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New York Folklore Vol. 14. Nos. 3-4, Summer-Fall, 1988
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Vol. 14, Nos. 3-4, 1988

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 America.

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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