Behind the Song Lyrics: 110 Years of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”

Written by Chauncey Olcott and George Graff, Jr., with music composed by Ernest Ball, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” is a love letter to Ireland and its people.

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The song came out in a time when Irish immigrants already had a generation’s worth of settlement in the U.S., spiked by the Great Famine. Between 1820 and 1830, approximately 4.5 million Irish immigrated to America, and by 1860, the Irish accounted for nearly one third of the immigrants in America.

The song offered a sense of pride and loss for first-generation Irish-Americans and took on various waves, fitting into a collection of songs romanticizing Ireland, and the home many left behind, during the time.

There’s a tear in your eye and I’m wondering why
that it ever should be there at all
with such power in your smile sure a stone you’d beguile
and there’s never a teardrop should fall
when your sweet lilting laughter’s like some fairy song
and your eyes sparkle bright as can be
Oh then laugh all the while and all other times smile
and then smile a smile for me

First released in 1912, and featured in Olcott’s production of The Isle O’ Dreams with the writer singing the song in the show as well—the song made a bigger splash when it was released and later recorded by numerous artists.

Throughout the past 100 years, many artists recorded the song, including tenor John McCormack during the First World War, Bing Crosby in 1947, and Joni James in 1959 to Frank Zappa’s version in 1991, Perry Cuomo performed it live in 1994, The Irish Tenors in 1998 and many more through the present.

Though, the song was about Ireland, it was written by American writers in the U.S., Ball did have a link to the Isle since his mother had immigrated from there years earlier.

Olcott was also born in America, but his mother was a native of Ireland and came to the United States via Canada. Olcott also wrote and co-wrote several other Irish songs, including “My Wild Irish Rose,” “A Romance of Athlone,” and “An Isle of Dreams.”

A copyright dispute over “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in April 1943, leaving the song in the public domain.

Today, “When Irish Eyes” still has its uplifting and somber ends and remains a St. Patrick’s Day standard.

When Irish Eyes are Smiling sure it’s like a morn in spring
In the lilt of Irish laughter you can hear the angels sing
when Irish hearts are happy all the world seems bright and gay
but when Irish eyes are smiling sure they’ll steal your heart away

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