Heritage, Music and Death: When Irish Eyes are Smiling

The other day, we listed songs, singers and directors from President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963. This past Friday evening, Kennedy’s brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, was memorialized in a special televised tribute to his past before the burial that was slated for Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery. Z on TV wrote:

Set at the John F. Kennedy Library with the flag-draped coffin of Ted Kennedy front and center, politicians, friends, family members and performers came together to remember Kennedy’s life by turning 3 hours and 17 minutes of television time into a celebration and elegy.

By the time the event ended with two Irish tenors and the Boston Community Chorus leading the gathering through one of the most soulful renditions of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” that I ever heard, it felt like mission accomplished on providing a proper sendoff to one of the most towering political figures of the last half century…

…There was testimonial after testimonial as to how much Ted Kennedy loved music despite his own limitations as a singer, and some of the most elevating moments Friday night were musical: Brian Stokes Mitchell singing “The Impossible Dream” and the Boston Community Chorus singing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

The video above captures the song, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” which conveys the emotions – including joy – that were conveyed during this rendition of an unlikely funeral song. The two Irish tenors were Colm Wilkinson and John McCormick. The song was a pointed reference to Ted Kennedy’s Irish heritage.

This song was published in 1912, and the lyrics were written by Chauncey Olcott and George Graff, Jr. and set to the music of Enerst Ball for Olcott’s production of The Isle O’ Dreams. The song was published at a time when songs in tribute to a romanticized Ireland were very numerous and popular both in Britain and the United States. During the First World War the famous tenor John McCormack recorded the song. The song is now in the public domain, since it was published in the USA prior to 1923. To that end, the lyrics follow:

There’s a tear in your eye,
And I’m wondering why,
For it never should be there at all.
With such pow’r in your smile,
Sure a stone you’d beguile,
So there’s never a teardrop should fall.
When your sweet lilting laughter’s
Like some fairy song,
And your eyes twinkle bright as can be;
You should laugh all the while
And all other times smile,
And now, smile a smile for me.


When Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, ’tis like the 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.
And when Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, they steal your heart away.

For your smile is a part
Of the love in your heart,
And it makes even sunshine more bright.
Like the linnet’s sweet song,
Crooning all the day long,
Comes your laughter and light.
For the springtime of life
Is the sweetest of all
There is ne’er a real care or regret;
And while springtime is ours
Throughout all of youth’s hours,
Let us smile each chance we get.


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