Many people assume it’s an old Irish folk song but in fact it was taken from an American musical called The Isle O’ Dreams and first published in 1912.
The New Yorkers behind the “Irish" song
The lyrics were written by Chauncey Olcott and George Graff Jr who were both born in New York. The music was composed by Ernest Ball from Cleveland, Ohio.
Olcutt sang When Irish Eyes are Smiling in his own production of The Isle O’ Dreams. He was already a famous Broadway star at the time and had also written My Wild Irish Rose in 1899 for his own production of A Romance in Athlone.
Composer Ernest Ball specialised in Irish themes
The composer of the melody, Ernest Ball, was an excellent pianist and accompanied many of the top performers on Broadway and in vaudeville in the early 20th century.
He wrote numerous songs, mainly with Irish themes, to appeal to the thousands of Irish immigrants in New York at that time – although, of course, the strong melodies and the sentimentality of the lyrics brought the songs to a much wider audience across America.
His life story was later portrayed in a musical produced in 1944 called Irish Eyes Are Smiling.
Irish Eyes sheet music 1912
Canadian Prime Minister and US President Ronald Reagan sang When Irish Eyes Are Smiling to mark the Shamrock Summit between the two nations on St Patrick’s Day in 1985.
It did not go down well and Mulroney was slated in the Canadian press for his “embarrassing" performance.
Used in more than 20 Hollywood movies
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling has been used to conjure up a romantic vision of Ireland in more than 20 Hollywood films. It has also been used for much the same purpose in countless TV and radio shows.
Nelson Eddy performed the song in the film Let Freedom Ring in 1939. Other films that have used it include It’s a Great Day for the Irish (1999), Canary Row, Husbands (1970), Ducking the Devil (1957) and The Time of Your Life (1948).
Recordings of When Irish Eyes are Smiling
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling was said to be Senator Edward Kennedy’s favourite song.
He sang it at an election rally while campaigning for President Obama. The song was also performed at his memorial service.
Following the success of the song in The Isle O’ Dreams it was soon being recorded by many of the major singers of the day, most notably the Irish tenor John McCormack who had a big hit with it during the First World War.
It remained popular throughout the 20th century and was covered by several major artists in America including Bing Crosby and Connie Francis.
Folk singer Roger Whittaker was also successful with his recording of the song in the UK, and the Irish band The Wolfe Tones also recorded a successful version.