All aboard the McNulty Family’s Irish Showboat

By Earle Hitchner

[caption id="attachment_63590" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Feet fly as Eileen and Peter McNulty high-step to their mother's melodeon playing. ARCHIVES OF IRISH AMERICA, NYU"]


My first vivid reminder of the music recorded by the McNulty Family between 1936 and 1955 came in Frank Ferrel’s 1994 documentary “As Played by Joe Derrane.” It began with a snippet of the song “Hills of Knock-na-Shee” recorded by the McNultys for Copley, the same Boston label on which button accordionist Joe Derrane made his recording debut right after WWII. The song in the documentary neatly complemented its photographs of immigrants disembarking in the United States and a narrative voiceover about the newly arrived Irish looking for a bit of home within the Boston area.

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The widely appealing music of Kilteevan-born Ann “Ma” McNulty (1887-1970) on melodeon, her singing and dancing daughter Eileen (1915-1989), and her singing, dancing, and piano and violin playing son Peter (1917-1960) covered immigration, homesickness, courtship, maternal love, nostalgia, wit, whimsy, and both Irish and American pride and patriotism.

When her Drumkeeran-born husband John died at age 38 in 1928, Ma McNulty soldiered on, displaying a show-business acumen that would catapult her and her children to the top of Irish American entertainment along the East Coast. In 1932 and 1933, the McNulty Family launched their trademark Irish Showboat revue on radio and stage, and in 1953 they appeared on Milton Berle’s national TV program. The McNultys also sold out the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Opera House for no fewer than 16 consecutive years, and other venues in which they performed to enthusiastic crowds included Rockefeller Center, Yorkville Casino, and Leitrim House in New York City and Rockaway Beach.

The trio performed with the energy of a highly polished vaudeville act, complete with elaborate dresses and powdery makeup for Ma McNulty and debonair top hats and tails for her children. It was an act meant to be heard, seen, and absorbed, like a theatrical whirlwind.

Another testament to the popularity of the McNulty Family was the impressive number of recordings they made for Decca, Standard, and Copley: 155 sides on 78-rpm releases. Among their more famous songs were “Likable Lovable Leitrim Lad” (composed by Peter McNulty), “When I Mowed Pat Murphy’s Meadow,” “A Mother’s Love Is a Blessing,” “Boys from the County Cork,” “Mother Malone,” “Along the Rocky Road to Dublin,” and “When Rafferty Brought the Rumba to the Town of Aughnacloy.”

Those last three songs and many others will be given fresh renditions by singer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney and an all-star cast in “A Tribute to the Famous McNultys: The First Family of Irish Music” at 8 p.m. on Fri., March 11, in Peter Norton Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th St., Manhattan.

Presented by the Irish Arts Center, the concert will feature the Green Fields of America (Moloney, Billy McComiskey, Jerry O’Sullivan, Athena Tergis, and Brendan Dolan), Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks (recently appearing in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire”), fiddler Dana Lyn, the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance, singers Julie Feeney, Dermot Henry, Jerry Timlin, and Mary O’Dowd, and the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra.

Founded in 2000 by Moloney, WSHSO later this month plan to issue their debut CD, “Since Maggie Dooley Learned the Hooley Hooley,” which includes at least one song covered by the McNulty Family, “Come Out of the Rain, Barney McShane.” You can expect to hear that song too at the March 11 Symphony Space concert, which will mark nearly half a century since the McNulty Family’s final performance in New York City. A special guest at the tribute concert will be Ma McNulty’s great-granddaughter, Courtney Grogan.

Any music and dance showcase organized by Mick Moloney is always worth attending, and this one promises to be spectacular. It will be buttressed with vintage visual images of Ma, Eileen, and Peter McNulty drawn from New York University’s Archives of Irish America / Tamiment Library, where the McNulty Family Collection resides courtesy of Eileen McNulty’s daughter, Patricia.

The March 11 concert is expected to sell out, so don’t delay. For tickets, call 212-864-5400 or visit

Standout concert in Connecticut

Armagh’s Niall Vallely on concertina and brother Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes and low whistle performed alongside Dublin-born John Doyle on guitar and songs at Newtown Meeting House in Newtown, Conn., on Feb. 18. It was part of a first-ever U.S. tour by the three, who delivered a spellbinding concert.

Reels, jigs, a descriptive piece about a battle, and a slide were all impeccably played, affirming the Vallely siblings and Doyle as among the finest instrumentalists in Irish traditional music today.

Niall Vallely especially stood out on two of his own compositions, “First of August / Second of August,” as well as in his strict concertina solo on the reels “Rakish Paddy / Colonel Fraser / My Love Is in America.” Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes was just as exciting on “Gallagher’s March / Cottage in the Grove / Glen Road to Carrick.” John Doyle’s guitar accompaniment and solo playing were riveting.

This concert also represented the best vocal performance from John Doyle that I’ve ever witnessed. His singing of “Captain Glenn,” “Billy O’Shea,” “Long Hair Flowing Down,” and two of his own compositions, “Liberty’s Sweet Shore” and “S.S. Arabic,” was exemplary.

“S.S. Arabic” may be the best song Doyle has written so far. In chilling detail it describes a fateful, near-fatal episode involving his grandfather, who was in steerage and emigrating to America on the S.S. Arabic when the ocean liner was torpedoed on Aug. 19, 1915, by a German U-boat about 50 miles south of Kinsale, Cork. The ship sank in 10 minutes and took 44 lives with her. Doyle’s grandfather was hurled into the water and kept off a lifeboat until a kind soul finally reached out and pulled him aboard. He survived and stayed in Ireland, and his grandson’s vocal brilliantly conveyed the full emotion of that incident.

John Doyle has emerged not only as the finest acoustic guitarist in Irish traditional music (his picking now edges out the redoubtable artistry of Arty McGlynn) but also as one of its most gifted songwriters and compelling singers. This tour with the Vallely brothers, his previous tour and album (“Exiles Return”) with former Solas vocalist Karan Casey, his tours and Grammy-nominated album with fiddler Liz Carroll (“Double Play”), and his own solo appearances--including Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” in December--leave no doubt of Doyle’s soaring reputation.

Harker harkens

From 2 to 3 p.m. on Sun., March 6, flutist Lesl Harker, who compiled and transcribed tunes from Mike Rafferty in two well-received books, will give a free presentation entitled “Tunes and Tales of Old East Galway” in New Providence Memorial Library, 377 Elkwood Ave., New Providence, NJ 07974. Made possible in part by a HEART (History, Education, Arts Reaching Thousands) grant from the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Harker’s presentation will draw on her apprenticeship with Mike Rafferty and her knowledge of his music and life in Ireland. Joining Harker will be fiddler Veronica McNamara and harpist Eileen McIntyre. Call 908-665-0311 or visit for more information.