Two Irish maids cause riot
When doing the first season of the Irish Song Podcast,
we focused on many songs from the Tin Pan Alley era.
One song surprised me, with its' history. That song was
'Where the River Shannon Flows".
Listen to our free podcast of this song and story here:
This fetching tune has a surprisingly controversial
background that took me completely by surpise. It was
written and performed by James Russell. James and his
brother John appeared on stage in the “Irish Servant Girls”
sketch in 1904, and sang this song. Now, you have to
realize they were both dressed up as Irish servant girls,
and as you look at their picture in full dress on the cover
of the sheet music - you know this was a comedy.
The Irish Eventually Take Exception
They had performed this type of Irish maids sketch
since the 1870’s. but the show needed some pepping
up, so they added their new tune “Where the River
Shannon Flows”. The Russell brothers, in 1904 came
out with a full length play called “The Female
Detectives”. Trouble soon came upon them.
Irish Society for the Prevention of
The Irish servant girls sketch was included in one of
their shows, which premiered January 21, 1907, and
it was the beginning of the end for the Russell boys
An Irish group had formed called “The Society for
the Prevention of Ridiculous and Pervasive
Misrepresentation of the Irish Character”. From day
one rotten eggs and vegetables were hurled onstage
and the audiences stayed away in droves.
Can anyone say Don Imus ?
The badgered Russell Brothers, held interviews,
tried to laugh it off, and even switched the Irish
maids to Scandinavian ones, but it was too late.
The tide had turned.
The Russell brothers were from an Irish family
that came to America from Ulster, and settled
in good circumstances, earlier than the famine
Irish that were now coming into their own.
A new age
The Irish had settled here en masse in the late
1840’s and 50’s due to the famine. They had
taken the dirty jobs at the bottom of the ladder.
They had paid their dues with blood in the civil
war. These Irish were no longer to be laughed
at, and the Irish servant girls were
an all to real fact of life.
So the Irish formed groups and protested the
prejudice, and drove them out of business. That
is not the end of the story as we all know.
Paddy Wagons, Potato Heads, River Shannon
To help them on the way up and out of the early
Irish ghettos in cities across America, the Irish
developed a humor and a sense of perspective.
They ceased the protests and concentrated on
success. They began to look forward instead
of backward. That played a big role in the
advancement of the Irish American.
Ethnic Slurs left to the dust bin of the past
We should all know where the once derogatory
terms, ‘Paddy Wagon’, and ‘Mr. Potato head’, and
‘Mick’ came from. We should also realize that we
succeeded by putting that in our past, and our
energy into the future.
A lesson that might help some folks today.
The River Shannon Flows is ours Today !
A beautiful song is a beautiful song, and so we
love it as it is, as one of our own. Someone
took a lemon and made lemonade..... it’s no
wonder we have such a fine parade !
About The Author
The worlds most published author his field, Mike O’Laughlin
has written 40 books; edits 2 newsletters; publishes the
works of 10 Irish authors; and has written over 700
articles. He also hosts Six broadcast series, including
the first weekly podcast on Irish Family History ever produced.
His works include a 34 book set on Irish Family Research
and classic reprints like The Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters
and are available at
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