Known as “The Royal Family of Irish Entertainment,” the McNultys were the leading Irish-American music act from the 1930s through the early 1950s. They had a hit radio show; they made hundreds of recordings and sold many thousands; they performed everywhere from New York to Newfoundland in theaters and bars so packed they frequently had to turn people away. Their reign was long and their decline in popularity was gradual, with some members of the family still doing occasional shows as late as the 1980s.
Today, however, few of their songs are in circulation, none of their sheet music is available, and a Google search yields only a few
relevant links and scant details.
But all that may soon change. Though contemporary culture may have forgotten about the McNulty family, there are those who certainly haven’t. Patricia Grogan, Eileen McNulty’s daughter, has been working with Brendan Dolan, Project Archivist for the Archives of Irish America at New York University’s Tamiment Library, to establish the McNulty Family Collection. The collection holds a wealth of information and resources, most of which was amassed by the McNultys themselves. I recently spoke with Pat and Brendan about the formation of the archive and the history it contains.
“The McNultys Were a Hit”
As I talk with her granddaughter, it becomes clear that Annie McNulty knew two things all along: that her family was destined for show business greatness and that they would build a legacy worth remembering. “She just loved performing,” Pat explains. “And she was a dynamo, an absolute force of nature.”
Born in Kilteevan, Co. Roscommon in 1887, Annie Burke was the youngest of nine sisters. At a very young age she began performing locally as a singer and an accordion player, and gave her first concert in 1907. That concert would be her last in Ireland: Annie immigrated to America in 1910 and settled in Massachusetts. There, she met and married John McNulty from Drumkeeran, Co. Leitrim. Their two children, Eileen and Peter, were born in 1915 and 1917, and a few years later Annie began training them for the stage. “She had them performing in amateur shows as soon as they could walk, really,” Pat laughs, telling me about the early days of her “Naneen’s” career. “And then in 1927 she wrote their famous number ‘Danny Boy the Greenhorn’ and they started performing as a family.”
Performing would become not only a desire, but a necessity. John McNulty passed away in 1928 and, as Pat recounts, “Naneen was widowed and her children were young. Immediately she began to work as the supervisor of the building they were living in and the three of them started performing for money.” Fortunately for Annie, the McNultys were a hit. “By 1930 they were on radio, and they had their ‘Irish Show Boat Revue.’”
The family moved to New York and were in shows all over the city several nights a week, appearing everywhere from the Leitrim Houses, to bars in Rockaway, to the opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – where they would perform their famous “Irish Show Boat Revue” an astounding 55 times. They were guests on the highest-rated radio and television programs of the 30s – The Rudy Vallee Show and Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle – singing their crowd-pleasing songs “Mother Malone,” “Likeable Loveable Leitrim Lad,” “Far Away in Australia,” and “At the Close of an Irish Day,” to name a few. They recorded with Decca, one of the biggest record labels, and collaborated with other Irish and Irish-American performers, but they also created a style and a sound that was very much their own. In Pat’s words, “they did a lot of vaudeville and a lot of traditional stuff – but always with a kick.”
Tours took them to Boston, Chicago, and Newfoundland, where they had a lasting influence on local musical traditions. Much of their music even traveled back to Ireland: many of their songs were commercially released and Annie became a local hero in Kilteevan. Pete wrote a weekly column for The Irish Advocate, the most prominent Irish American newspaper at the time, and he and Annie penned the lyrics to some of their biggest numbers. The McNulty Family was, as Brendan Dolan aptly puts it, “It.” Pat adds, “there wasn’t anyone like them. When they performed, people would get up and dance. They were absolutely electric.”
“The Irish Show Boat Kept Chugging Along”
War broke out and Pete went into the army in 1942. Though times were certainly difficult, Pete’s absence did not mean the end for the McNulty family. “While he was away, the ‘Irish Show Boat’ kept chugging along,” Pat says, with help from friends like Donnie “The Swank” McDonnell, who stepped in to perform with Annie and Eileen. Annie even took over Pete’s column in The Advocate. Pat also talks with pride about how Pete served and entertained the troops. “He wrote skits and performed for them in foxholes and bombed-out buildings. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and was a second lieutenant by the time the war ended.”
Sadly, though, after the war Pete’s health was broken indefinitely and things slowed a bit for the McNulty Family, for a variety of reasons. “It was the 1950s. Tastes were changing, the old neighborhoods were breaking up. But,” Pat adds, “they did keep going.” They performed their last show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1951 and recorded some more in 1950 and 1953. Their last performance as a family took place in Philadelphia in 1959. Then, in 1960, Pete died at the young age of 43, bringing the original McNulty act to a sad conclusion. Pat’s brother, Jim, did perform with his mother and grandmother a few times, but shows were never as frequent.
“What a great run they had,” Pat is quick to remind. “From the ’20s to the ’60s. It’s amazing. A great legacy.”
Listening to their music, it’s easy to see why the McNulty Family appealed to such a wide audience. Their songs are rousing and catchy. They tell stories of courtship, of patriotism, of day-to-day life, and – most of all – of a deep nostalgia for Ireland. They extend a hand to listeners, inviting them to come aboard the little “Irish Show Boat” and “cross the briny seas” to an island three thousand miles away: to do in song what a large portion of the immigrant community couldn’t do in reality.
Annie never returned to Ireland and Pete never got the chance to visit. Trips were planned on two occasions, in 1939 and 1959, but were disrupted both times: first due to the war and then due to Pete’s failing health. Eileen, however, did get to go. Following her husband's death in 1968 and Annie’s passing in 1970, Eileen took Pat and Jim to Ireland, where she earned her TCRG in Irish step dancing. After returning to America she taught for the rest of her life and, Pat recalls, still performed on rare occasions until she passed away in 1989.