The McNulty Family Show Boat Sails Again
One of the most popular entertainment groups from the 1920s to the 1960s, Annie ‘Ma’ McNulty and her children Eileen and Peter have largely been forgotten, but that may change soon.
Known as “The Royal Family of Irish Entertainment,” the McNultys were the leading Irish-American music act from the 1930s through the early 1950s. They had a hit radio show; they made hundreds of recordings and sold many thousands; they performed everywhere from New York to Newfoundland in theaters and bars so packed they frequently had to turn people away. Their reign was long and their decline in popularity was gradual, with some members of the family still doing occasional shows as late as the 1980s.
Today, however, few of their songs are in circulation, none of their sheet music is available, and a Google search yields only a few relevant links and scant details.
But all that may soon change. Though contemporary culture may have forgotten about the McNulty family, there are those who certainly haven’t. Patricia Grogan, Eileen McNulty’s daughter, has been working with Brendan Dolan, Project Archivist for the Archives of Irish America at New York University’s Tamiment Library, to establish the McNulty Family Collection. The collection holds a wealth of information and resources, most of which was amassed by the McNultys themselves. I recently spoke with Pat and Brendan about the formation of the archive and the history it contains.
“The McNultys Were a Hit”
As I talk with her granddaughter, it becomes clear that Annie McNulty knew two things all along: that her family was destined for show business greatness and that they would build a legacy worth remembering. “She just loved performing,” Pat explains. “And she was a dynamo, an absolute force of nature.”
Born in Kilteevan, Co. Roscommon in 1887, Annie Burke was the youngest of nine sisters. At a very young age she began performing locally as a singer and an accordion player, and gave her first concert in 1907. That concert would be her last in Ireland: Annie immigrated to America in 1910 and settled in Massachusetts. There, she met and married John McNulty from Drumkeeran, Co. Leitrim. Their two children, Eileen and Peter, were born in 1915 and 1917, and a few years later Annie began training them for the stage. “She had them performing in amateur shows as soon as they could walk, really,” Pat laughs, telling me about the early days of her “Naneen’s” career. “And then in 1927 she wrote their famous number ‘Danny Boy the Greenhorn’ and they started performing as a family.”
Performing would become not only a desire, but a necessity. John McNulty passed away in 1928 and, as Pat recounts, “Naneen was widowed and her children were young. Immediately she began to work as the supervisor of the building they were living in and the three of them started performing for money.” Fortunately for Annie, the McNultys were a hit. “By 1930 they were on radio, and they had their ‘Irish Show Boat Revue.’”
The family moved to New York and were in shows all over the city several nights a week, appearing everywhere from the Leitrim Houses, to bars in Rockaway, to the opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music – where they would perform their famous “Irish Show Boat Revue” an astounding 55 times. They were guests on the highest-rated radio and television programs of the 30s – The Rudy Vallee Show and Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle – singing their crowd-pleasing songs “Mother Malone,” “Likeable Loveable Leitrim Lad,” “Far Away in Australia,” and “At the Close of an Irish Day,” to name a few. They recorded with Decca, one of the biggest record labels, and collaborated with other Irish and Irish-American performers, but they also created a style and a sound that was very much their own. In Pat’s words, “they did a lot of vaudeville and a lot of traditional stuff – but always with a kick.”
Tours took them to Boston, Chicago, and Newfoundland, where they had a lasting influence on local musical traditions. Much of their music even traveled back to Ireland: many of their songs were commercially released and Annie became a local hero in Kilteevan. Pete wrote a weekly column for The Irish Advocate, the most prominent Irish American newspaper at the time, and he and Annie penned the lyrics to some of their biggest numbers. The McNulty Family was, as Brendan Dolan aptly puts it, “It.” Pat adds, “there wasn’t anyone like them. When they performed, people would get up and dance. They were absolutely electric.”
“The Irish Show Boat Kept Chugging Along”
War broke out and Pete went into the army in 1942. Though times were certainly difficult, Pete’s absence did not mean the end for the McNulty family. “While he was away, the ‘Irish Show Boat’ kept chugging along,” Pat says, with help from friends like Donnie “The Swank” McDonnell, who stepped in to perform with Annie and Eileen. Annie even took over Pete’s column in The Advocate. Pat also talks with pride about how Pete served and entertained the troops. “He wrote skits and performed for them in foxholes and bombed-out buildings. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and was a second lieutenant by the time the war ended.”
Sadly, though, after the war Pete’s health was broken indefinitely and things slowed a bit for the McNulty Family, for a variety of reasons. “It was the 1950s. Tastes were changing, the old neighborhoods were breaking up. But,” Pat adds, “they did keep going.” They performed their last show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1951 and recorded some more in 1950 and 1953. Their last performance as a family took place in Philadelphia in 1959. Then, in 1960, Pete died at the young age of 43, bringing the original McNulty act to a sad conclusion. Pat’s brother, Jim, did perform with his mother and grandmother a few times, but shows were never as frequent.
“What a great run they had,” Pat is quick to remind. “From the ’20s to the ’60s. It’s amazing. A great legacy.”
Listening to their music, it’s easy to see why the McNulty Family appealed to such a wide audience. Their songs are rousing and catchy. They tell stories of courtship, of patriotism, of day-to-day life, and – most of all – of a deep nostalgia for Ireland. They extend a hand to listeners, inviting them to come aboard the little “Irish Show Boat” and “cross the briny seas” to an island three thousand miles away: to do in song what a large portion of the immigrant community couldn’t do in reality.
Annie never returned to Ireland and Pete never got the chance to visit. Trips were planned on two occasions, in 1939 and 1959, but were disrupted both times: first due to the war and then due to Pete’s failing health. Eileen, however, did get to go. Following her husband’s death in 1968 and Annie’s passing in 1970, Eileen took Pat and Jim to Ireland, where she earned her TCRG in Irish step dancing. After returning to America she taught for the rest of her life and, Pat recalls, still performed on rare occasions until she passed away in 1989.
“Ma” the Archivist
Throughout the years, Annie McNulty had also been busy accumulating all the pieces that would eventually come together to form the McNulty Family Collection. In one of her weekly Advocate columns, Annie wrote, “…being of a sentimental nature, I have saved every scrap that has to do with the McNulty Family entertainers.” “And that,” Pat confirms, “is true.”
In a sense, the current collection really began with Annie’s careful attention to all the objects, photographs, and pieces of paper that would form a record of her family’s career. No bit of information was too small, explains Brendan. “Pat’s grandmother kept everything. Every mention of the McNulty Family, even down to two lines, was saved.”
When I ask where everything was kept, Pat smiles and says, “her apartment. She lived in the Hotel Wilson at Columbus Circle…That apartment was so stuffed with things, the closets were bursting with costumes, she had sheet music; scrapbooks; clippings; record players; a baby grand piano; the accordions; her tap shoes [were] on top of the sewing machine that she used to make all their costumes. Somehow she kept it all.”
A brief tour of the collection confirms that Annie did, in fact, save everything. There’s a program and a ticket from her 1907 concert in Kilteevan. There are annotated scrapbooks, compiled by Annie herself and complete with photographs colored in by hand. In addition to the hundreds of photographs and clippings, three accordions, two top hats, 155 recordings, 40 posters, and more than 25 programs, there are also unpublished lyric books, contracts, copies of all the Irish Advocate columns, songs that were never commercially released, rare bits of video footage, and detailed scripts and musician’s directions for some of their numbers. The collection is massive.
After Annie’s death, Eileen stored all the items in her house. Then, when Eileen passed away, care of the collection fell to Jim and Pat.
“My brother and I always knew that these things were important,” says Pat. “We safeguarded them. Jim saved them from floods; I saved some of the stuff from a California wildfire. And then eventually we agreed that we had to get these preserved because they’re so important to Irish America and to Ireland.” The question was, how?
In 2007, after a trip to New York, Pat picked up a book published by The Archives of Irish America, Making the Irish American. “I read an article by Mick Moloney and saw a poster of my family…Then I looked at my husband and said ‘That’s it! Mick Moloney and the Archives of Irish America. What could be more perfect?’”
Pat got in touch with Dr. Moloney, who flew to California a week later, and the collaboration began. “Everything just seemed to come together.”
That same year was the hundredth anniversary of Annie’s 1907 concert so Pat and her niece Courtney traveled to Kilteevan for the celebration, which was part of the South Roscommon Singers Festival. At that festival, Moloney was honored with the annual Annie McNulty Award, which recognizes important contributions to traditional Irish music at home and abroad. “It couldn’t have been more perfect,” Pat remarks.
As he shared in a recent phone conversation, Mick Moloney agrees. “I’ve been a great admirer of the McNulty Family since 1973,” he begins. “Their music has such an exuberant, unique sound. The first time I heard them I knew right away that they were different from any other musicians because of the combination of traditional music and vaudeville…of tap and step dancing.”
He contacted Eileen in 1977 and went to Hoboken to meet and interview her. There, he caught his first glimpse of what would become The McNulty Family Collection. All of the things Annie McNulty had saved were stored in Eileen’s house at that time, and Dr. Moloney remembers being amazed by what he saw. After Eileen’s death, he wondered what had happened to all the recordings, photos, and memorabilia. He wanted to contact Pat but wasn’t sure where to look: she had moved since his last conversation with Eileen and, because her married name is Smith, the odds of picking the right one in the phone book were slim to say the least. He feared that “the collection would be gone, lost.”
But with a few serendipitous moments, things have clearly worked themselves out. As Dr. Moloney puts it, “I think Annie McNulty would be smiling.”
With the continued support of Dr. Moloney and Michael Stoller, the Director of Collections and Research Services at NYU’s Bobst Library, the McNulty Family Collection has made wonderful progress. Moloney and Harry Bradshaw are compiling a double CD of McNulty songs, and a book chronicling the history and impact of the family is in the works. On March 11th, there will be a concert featuring the McNultys’ most popular numbers at New York City’s Symphony Space. The concert, a collaboration between the Archives of Irish America and the Irish Arts Center, will feature a large cast of singers and performers. Of particular note, Moloney mentioned possible performances by Malachy McCourt, Vince Giordano, and Annie’s great-granddaughter, Courtney. “We’re celebrating 40 years of Irish music in New York,” he said.
The contents of the collection are also being copied and organized into as chronological an order as possible. To accomplish this task, Pat flew to New York from California in August and spent two weeks working with Brendan Dolan. From an archivist’s perspective, this has been a rare and valuable opportunity. As Brendan elaborates, “The ideal thing about having Pat here is that, if I was left to myself I’d be in a real bind because I know the McNultys, but I don’t know who this or that other guy is. But Pat just looks at them and says ‘Oh! that’s –.’Archivists don’t normally have that kind of luxury. Usually they get a collection after the family is deceased and the information is lost and the researcher has to reconstruct it. The value of having Pat here is that she can give so much information right now.
“And not just Pat,” he adds. They were also joined by Donnie McDonnell, who sang and danced with the McNultys, and was able to identify not only people in the pictures, but even some of the numbers they were performing. “He is literally the last surviving member of their performing show. He’s the last link. And he just looked at the cast photographs and went down the line, and now we know who everyone is.”
All of this seems to prove that Pat is right – everything is coming together, and at the perfect moment. The collection is taking shape while those who remember the McNulty Family can still contribute to its accuracy and have the chance to travel back, via the archive’s recordings, to the performances they attended.
But it’s also here just in time to make sure that the McNulty Family’s legacy is remembered and understood by younger generations, that all the things Annie McNulty kept with such foresight remain intact, in order and accessible to all.