First Person / Irish eyes

The priest said no, but we couldn't hear him

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How powerful the feelings and memories triggered by music.

I spotted in the Post-Gazette's Jan. 27 almanac of anniversaries a title that resonates with millions including me. "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," one of my two favorite Irish songs (the other is "Danny Boy"), was introduced 100 years ago on Broadway in a musical called "The Isle O' Dreams," which was set in Ireland in 1799.

Chauncey Olcott, George Graff Jr. and Ernest R. Ball wrote the song, which has been recorded more than 200 times.

John McCormack is believed to have made the first widely heard recording of the song during World War I, but Bing Crosby's later version, included on his St. Patrick's Day album in the 1940s, was to become the definitive recording.

The song became a standard that is commonly sung at Irish-related events even today. Just ask the proud brothers and sisters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

"The Isle O' Dreams" lasted just 32 performances and is never revived. (Nobody revives "Knickerbocker Holiday," either, and yet it yielded the hauntingly beautiful "September Song.")

"When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," though, proved to be imperishable.

Although my family had many Bing Crosby records from the 1940s onward, the one song associated specifically with my Irish-American mother, Gertrude Patricia Sullivan Blank, was "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" because my German-American dad, Albert Edwin Blank, used to sing a few bars of it regularly when in a particularly ebullient mood.

When my mother died in November 1989 (Dad survived her by 17 months), I tried to persuade the music director at St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon to allow the song to be performed, even if just instrumentally, either before my mother's funeral Mass or during the recessional.

The music director not only refused (many Catholic churches are adamant about using no secular music; others are more flexible) but, to my great surprise, she complained to the pastor -- as if my pleas (and they were nothing more) were out of line.

The pastor, to my further astonishment, phoned my priest-uncle, Fr. Joe Sullivan (my mother's one surviving sibling), to complain that I "was harassing" the music director. (My single call had lasted only a few minutes and was mostly routine and in no way impolite.)

That call from the St. Bernard pastor to my retired priest-uncle did, though, get my Irish up. I happened to be at home when I learned of it, and I immediately played the Crosby recording fragment by fragment until I had all of the lyrics transcribed. (This was pre-Internet, of course.) I typed them, made 50 copies and had about three dozen relatives meet in my apartment the night before the funeral to rehearse the song, once.

The next morning at the funeral, immediately after Communion, I quickly distributed the lyrics to the relatives and close friends clustered in the first few pews, and we sang "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" a cappella for my dad.

My great friend, poet-writer Ann Curran (whose poem appears on this page today) is a frequent visitor to Ireland and she told me outside the church that it was the most moving thing she'd ever experienced at a funeral -- a response I treasure.

To this day, the family rallying to sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" for Dad is the defiant gesture of which I remain proudest.

OK, Dad?


Ed Blank is a retired film, theater and home video critic who lives in Mt. Lebanon. He also is a proud member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Division 32.


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