In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, a reposting of my 2010 review;
Eleven U.S. presidents have been descendants of the Irish, including Barack Obama. An Irishman was the first to make a piano in America; take out an American appendix; start a fistfight on the floor of the United States Senate; jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Indeed, an Irish monk was the first European to discover America, in the sixth century, according to “The Irish…and How They Got That Way,” a musical revue and history lesson that was put together by the retired schoolteacher Frank
McCourt in 1997, a year after his memoir “Angela’s Ashes” made him famous.
The Irish Repertory Theater is now reviving the show exactly a year after McCourt’s death. If it were far shorter than its two-hour length, “The Irish” would be close to ideal as a stage show on Ellis Island, filled as it is with an educational mix of quirky facts and trenchant cracks (mostly about the hated British), historical overview and anecdotes, sentiment and humor, period quotations and old-time melodies, from the familiar (“Yankee Doodle Dandy”) to the inevitable (“Oh Danny Boy”) to the unearthed (“No Irish Need Apply.”) This is not to suggest that it’s an expurgated version of Irish-American history. Though not the irreverent romp that the title suggests, it has its share of zingers: During the nineteenth century, “there were two types of people the Irish did not get along with” one cast member says. “The blacks and the whites.” “This is a dark, dark world,” another quotes Adlai Stevenson. “That’s why the Irish are always half lit.” The six cast members include two that were in the original production, and two who variously play violin, mandolin, bodran, piano and accordion. In a more or less chronological series of monologues, against a changing backdrop of old illustrations, they tell us harrowing stories about the Irish potato famine that killed a fourth of the population, and drove many of the rest to America; about the astounding discrimination to which the Irish immigrants were subjected; about the infamous role the Irish played in the Draft Riots during the Civil War; about the Irish domination of big city political machines and labor unions and their role in the building of America: On a map of the United States, “run your finger along the route of any canal or any railroad and you’ll be passing over the graves of thousands of Irishmen who died… It was a rare thing in America to see a gray-haired Irishman.” They also touch on the Irish involvement in show business. There are four songs by George M. Cohan and a wonderful tap-dance-with-jokes vaudeville routine. Together they suggest the broader entertainment that could have been fashioned out of this gently diverting collection of history and song.
Postscript: Some of the world’s greatest dramatists were of Irish birth or heritage
George Bernard Shaw