Wild Irish Rose
Banjo Connections -- by Jim Matthews
Our songbook contains several tunes that could be considered Irish, either by title or names and places referenced in lyrics. In addition to My Wild Irish Rose , we have Peggy O’Neal , Sidewalks of New York, The Band Played On , and I think we also have or had When Irish Eyes Are Smiling in our music. Indeed these songs are far removed from the banjo’s origins in the “South.”
The Irish connection with the banjo, as far as we can tell, started when some American minstrel troupes toured Europe. It might have been an Irish identification with the oppressed races that made the banjo attractive there. Banjos were incorporated into traditional Irish and Celtic folk bands. Pictures from the mid 1800’s show banjos being played along side Irish bagpipes. (Unlike the Scottish Highland model, the Irish bagpipe can be played in a number of keys, but that’s another story.) When harsh economic conditions forced many Irishmen to leave their country, the United States was a popular destination in which to make a new home. The U.S. was in a great railroad construction boom at the time, and that’s where many of these new Irish-Americans found work. Many of the early railroad building songs have an Irish flavor and include a banjo. And Bill Bailey was supposedly an Irish brakeman for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. It was the Irish who developed the Irish Tenor Banjo around 1917. Later this was simply known as the tenor banjo.
The Irish influence doesn’t stop there. Popular contemporary Irish bands, including the Dubliners and the Irish Rovers include tenor banjos. Banjoist Barney McKenna was asked to join the Chieftains, but decided to remain with the Dubliners. Apparently demand exceeds supply for the better banjoists in Ireland.
Reprinted from the Sacrament Banjo Band Newsletter, March 2005, page 2.