Remembering the Legendary McNulty Family

The power of Irish music isn’t always relegated to how skillfully it is performed and the technical abilities of the music makers. Sometimes it just grabs you and lifts you out of the sorry side of life and brings a smile or a wonderful memory to the fore, and for that space and time contentment is wealth.

The Irish emigrants who left the old country in the 20th century certainly needed picking up especially if they landed in the depths of the Depression in the 1930s and working hardscrabble lives right up to the 1960s before the gates for the Irish were closed in the U.S.

One particular musician with a steely and visionary personality was just the ticket for dealing with the Irish emigration blues, and she built one of the most important family acts in Irish music history. We are talking about Annie Burke McNulty and her children Eileen and Peter, otherwise known as the McNulty Family.
Born in 1887 in Kilteevan, Co. Roscommon, Annie Burke first performed in concert in 1907 before deciding that America was her destiny when she left for Massachusetts in 1910.

She married John McNulty (from Leitrim) and they had two children, Eileen (1915) and Peter (1917) before he died in 1928 and she was widowed and in need of finding an occupation for her and her two children who from an early age were already being trained for show business.

A fiercely determined woman, she moved to New York after establishing her family on radio with the early version of their Irish Show Boat Revue which reached its nadir at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where astonishingly it would play 55 times for thousands of Irish men and women over two decades with the last show coming in 1951.

Their act consisted of Ma McNulty playing her melodeon and accordion while Eileen and Peter sang and danced. While the act came together as vaudeville was dying and talking movies were coming into vogue, their mix of vaudevillian presentation with smaltzy Irish music delivered with deft timing and stage presence continued to prove very popular with the Irish ethnic audiences.

They had a reign of almost 30 years as the “First Family of Irish Music” from 1930 to 1960, performing all over the Irish Riviera or the Rockaways, the New York City dance halls, Boston, Chicago and even as far as Newfoundland where they had a big impact.

Their music played across the briny seas as far as Ireland, though the McNulty Family never did perform there and only Eileen made it back there after Annie and Peter passed away (Peter died at 43 in 1960 and Annie a decade later in 1970 at age 82).

Enhancing their wonderful stage act was the radio work through appearances with Rudy Vallee and Milton Berle and eventually their own Irish Show Boat radio show.

They also made 157 recordings of songs like “Mother Malone, I’m Leaving Tipperary, Far Away in Australia” and so many more that have been covered and re-recorded by hundreds of Irish artists since. In addition, Peter and Ma wrote for the Irish Advocate newspaper for years, giving readers a glimpse of the inside life of show business Irish style.

Ma McNulty was definitely a woman ahead of her times in engineering this family act when necessity truly made her a mother of invention, and she was clever enough to document virtually everything from her first concert back in Ireland in 1907 to the last show they did up to 1959 in Philadelphia.

She seemingly saved everything from the costumes she made, the posters and reviews for the shows and much more that became an archivist’s treasure trove, and now it exists in the Archives of Irish America in the Tamiment Library at New York University thanks to the donation of Eileen’s daughter Pat Grogan back in 2007.

It seems fitting that the exuberance and color of the McNulty Family stage act should once again take to the stage and come alive thanks to this marvelous collection.

As usual, Dr. Mick Moloney of NYU has found a way to recall the McNulty legacy with another musical extravaganza. A star-studded cast has been recruited, including the Green Fields of America (Billy McComiskey, Athena Tergis, Brendan Dolan and Jerry O’Sullivan) and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks who have collaborated before with the Professor for bringing out the best in the period arrangements.

Joining the jovial fray will also be Dermot Henry, Jerry Timlin and Mary O’Dowd, three singers who would have dipped into the McNulty well and entertained audiences long after the McNultys were gone.

Moloney cohorts, dancer Niall O’Leary, Dana Lyn (and her string quartet), and the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra will round out the fulsome entertainment package.

Incidentally, the orchestra has a new CD due out in March called Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley which will resonate with a lot of people who enjoy the McNulty craic.

This all takes place at the Peter Norton Theatre at Symphony Space (95th Street and Broadway in Manhattan) on Friday, March 11 at 8 p.m.

Tickets can be ordered through www.symphonySpace.org or via 212-864-5400. If you act quickly you can get a $10 discount with the code “earlybird” when you order your tickets.

The show is being produced by the Irish Arts Center in association with the New York Historical Society, Glucksman Ireland House, the Irish Repertory Theater and the NYU Archives of Irish America.

Upcoming Events

Coming up this Friday night, February 25 at 9 p.m. at the Blarney Star concert series is another rare treat in an evening with Antoin Mac Gabhann (aka Tony Smith), the Cavan-born fiddle player and teacher who has made his home in Baltrasna, Co. Meath for a number of years.

He’s won all of Ireland’s most respected fiddle competitions, taught any number of great musicians on the fiddle and encouraged many musical careers in Meath and all around Ireland. Antoin’s presence at a traditional music event whether in Ireland, America, Nova Scotia or anywhere else around the world is usually a testament to the quality of the music there and you can be sure he will always be in the thick of it.

MacGabhann’s thorough command of Irish music is equally matched by his high regard for the older generation who preserved it for him and others to share so liberally, and he never squanders an opportunity to do so.

At a fleadh or festival he is indefatigable and, in fact, last year released a very fine CD called Doorways and Windowsills with London-based banjo player Mick O’Connor featuring some of the best tunes they would have played at All-Ireland Fleadhanna Cheoil since first forming an ever present fleadh street session tandem back in Listowel in 1972.

Along with his daughters Bernadette and Caitlin Nic Gabhann, he taught and performed at the last two Catskills Irish Arts Weeks in East Durham, New York.

MacGabhann and his wife Bernie have been in the middle of the Irish music and dance maelstrom around Dublin and Meath for over four decades, and much of that magic can be gleaned from the annual House Dance broadcast on RTE Radio One’s Ceili House program (www.rte/radio1/ceilihouse.ie).

For 17 years they have opened their house to radio listeners around the world and some 40 musicians for a rollicking New Year’s celebration of chunes, songs, yarns, poetry and, of course, set dancing on the first weekend of January recreating the holiday house dances of old.

Having the chance to sit and hear Antoin accompanied by the legendary Felix Dolan at Glucksman Ireland House is something no fan of traditional Irish music will want to miss, and you never know who might stop by to share a tune with the Master musician from Cavan. For more info visit www.blarneystar.com . . .

IN other appearances, Brian Conway, the stellar fiddler, will offer a free concert in Rockland County at the Suffern Library (210 Lafayette Avenue) this coming Sunday at 1:30 p.m. joined by Brendan Dolan. For more info contact phone 845-357-1237 or www.suffernfreelibrary.com. Conway has also started up a new weekly Sunday session at Mickey Spillane’s Pub in Eastchester (421 White Plains Road) on Sundays from 5-8 p.m. . . .

Tin whistler and flute player Larry McCullough has teamed up with his actress-wife Lisa Bansavage for a series of music and poetry and prose events around a number of New Jersey libraries over the next month starting with this Friday in Roseland, New Jersey. More details can be found at www.lemmcullough.com.

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