10 May

To the Maids of Taconite

I have traveled up and down a lot,
From St. Paul to the Coast,
And I have met a lot of charming girls,
I fancied I liked most.
But the fairest bunch I ever saw,
That fairly dazed my sight,
Are the girls, so sweet, none can compete,
With the maids of Taconite.

They always look so graceful,
Each wears a pleasing smile,
They are just the size to take the prize,
They dress in neatest style.
And if you are fond of dancing,
It would fill you with delight,
To have a whirl with any girl,
From the town of Taconite.

But I feel sorry for the boys,
That are sticking to their Ma,
For what is life without a wife,
And a tot to call you pa?
My college chums, take my advice,
And you will find this world more bright,
If you will set the day, not far away,
With a maid from Taconite

If you are just her cousin,
Give some other guy fair play,
Don’t aggravate and have her wait,
Until her hair turns gray.
So, girls, don’t be too patient,
Demand what’s just and right,
The girls are few that equal you
You maids of Taconite.

So, here’s good luck to each fair maid,
In that little mining town,
When you are in their company,
No face could wear a frown.
May each one wed some level head,
For love, and not for spite,
So, now, adieu, good luck to you,
The maids of Taconite.

Readers of this column will know that I am always on the hunt for Irish-style songs that include Minnesota place names and stories. In 15 years of searching, I have found a handful here and there. In my experience, Minnesota singers were more likely to sing about Ireland or places in Michigan or Ontario than they were to reference the North Star State itself.

Last month, I found a real gold mine! I first saw the name J.J. Somers when local piper Tom Klein shared a fascinating paragraph found in the Duluth Herald of June 17, 1911:

There are a lot of intriguing references in that piece!

It turns out that James J. Somers was born to Irish parents in the Georgian Bay region of Ontario in 1865. His home address was in Bottineau County, North Dakota in 1911 and his job on the bridge crew was one of many seasonal gigs he took from Seattle to Iowa to Minnesota during his life. He left North Dakota for the Twin Cities permanently in 1913, settling eventually in Robbinsdale. He also, I recently discovered, published a book of songs and poems he had written in 1913. The book, Jim’s Western Gems, is fully available on the Internet Archive!

“To the Maids of Taconite” appears in the book and is dated 1911 so it must have been composed around the same time as the raucous party described in the Duluth newspaper. Most songs in Somers’ book do not reference any melody. For this one, I took a melody from an unpublished songbook Songs of the Dogwatch compiled by Joseph McGinnis, another Irishman from Ontario and from the same generation as Somers. The air is that used by McGinnis for “The Banks of Claudy.”

I expect to share more songs and research on Jim Somers in the months to come!

06 Sep

The Four Provinces

Though the strifes of the north fill sad Erin with care,
There are hearts true and trusted in Ulster so fair,
From the Causeway of Giants to sainted Armagh,
There are hearts full of staunch love for Erin go Bragh.

Land of the west, fairest gem of the sea,
The home of the brave, though not of the free,
Ever loving though tearful, ah, who would not draw,
The last drop of his life’s blood for Erin go Bragh.

From Tralee to Kinsale there is patriot ground,
With cities of beauty fair Munster is crowned,
With Killarney’s bright lakes there are none to compare,
And the homes of the South are bright, merry and fair.

In the vale of lovely Leinster how proudly we find,
The charms of the North, South and West are combined,
With Wicklow’s fair mountains that top the blue sea,
The queen of all cities is Dublin machree.

Of all earthly delights the sweet West has but few,
But Connaught was faithful and Connaught was true,
And the same spirit lives in the west as of old,
Bold Connaught was faithful when Ireland was sold.

We take a break from the songs of Michael Dean this month for a rare and intriguing song from Mayo-born singer Dominic Caulfield who lived in St. Paul. Charlie Heymann recently found a tape recording of Dominic singing some of his songs for Tom Dahill, Barbara Dahill and John Curtin around 1976 in a room upstairs from MacCafferty’s Pub on Grand Avenue. The above song appears on the recording.

Dominic called this song “The Strifes of the North” but after some intensive searching I was able to locate a text-only version of it under the title “The Four Provinces” in Well-Known Irish Songs, a scarce songbook published in 1924 by Irish Industries Depot, Inc. Thanks to a copy digitized by Harvard, the book’s text is available online. Other than Dominic and the text in Well-Known Irish Songs, I have found no trace of this one.

I hope to learn more about Dominic’s life here in St. Paul (he had siblings here and one sister came about 1905 so my guess is that he immigrated around that time). On the recording he says he lived first with a brother in the Midway neighborhood before moving to Selby Ave.

We do know he was born in County Mayo. This song, though it praises the patriotism of all four provinces, seems to be from a Dubliner’s perspective. The version in Well-Known Irish Songs. Has “In my own lovely Leinster.” I kept Dominic’s verse order above but changed some lines to match the print version when the meaning was clearer. The melody is from Dominic though the transcription does little to capture his light and leisurely singing style. I hope to make the recording available through the McKiernan Library website soon!

21 Nov

The Irish American Club

From the hills of County Kerry to the shores of Londonderry,
And from Galway Bay to Dublin and their numbers were not small,
Came each youthful boy and maiden, with health and beauty laden,
To uncles, aunts, and cousins who were settled in St. Paul.
We figured then quite clearly, there’d be others coming yearly,
So an Irish club was formed that our legends might survive,
Irish music, dance, and singin’ with mirth the hall was ringin’,
Gaelic football every Sunday we also kept alive.

It was healthy, wholesome living–music, dancing, taking, giving,
We were always looking forward, eager for the next event,
Telephones kept hummin’ about doings’ that were comin’,
We kept the boys and girls feeling happy and content.
Old timers watched us proudly and proclaimed in accents loudly
We were the best they ever saw in any park or hall,
With gestures and with glances they supervised the dances,
While sittin’ on the benches lined up along the wall.

And what with all the dances there was quite a few romances,
The wedding bells kept ringing through the summer and the fall,
And I know the angels blessed them as friends and kin caressed them,
When the ceremonies was over and we gathered at the hall.
There were some we watched them nightly, looking bashful talking quietly,
But a little drop of poteen worked magic I declare,
The shyful blush it vanished, the feeling blue was banished,
And they would exhibit talents we never knew was there.

With the officers commanding our club began expanding,
We did a mighty lot of good in a quiet and humble way,
The mission house was cherished, and the orphan house was nourished,
We shared the joys and sorrows of our people day by day.
But half the pride of living is the heart-felt joy of giving,
Our club has been rewarded with treasures more than gold,
We are known and are respected, and by rich and poor accepted,
And Christian Irish people keep flocking to our fold.

We all feel quite elated at how high our club is rated,
The part that I donated I feel is rather small,
It will always give me pleasure, fond thoughts I’ll always treasure,
Of friendships true and wholesome, cultivated in St. Paul.
We will prove our reputation to our people round the nation,
Let no jealousy or discord within our ranks prevail,
We’ll show our hospitality to every nationality,
And our fame will be re-echoed to the shores of Innisfail.

We bring things home to St. Paul, Minnesota this week for a fascinating local song composed by Irish immigrant Patrick Hill (1900-1980) who came to St. Paul from County Tipperary (by way of Canada) in 1923. Hill was one of the founders of the Twin Cities Irish American Club that was active here from the post-World War II years through the 1980s. He was also a fiddle player and a prolific poet.

The Eoin McKiernan Library, of which I am the director, is working on an exhibition on The Irish American Club. From newspaper research, we know the club held weekly, Saturday night dances at the Midway Club (1931 University Avenue) starting in 1949, moved most events to the Uni-Dale Commercial Club at 345 ½ University Ave. in 1953 and then moved again to Ford Union Hall at 2191 Ford Pkwy in 1962. Their activity seems to have tapered off after the 1960s though they were instrumental in some of the first Irish Festivals organized in the early 1980s.

Hill’s song captures the mission and story of the club quite well—painting a picture of Irish immigration in the post-war period that matches well with accounts I have read from Boston and other American cities.

If you or someone you know has knowledge or photos of the Irish American Club, please contact me (Brian Miller) at 651-245-3719 or library@celticjunction.org