The McNulty Family Irish Show Boat Sails Again
One of the most popular entertainment groups from the 1920s to the 1960s, Annie 'Ma' McNulty and her children Eileen and Peter have largely been forgotten, but that may change soon.
“Ma” the Archivist
Throughout the years, Annie McNulty had also been busy accumulating all the pieces that would eventually come together to form the McNulty Family Collection. In one of her weekly Advocate columns, Annie wrote, “…being of a sentimental nature, I have saved every scrap that has to do with the McNulty Family entertainers.” “And that,” Pat confirms, “is true.”
In a sense, the current collection really began with Annie’s careful attention to all the objects, photographs, and pieces of paper that would form a record of her family’s career. No bit of information was too small, explains Brendan. “Pat’s grandmother kept everything. Every mention of the McNulty Family, even down to two lines, was saved.”
When I ask where everything was kept, Pat smiles and says, “her apartment. She lived in the Hotel Wilson at Columbus Circle…That apartment was so stuffed with things, the closets were bursting with costumes, she had sheet music; scrapbooks; clippings; record players; a baby grand piano; the accordions; her tap shoes [were] on top of the sewing machine that she used to make all their costumes. Somehow she kept it all.”
A brief tour of the collection confirms that Annie did, in fact, save everything. There’s a program and a ticket from her 1907 concert in Kilteevan. There are annotated scrapbooks, compiled by Annie herself and complete with photographs colored in by hand. In addition to the hundreds of photographs and clippings, three accordions, two top hats, 155 recordings, 40 posters, and more than 25 programs, there are also unpublished lyric books, contracts, copies of all the Irish Advocate columns, songs that were never commercially released, rare bits of video footage, and detailed scripts and musician’s directions for some of their numbers. The collection is massive.
After Annie’s death, Eileen stored all the items in her house. Then, when Eileen passed away, care of the collection fell to Jim and Pat.
“My brother and I always knew that these things were important,” says Pat. “We safeguarded them. Jim saved them from floods; I saved some of the stuff from a California wildfire. And then eventually we agreed that we had to get these preserved because they’re so important to Irish America and to Ireland.” The question was, how?
In 2007, after a trip to New York, Pat picked up a book published by The Archives of Irish America, Making the Irish American. “I read an article by Mick Moloney and saw a poster of my family…Then I looked at my husband and said ‘That’s it! Mick Moloney and the Archives of Irish America. What could be more perfect?’”
Pat got in touch with Dr. Moloney, who flew to California a week later, and the collaboration began. “Everything just seemed to come together.”
That same year was the hundredth anniversary of Annie’s 1907 concert so Pat and her niece Courtney traveled to Kilteevan for the celebration, which was part of the South Roscommon Singers Festival. At that festival, Moloney was honored with the annual Annie McNulty Award, which recognizes important contributions to traditional Irish music at home and abroad. “It couldn’t have been more perfect,” Pat remarks.
As he shared in a recent phone conversation, Mick Moloney agrees. “I’ve been a great admirer of the McNulty Family since 1973,” he begins. “Their music has such an exuberant, unique sound. The first time I heard them I knew right away that they were different from any other musicians because of the combination of traditional music and vaudeville…of tap and step dancing.”
He contacted Eileen in 1977 and went to Hoboken to meet and interview her. There, he caught his first glimpse of what would become The McNulty Family Collection. All of the things Annie McNulty had saved were stored in Eileen’s house at that time, and Dr. Moloney remembers being amazed by what he saw. After Eileen’s death, he wondered what had happened to all the recordings, photos, and memorabilia. He wanted to contact Pat but wasn’t sure where to look: she had moved since his last conversation with Eileen and, because her married name is Smith, the odds of picking the right one in the phone book were slim to say the least. He feared that “the collection would be gone, lost.”
But with a few serendipitous moments, things have clearly worked themselves out. As Dr. Moloney puts it, “I think Annie McNulty would be smiling.”
With the continued support of Dr. Moloney and Michael Stoller, the Director of Collections and Research Services at NYU’s Bobst Library, the McNulty Family Collection has made wonderful progress. Moloney and Harry Bradshaw are compiling a double CD of McNulty songs, and a book chronicling the history and impact of the family is in the works. On March 11th, there will be a concert featuring the McNultys’ most popular numbers at New York City’s Symphony Space. The concert, a collaboration between the Archives of Irish America and the Irish Arts Center, will feature a large cast of singers and performers. Of particular note, Moloney mentioned possible performances by Malachy McCourt, Vince Giordano, and Annie's great-granddaughter, Courtney. “We’re celebrating 40 years of Irish music in New York,” he said.
The contents of the collection are also being copied and organized into as chronological an order as possible. To accomplish this task, Pat flew to New York from California in August and spent two weeks working with Brendan Dolan. From an archivist’s perspective, this has been a rare and valuable opportunity. As Brendan elaborates, “The ideal thing about having Pat here is that, if I was left to myself I’d be in a real bind because I know the McNultys, but I don’t know who this or that other guy is. But Pat just looks at them and says ‘Oh! that’s –.’Archivists don’t normally have that kind of luxury. Usually they get a collection after the family is deceased and the information is lost and the researcher has to reconstruct it. The value of having Pat here is that she can give so much information right now.
“And not just Pat,” he adds. They were also joined by Donnie McDonnell, who sang and danced with the McNultys, and was able to identify not only people in the pictures, but even some of the numbers they were performing. “He is literally the last surviving member of their performing show. He’s the last link. And he just looked at the cast photographs and went down the line, and now we know who everyone is.”
All of this seems to prove that Pat is right – everything is coming together, and at the perfect moment. The collection is taking shape while those who remember the McNulty Family can still contribute to its accuracy and have the chance to travel back, via the archive's recordings, to the performances they attended.
But it’s also here just in time to make sure that the McNulty Family’s legacy is remembered and understood by younger generations, that all the things Annie McNulty kept with such foresight remain intact, in order and accessible to all.
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