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By the 1880s, Irish Americans had secured prominent vaudeville positions, but as religious sensibilities shifted with the turn of the century, this was soon to change. Between 1880 and 1910, new Irish immigrants far exceeded all other groups.  One might expect that they would take advantage of expanding popular culture venues and join their fellow Irish Americans as the new vaudeville stars. Instead, there was an Irish-American retreat from commercial vaudeville, due largely to the influence of Catholic moral teachings.

After the Great Famine, Cardinal Paul Cullen’s devotional movement led a religious revival in Ireland. Cullen’s brand of Catholicism emphasized the evils of the flesh. As American churches became increasingly populated by priests and nuns trained in Ireland, those anti-pleasure values took hold among Irish-American families. While they were grateful for the bountiful food in the United States, Irish American women’s attitude was that though it prevented hunger, they did not look to it with great pleasure. For example, the writer Paul Donoghue recounted his mother’s behavior, writing, "Laughter and enjoyment, let alone sexual pleasure, are not for God-fearing [Catholics]. She gave to every charity but not to herself. She loved flowers but could never buy them for herself."

When remembering his mother, Frank O’Conner recalled that after cooking for her family, she would “bless herself and then add her own peculiar grace: ‘Well, thanks be to God, we’re neither full nor fasting.’” These behaviors were also instilled through the Catholic school system. In a National Conference of Catholic Bishops authorized volume, Dolores Liptak stated, "Both in the classroom and from the pulpit, generations of Catholics learned about sin and guilt or, for example, how salvation was all too easily lost because of sins of the flesh."

These anti-pleasure views impacted Irish American attitudes toward vaudeville. Serving those who had emigrated before Cullen’s religious revival, Ned Harrigan successfully wrote about his experiences in his Mulligan’s Alley series. However, the drinking and bawdiness that these playlets contained contrasted with the sensibilities of the children who had been reared in the Catholic school system. Liptak noted “Neither Harrigan’s theater nor his approach to Irish America were in tune with the changes taking place as the nineteenth century came to a close.”

As Harrigan’s sun set, the comedy team of Thomas Ryan and Mary Ritchfield gave Irish vaudeville a new life. Shirley Staples argued, “[Their] sympathetic, endearing portrait... assured the anxious audience member that his old background and habits were admirable, not something to be ashamed of … but few [other] Irish teams were popular.” The Irish American share of male-female teams in commercial vaudeville declined from 10 percent in the 1880s to 4.5 percent between 1895 and 1904.

Lace-curtain Irish Americans also cast aside Irish acts that maintained unacceptable stereotypes. One such act was the “Irish Servant Girls,” performed by James and John Russell. Immigrant Irish girls had grown up in households that had virtually no kitchen utensils and on a diet of only potatoes. Not surprisingly, when employed, they would make simple mistakes and sometimes get overwhelmed, making matters even worse. This led to a popular stereotype of the Irish servant girls that was exploited by Irish vaudevillians.

Outfitted in proper servant girls’ dresses, the Russell Brothers romped through one disaster after another. Their imbecilic characters drank their employer’s booze, started fires, broke fine china, mangled the English language, and inevitably ended up in a tumble with dresses high overhead. In 1907, the Russell Brothers were appearing in New York City. Under the leadership of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, three hundred Irishmen stormed the theater and pummeled the actors with potatoes and rotten eggs while shouting, “Down with the Russell Brothers. They ridicule the honest, hardworking Irish servant girl.” The remaining shows were cancelled and they were driven out of vaudeville. This Irish-American pressure was so successful that by the time the United States entered World War I, Joseph Curran concluded that “the ‘stage Irishman’ had all but disappeared from American theaters.”

Satires of the rising Paddy, which accounted for about one-third of the comic songs in the 1880s, virtually disappeared after the turn of the century. References to the combination of drinking, fighting, dancing, and singing declined from 26 percent of the songs in the late nineteenth century to an average of 8 percent in the first decades of the new century. Staples concluded, “After 1900 the Irish were no longer ubiquitous in American entertainment, as they had been in the 1880s and early 1890s.”

The waning acceptance of rough Irish working-class characters affected Maggie Cline’s career. Her stardom was based on a Famine Irish persona, portrayed in boisterous songs about Hogan being behind on his rent and McClosky’s epic boxing matches. But as the demands of the Irish audiences changed, Cline accommodated by embracing traditional nostalgia, as in her rendering of “Don’t Let Me Die Till I See Ireland.” Kate Elinore had also gained popularity with a servant-girl routine but because of the changing climate transformed herself into a ballad singer of traditional show tunes. Unfortunately, most Irish performers could not make the transition and lost their careers.

This precipitous drop in Irish vaudevillians is rejected by many Irish historians. Maureen Dezell moved seamlessly from Harrigan’s 1880s Irish worker presentations to mythical Mother Ireland songs produced by 1910s Tin Pan Alley composers to the kindly priest 1930s movies. Timothy Meagher claimed, “This emergence of a newly invented, commercialized Irish American popular culture would flourish for the next fifty years.” James Barrett asserted, “Long after 1900, a strong Celtic presence characterized the vaudeville stage, its audiences, and its entrepreneurs.”

They are able to make these claims because they also reject the notion that the anti-pleasure components of Cullen’s devotional movement had an impact on Irish American attitudes towards commercial vaudeville. Dezell contended that the devotional movement simply promoted immigrant uplift: “Go to Mass, receive the sacraments, send your children to Catholic schools, do as the nuns and priest say, give money, avoid drunkenness and impurity.” Similarly, Meagher noted, “Churches staged self-conscious spectacles of high masses, festivals, and special celebrations that call into question characterizations of Irish ritual as plain and puritan.”

To some degree, their assessments reflected differences in the Irish communities focused upon. My thesis focuses on Irish communities that populated the large urban centers of the East Coast and Chicago. These were the cities that shaped vaudeville and where most vaudevillians were raised. In these cities, Catholic children went to Catholic schools and churches that were dominated by priests and teachers trained in Ireland under Cardinal Cullen’s guidance. By contrast, Dezell has a much more national focus. She highlighted the more liberal Catholic communities like St. Paul and San Francisco where church leaders did not promote an insular Catholicism that stressed sins of the flesh.

The site of Meagher’s research was Worcester, Massachusetts where “16 of its 20 priests …were born in America, and … all the curates in the city’s Irish parishes were American natives.” In addition, the majority of teachers in Catholic schools were also American born and trained. Thus, Worcester’s Catholic personnel did not embrace the anti-pleasure components of Cullen’s devotionalism as other areas where Irish-trained priests and teachers were dominant.

Some writers understate Church censorship efforts, instead emphasizing Protestant efforts to enact government regulations to keep immigrants away from “immoral” entertainment. By contrast, the Church could directly influence their Catholic congregants, forcing local exhibitors to respond to their demands. The owner of Worcester’s Bijou Theater recalled that “we were amongst six Catholic churches in them days and if you played a movie that wasn’t fit to be seen, they could crucify you.” So when Fedeli feared possible clerical criticism, he immediately canceled the offending film and repeated an old one. Similarly, Meagher noted the increasing efforts of the Catholic Church to combat “what they saw in popular songs and dances a tendency to immorality,” including those in “cheap vaudeville houses.” He pointed to the Catholic Messinger successfully exhorting city officials to censure film presentations.

Finally, the Church sponsored vaudeville shows in order to control content. Churches would hold charity events, encouraging Catholic amateur groups to perform. One such example was the vaudeville program at Stanford University during the first decade of the twentieth century. In some locales, these Church-run events were quite numerous. In Union Hill, New Jersey, “Father Laughlin’s flock gave a vaudeville show in the parish hall on the same evening that Father McGinley had scheduled a melodrama a block away at Turn Verin Hall.” Reflecting on the importance of these activities, at the construction of a new Brooklyn school for boys, Bishop McDonnell announced, “[It] will have a theatre which is expected to be one of the finest of its kind.” Thus, in various ways, informed by their devotional beliefs, Church efforts were instrumental in the decline of Irish performers in commercial vaudeville. 

Robert Cherry an economics professor at Brooklyn College and author of "Jewish and Christian Views on Bodily Pleasure" (Wipf & Stock 2018).

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