When Irish Eyes are Smiling isn’t actually an Irish song at all but it’s become one of those numbers that are often used by TV or video producers who want to conjure up a sentimental image of Ireland.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.