irish tenor,” certainly helped pave the way for Bing Crosby, a devout Roman Catholic who would become one of the most popular stars of the 20th century. Crosby proudly displayed his Irish ancestry and scored major hits with half a dozen Irish favorites.
McCormack released “Did Your Mother Come From Ireland” in 1941, wherein the singer is attracted to a young lady and poses the question while complimenting her Irish eyes. The song also directly references St. Patrick’s Day as he tries to charm her, exclaiming, “Oh, I wouldn’t be romancin’, I can almost see you dancin’ where the Kerry pipers play; Sure and maybe we’ll be sharin’ in the shamrock you’ll be wearin’ on the next St. Patrick’s Day.”
In 1944, Crosby covered the Irish standard “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (An Irish Lullaby),” which was originally released in 1913 by world-famous Irish tenor Chauncey Olcott. The song is a sweet reminiscence by the singer recalling his beloved mother and the song she sang to him as a child: “Just a simple little ditty in her old Irish way, and I’d give the world if I could hear that song of hers today.”
In 1949 Crosby released one of his all-time classics, “Galway Bay,” a heartfelt recollection of the scenic beauty of the Erin Isle. The opening verse is an invitation to listeners, “If you ever go across the sea to Ireland, then maybe at the closing of your day, you will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh, and see the sun go down on Galway Bay.” But by the end of the song the singer ponders a heavenly existence, “And if there’s gonna be a life hereafter, and somehow I feel sure there’s gonna be; I will ask my God to let me make my heaven, in that dear land across the Irish Sea.”
Irish ballads continued to be adapted and interpreted by popular performers such as The Chieftains, Tommy Makem & The Clancy Brothers, Frank Paterson, and The Dubliners, who recorded the Irish classic “Molly Malone” and the heartfelt ballad “My Lovely Rose of Clare.”
“My Lovely Rose of Clare” remains one of the most sentimental songs of parting in the Irish songbook. The late Irish singer Glen Curtin recorded an outstanding rendition of the song wherein he recalls the girl he refers to as “the queen of all the roses and the pretty flowers that grow.”
More recently, Irish songs have been popularized by The Irish Tenors, a group that was formed in 1998 with John McDermott, Anthony Kearns, and Ronan Tynan. They recorded a number of best-selling albums and currently tour with members Kearns, Tynan, and Declan Kelly.
Other artists who have enjoyed success with Irish music include Daniel O’Donnell and New York’s own Andy Cooney, who resides on Long Island.
Additionally, popular artists from all genres of music have been drawn to the songs of Ireland. “American Pie” balladeer Don McLean and folk group The Kingston Trio recorded memorable versions of the mid-19th century ballad “The Mountains of Mourne.” The song explains the sights of London as seen through the eyes of an emigrant from Ireland. Of course, nothing can compare to the beauty of his homeland.
All the splendor of the city and the beautiful girls don’t impress him as he proclaims, “I’ll wait for the wild rose that’s waiting for me, in the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.”
The haunting ballad, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” has been recorded by everyone from Crosby to Presley and even country icons like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
The 19th-century ballad is a sad reminiscence in which the singer vows to take his ailing bride back to the place where they were young and happy together, proclaiming, “I will take you home Kathleen, to where your heart will know no pain; And when the fields are fresh and green, I will take you home again, Kathleen.”
Cash had previously covered songs such as “Galway Bay” and “Danny Boy,” and even wrote and recorded a classic Irish ballad of his own in “Forty Shades of Green.” Cash had visited Ireland in 1959 and felt at home there. “Forty Shades” is his love song to the Emerald Isle, and, over the years, it has become a favorite among Irish singers the world over.
It almost feels like an old folk ballad, as Cash describes the cities, towns, and rivers throughout the country as he yearns to return to the land of his dreams. From the opening line, “I close my eyes and picture the emerald of the sea, from the fishing boats at Dingle to the shores of Donaghadee,” we are drawn into the poetry of his love for the girl he met in Tipperary town, and the land he fell in love with.
As Cash was traveling through Ireland he had a road map in his lap and picked out all the names of the places, rhymed them, and started singing, “I miss the river Shannon and the folks at Skibbereen; The moorlands and the meadows with their forty shades of green.” The song ends with the singer longing to return to that special place, “Where the breeze is sweet as Shalimar and there’s 40 shades of green.”
So, what better time than St. Patrick’s Day, when we can all claim to be Irish, to revisit or discover for the first time the touching and timeless songs and stories inspired by “that dear old land across the Irish sea.”