NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 14, Nos. 3-4, 1988
“OUR OWN LITTLE ISLE”: IRISH TRADITIONAL MUSIC IN NEW YORK
by Rebecca S. Miller
The role of Irish traditional music, song, and dance among Irish immigrants
in America and particularly in New York can be viewed as an
ever-changing indicator of community identity and ethnic pride. These folk
art forms survived years of cultural and social turmoil, from famine and
religious persecution in Ireland to mass immigration to America. Once here,
assimilative attitudes on the part of the new arrivals threatened to destroy
these traditions as they were considered by many to be embarrassing relics
of an antiquated lifestyle. Fortunately, interest in these ancient forms has
done a full turn-around over the last fifteen years and today, Irish seisúns
(informal music sessions), ceilis (dance parties), concerts, competitions, and
festivals abound, revitalizing these expressions of heritage by the Irish and
Irish-American communities in the U.S. Today the Irish music community
in America is extremely active, presided over by great senior masters and
reinvigorated by the energies of the newest wave of young Irish as well
as their American-born cousins.
New York has become home to a majority of Irish immigrants over the
past century. Although the Irish settled throughout New York State, the
largest concentration of these immigrants and their descendants have
clustered downstate, primarily in the five boroughs of New York City, Long
Island, and parts of Westchester. Not surprisingly, New York City has also
been a major center for Irish traditional music in America, and for this
reason, this paper focuses exclusively on the Irish music community in
downstate New York. Like the name of the jig — “Our Own Little Isle”
— each successive generation of Irish immigrants has helped create and
further augment their cultural niche in New York City by establishing an
enormously vital community, one where their native traditions of instrumental
music and dance remain the strongest and most active in
Three Centuries of Irish Music in America
A variant form of Irish traditional instrumental music first came to America as early as the 17th century with the original Irish immigrants who
settled in rural areas up and down the East Coast — from New England
to the southern portions of the Appalachians. These early Irish immigrants
were mainly descendants of Presbyterian Scots who, in the 17th century,
had been relocated from Scotland to assist the English in the colonization
of the northeast section of Ireland. Their musical tradition was non-Gaelic
and much closer to a Lowland Scottish style. Furthermore, once in the
United States, these Ulster Scots exhibited closer ties with Scotland than
with Ireland (McCullough 1974:178).
Within these isolated areas, the music of the settlers mixed with that
of their English and later, their French-Canadian neighbors, as well as with
other ethnic-American styles. Over time, the combination of musics
developed into what is now old-time Southern fiddle music and its Northern
cousin — contradance music.
Two centuries later, massive numbers of native Irish immigrated to
America to escape the devastating effects of the Irish potato blight of the
1840s and in search of greater economic opportunity. Unlike the earlier settlers,
these newly-arrived Irish moved to large urban centers throughout
America, notably New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.
The Irish language and other aspects of traditional Irish culture did
not survive this transition from a rural, agrarian-based life to urban
American lifestyle. Interestingly, however, traditional Irish music proved
surprisingly resilient in the face of this major social upheaval. Master players
of traditional Irish music — fiddlers, uilleann pipers, button accordionists,
and flutists, among others — found regular work in the vaudeville circuits,
dance halls, pubs, and other venues. Moreover, unlike those that remained
behind in Ireland, these Irish musicians in America during the late 19th
and early 20th centuries were greeted with great respect throughout the
immigrant community (McCullough 1974:180-181) ....
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