Irish American Writers & Artists

May 15, 2010

THE HISTORICAL CONTRIBUTION

Filed under: Essay — by tjenglish @ 4:06 pm

CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO

We are all aware of the common cultural perception of Irish Americans as cops, priests, nuns, firemen, politicians, and soldiers. This is the version of Irish America most commonly presented in movies and the media and, quite often, by Irish Americans themselves. St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. is a celebration of the civil servant side of the Irish temperament. Men and women in uniform march in the parade as a way of highlighting the traditional role of Irish Americans as protectors and promoters of the common good. This celebration of patriotism, pride, and sacrifice is all well and good; the willingness of Irish Americans to defend their country and contribute to the civic good through public service is certainly worth celebrating. But there is another side of the Irish American temperament that we hope to celebrate with IAW&A, Inc.

Did you know that among the pioneers of dance and entertainment in the U.S. were first and second generation Irish Americans? Vaudeville and the early years of Hollywood were infused by an Irish American spirit that was loose, athletic, free spirited, and, yes, even sexy. Not all Irish Americans were conservative, narrow-minded, Republican, or wracked with Catholic guilt. Starting with BARNEY FAGAN, a choreographer who is believed to have created tap dancing, or BILLY MURRAY, who was to Vaudeville what someone like Michael Jackson would later be to pop music, Irish Americans blazed a trail. By and large, these were not recently arrived immigrants clinging with nostalgia to the music and traditions of the Old Country. These were first generation Americans, born of Irish immigrant parents, determined to create a new identity for themselves as Irish Americans.

Some of these early pioneers were downright daring. MARY LOUISE “TEXAS” GUINAN, born of Irish parents, was a popular saloon performer whose humor, music and performing style were so bawdy she was arrested numerous times. BING CROSBY, in the early years of his popularity, insisted on having Louis Armstrong perform with him on stage, even though it was nearly unprecedented for a white recording star of his stature to perform live with an African American (it even cost Crosby some bookings).

Particularly in the arena of dance, the contribution of Irish Americans is profound. Performers like RUBY KEELER, DONALD O’CONNOR and PEGGY RYAN got their start in the waning days of Vaudeville and transposed their talents to the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s. The greatest practitioner of this style was GENE KELLY, whose athleticism and sensuality created a whole new approach to dancing in the movies that set the standard for generations to come.

The cultural stereotype of Irish Americans as uptight, conservative, and hyper-Catholic is a relatively recent invention. We hope that you will educate yourself by exploring the rich history of Irish Americans in the arts. You can start by visiting the IAW&A website and going to the Hall of Fame section. There you will find links to information on many of the early stars of Vaudeville, Hollywood and other fields of entertainment. It is a dazzling cast of characters that may surprise you with the sheer joy and physical expressiveness of their work, and inspire you with their willingness to challenge the status quo – a celebration of freedom and originality that is at the heart of all great art.

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