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:

(We chat about the history and then Peter Adams
sings the song)

Dressed as Irish servant girls

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

on Broadway.

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