Irish music singer and scholar, Dan Milner plumbs integration of New York’s ‘Unstoppable Irish’
Time frame: 1783-1883
By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR
Dan Milner has an enviable triple-threat musical quality: He’s equally good at writing and talking about songs as he is singing them.
Born in England of an Irish mother and Irish-English father, Milner has long been a font of Irish folk song in numerous forms, including traditional ballads, maritime songs, Canadian and New England lumber camp songs, and Irish-American popular songs. He kept company with legendary Irish singers of past generations like Frank Harte, Joe Heaney and Margaret Barry, and was part of the late 1970s band The Flying Cloud (acclaimed New York City fiddler Tony DeMarco was another member), often regarded as among the first Irish-American bands to draw on the contemporary sound pioneered by Planxty, The Bothy Band, and De Danaan, among others.
Milner, possessed of a clear, resonant voice, went on to make the landmark recordings “Irish Ballads and Songs of the Sea,” “Irish in America,” Irish Pirate Ballads and Other Songs of the Sea,” and “Irish Songs from Old New England,” with contributions from such luminaries as Mick Moloney, John Doyle, Joanie Madden, and Robbie O’Connell.
All the while, Milner showed himself to be a top-notch music scholar, publishing The Bonnie Bunch of Roses, a groundbreaking collection of 150 Irish and British folk songs, and writing for numerous periodicals like History Ireland, Irish Music, The Journal of New York Folklore, and The Living Tradition. He has also given talks on folk and traditional music far and wide in a variety of settings, from college campuses to music camps.
This year has seen the publication of Milner’s latest project, The Unstoppable Irish: Songs and Integration of the New York Irish, 1783-1883, in which he offers evidence – largely through folk and popular period songs of the era – of how New York City’s Irish Catholic community gained acceptance in the city, culminating in the election of its first Catholic mayor, William R. Grace. Milner’s central premise is that the Irish integrated, rather than simply assimilated, within the larger New York population. The distinction is an important one, he insists: Instead of adopting the culture of the dominant group, the Irish were able to attain “common and equal” membership.
“Assimilation had always been an option for Catholics, even in Ireland,” he writes – all they needed to do was adopt the mainstream Anglo-Protestant identity. “But the same virile strain within the Hibernian psyche that had overwhelmingly rejected the abandonment of Gaelic Catholic being in Ireland continued to hold forth in Manhattan, and the community remained largely intact.”
Last month, Milner came to Boston College to showcase his research in multi-media fashion: reading excerpts, and elaborating on points, from The Unstoppable Irish; showing slides of historical photos and illustrations; and, of course, sharing his interpretations of songs, both pre-recorded and live, and often in duet with his wife Bonnie.
In a pre-lecture chat, Milner – an adjunct assistant professor of geography at St. John’s University in New York – touched on a few chapters of what’s been an eventful and well-traveled life: He has worked as a US Census Bureau geographer, a National Park Service ranger at (appropriately enough) Ellis Island, a research assistant at an institute for sustainable cities, and a regional manager for two international airline companies; besides England, he has lived in County Kerry, Toronto, and Brooklyn, with a brief sojourn in Boston, and his various enterprises have taken him to locales ranging from Philadelphia, Chicago, and Ireland’s Inishowen Peninsula to Iceland.
But he has always made time for songs, and not just listening to or singing them.
“As much as I might like a recording – how it sounds, the music that’s on it, the singer or musician who made it – I am always interested in what kind of liner notes it has,” he explained. “I want to know more about where a song comes from, when and how it might have originated. What does that phrase in that verse mean? What person or place is that line referring to? Those kinds of details can make the song more meaningful; they can give you insights into life and times of the period from the ‘street-level’ perspective.”
As an example, he cites an Irish-American song that dates from the latter part of the 19th century, in the wake of the depression that followed a financial panic in 1873, about an Irish laborer who finds himself out of work because of the advent of steam-based machinery.
“The song is just three verses, but there’s a lot packed into it: the vulnerability of the working class, the greed of the Gilded Age,” he said. “Most of all, it’s an intensely Irish song about an intensely American experience.”
This desire to know the origins and characteristics of traditional and folk songs was what led Milner to publish The Bonnie Bunch of Roses in 1983. While English and Scottish songs were part of the mix, the book’s significance lay in its Irish content, said Milner: “There weren’t a lot of books of Irish folk songs at the time; a vast amount had never been published.”
The Bonnie Bunch of Roses included not only music and lyrics for each song (as well as guitar chords), but historical background, sources, a discography and bibliography. The songs are divided into categories, such as older ballads – including “Barbara Allen,” “Hind Horn,” “The Battle of Harlaw” and “The Maid and the Soldier” – songs about soldiers and sailors (“Greenland Whale Fishery,” “Arthur McBride,” “The Kerry Recruit,” “The Flying Cloud”), love (“The Blacksmith,” “Matt Hyland”) and Ireland’s quest for independence (“The Seven Irishmen,” “Dunlavin Green”). But Milner made it less of an academic work and more of a personal undertaking, with notes containing witty observations or insights gleaned through his relationships with singers he had heard perform the songs.
“I publish a new book about every 37 years or so,” he quipped, turning to The Unstoppable Irish, which he described as a “seven-year preoccupation.” The project involved not only music scholarship, but also delving into his two “other” longstanding interests, history and geography, to trace the slow but generally upward progress of Irish Catholics in New York City, beginning with the evacuation of British forces following the Revolutionary War. Milner said that just about everyone who helped him in his research was “a librarian, a singer, or a teacher. Some are all three.”
At BC, Milner gave an overview of The Unstoppable Irish, briefly reaching all the way back to New York’s era as a Dutch outpost and the years leading up to the Revolutionary War as a prologue, then offering glimpses of Irish life in New York as the 19th century unfolded, with occasional song selections. He and Bonnie gave a rendition of “Shove Around the Grog,” evoking the canal trade in which some Irish were employed, while “Far from the Shamrock Shore” personalized the journey thousands undertook from Ireland to New York.
But the Irish, along with other immigrant groups, did not always find a warm welcome in New York, or elsewhere in the US, noted Milner, citing a song about the notorious, nativist “Know-Nothings.”
The Civil War, as he explained, was a crucial milestone in the Irish people’s American experience: “The war strangely, and painfully, presented the Irish with an opportunity to prove themselves. Unwanted in time of peace, they found themselves needed in time of war.”
But there were complexities to the Irish situation, said Milner, as personified in “the Gallant 69th,” New York’s Irish regiment. When the 69th – many of whom had participated in Ireland’s failed 1848 rising against Britain – sat out New York’s gala for the visiting prince of Wales, they were widely condemned. A perception formed of New York’s Irish immigrants as ungrateful and disobedient, said Milner, who played his recording of “The Irish Volunteer,” a song about the 69th that expresses pride for the regiment’s action: “When the Prince of Wales came over here, and made a hubbaboo/Oh, everybody turned out, you know, in gold and tinsel too/But then the good old Sixty-ninth didn't like these lords or peers/They wouldn't give a damn for kings, the Irish volunteers!”
As the Irish increasingly made their way into positions of power and influence in post-Civil War New York, one high-profile area of success was entertainment, Milner said, singling out composer Edward Harrigan (“the inventor of the Broadway musical”) and his song “McNally’s Rows of Flats.” Although he made use of broad ethnic stereotypes typical of the day, Harrigan had a good read on the diverse immigrant groups on the Lower East Side and elsewhere in the city, bringing it all to the fore with self-deprecating Irish humor, as evidenced in the song’s chorus: “Ireland and Italy/Jerusalem and Germany/Chinese and Africans and a paradise for rats/All jumbled up together/in the snow or rainy weather/They constitute the tenants/in McNally’s row of flats.”
Milner is quick to assert that the Irish experience in New York City is not a universal one, not for the Irish or other immigrant groups: The geographical, social, political, and economic characteristics of the city are so unique as to make comparisons with other parts of the US difficult, if not impossible. These factors, in turn, made New York’s Irish Catholics a distinct group in and of themselves.
Yet, as Milner told his audience at BC, if one were to look for an exemplar of Irish ascendancy in America, the fact of William Grace’s mayoral administration in New York is a pretty good one – even The New York Times, hardly an ally of the city’s Irish community, acknowledged that Grace “had done a good job” by the time he left office.
For all the time and energy spent on The Unstoppable Irish, Milner is not about to ring down the curtain on his career as a researcher. His next project, he said, concerns a mid-19th century priest from a Cuban family who lived in New York’s Chinatown. Fluent in five languages, he learned Gaelic to be able to converse with his new parishioners from Ireland, and went on to lead “a fantastic life,” full of “corporal works of mercy.”
“I’d like to get together with someone who knows Spanish, who can help me look through his life and find out more about him,” said Milner, who added, “Hopefully, it won’t take me another 37 years.”