“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” is one of the most recognizable and most beloved Irish songs ever written. The great Irish tenor John McCormack made the song famous.
It has been included in nearly every film about Ireland (Ireland: The Emerald Isle, The Irish in US, Wild Irish Rose, Top o' the Morning, It's A Great Day For The Irish) and is one of the most frequently recorded Irish songs, with covers from artists such as Bing Crosby, Nelson Eddy and Ronan Tynan.
However, it may surprise you to know that this extremely “Irish” song was written back in 1912 by a trio of songwriters in the US and has strong ties to America’s Tin Pan Alley.
One of the songwriters, Chauncey Olcott, was the only one of the three who had any ties to Ireland. His mother immigrated to America from Ireland when she was a child. Olcott was born in upstate New York many years later. However, his songwriting partners, George Graff and Ernest Ball, were not Irish at all.
Shmoop.com explains how the famous song is tied to the history and evolving opinion towards Irish immigrants in America between 1840 and 1900.
Irish ballads and ditties were hugely popular around the turn of the century and the three writers did not let a little thing like lack of Irish ancestry get in their way when there was such a huge market for Irish music.
During the 1840s Irish immigration to America increased exponentially due to the Irish Potato Famine. Between 1846 and 1855, nearly 1.5 million Irish people came to the US. The increase in the number of poor and uneducated Irish immigrants in the country made many Americans lash out with “no Irish need apply” signs and cartoons portraying the Irish in ugly, stereotypical ways. Catholic churches weren't spared and were often targets of violence.
Over the course of the 19th century, attitudes toward the Irish slowly evolved. The economic position of the Irish gradually improved and the Irish grew politically more powerful in cities like New York and Boston. If anti-Irish sentiments persisted, by this time it was aimed at the strength and not the weakness of the Irish.
With this larger acceptance of Irish Americans, the commercial popularity of Irish songs increased.
According to the Shmoop.com, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” was largely influenced by the popular vaudeville-era songs of Tin Pan Alley along with the ballads Irish immigrants brought over with them. In turn, the song influenced American singers and songwriters in combining Irish heritage with American culture.