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The story of how the gramophone came to influence Irish music

In 1900, New York’s Third Avenue bustled with activity. Horse-drawn carriages and the occasional motor car moved below the street’s elevated train lines. It was here that Leitrim native, Ellen O’Byrne, chose to set up her Irish music shop.

Nestled between pet shops and hardware stores, below balconies and bedsits, she built a mecca for Irish immigrants. According to Professor Roxanne O’Connell, it would have been a place where new arrivals could meet friends and neighbours, while settled members of the community could drop by for news and a cup of tea. Of course, they could stock up on music too.

As New York’s population began to explode, O’Byrne saw more and more customers come through the door. She stocked the shelves with Irish flags, instruments, sheet music and any Irish recordings she could get her hands on.

But, by 1916, she couldn’t keep up with demand. Dance tunes, like “Stack of Barley”, sold out very fast but only a limited selection were available. To make matters worse, one of the only stockists decided to stop making Irish records. According to The Irish in the Atlantic World, this was when O’Byrne decided to take action.

But let’s begin by taking a look further back.

From office tool to entertainment device

In the 1880s, Thomas Edison and his rivals – Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter – were racing to perfect their latest inventions. They were working on a device to record business correspondence. A device which they thought would become as popular as the typewriter.

Edison called his invention the phonograph, while Bell and Tainter called theirs the graphophone. But, ultimately, neither one was a huge success. So Edison changed tack and began to sell pre-recorded wax cylinders that played music.

But these wax cylinders were easily damaged and couldn’t be mass produced. By the time Edison addressed these issues, his invention had already been displaced by a gramophone which played disc-shaped records, rather than cylindrical ones.

This innovation came from Emile Berliner, who was a German immigrant living in Washington, DC. In the early 1890s, he launched the ‘Gram-o-phone’. 78 RPM records soon became the standard and a primitive recording industry soon appeared.

Marketing music to immigrants

At first, the industry was completely focused on selling gramophones and records to America’s middle class. But as this demographic became exhausted, recording companies had to develop new markets. At the beginning of the 20th century, they turned to the country’s expanding ethnic communities.

Major labels, like Columbia, quickly realised the value of tapping into people’s national pride and began to offer recordings in different languages.

According to The Irish in the Atlantic World, selling records to Eastern European communities had proved to be a huge success. This, coupled with the determination of Ellen O’Byrne, led to an increase in the creation of records for the Irish diaspora.

Ellen O’Byrne DeWitt

Third Avenue, New York City, ca. 1898.

At the age of fifteen, O’Byrne emigrated to New York from Dromod in Co. Leitrim. Here, she met her husband Justus DeWitt who was a Dutch immigrant. Together, they opened the O’Byrne DeWitt Irish music store at 1398 Third Avenue in Manhattan.

In 1900, the store stocked early Edison wax cylinders and then moved to 78 RPM discs. Popular records came from Irish tenor John McCormack and German-American accordionist John Kimmel, who was known for playing Irish tunes.

O’Byrne wanted to stock more dance tunes, but Gennett Records went the other way and stopped recording Irish music altogether. So O’Byrne took matters into her own hands.

Every Sunday at Celtic Park in Queens, members of the Irish community gathered to play sports and music. So O’Byrne sent her son Justus there to find some talented musicians.

He later said in an interview: “Well, I found Eddie Herborn and John Wheeler playing banjo and accordion, and they sounded great. So my mother went to Columbia and they said that, if she would agree to buy five hundred copies from them, they would record Herborn and Wheeler. She agreed…”

Herborn and Wheeler recorded “Mouse in the Cupboard” in September 1916. O’Byrne reportedly went door-to-door in New York’s Irish neighbourhoods to spread the word and her 500 copies quickly sold out. 

This first record was included in Columbia’s catalogue for decades afterward and, by the following January, Herborn and Wheeler had made another record featuring “The Rocky Roads to Dublin” and “The Stack of Barley”.

Backing a major label to record Irish musicians proved to be a wise business decision for O’Byrne. According to research group New York Irish History Roundtable, O’Byrne’s success allowed her to buy the building where her store was located. She also bought the building next door and made property investments in Staten Island.

She passed away in 1925, just after opening another store in Boston. But her son continued to sell records and went on to set up the Copley record label in 1948.

The Golden Era of Irish music recordings

After the success of O’Byrne and Columbia, other labels began to create content for the Irish-American market and many important records were made in the years that followed.

As reported in The Irish in the Atlantic World, a 1926 trade journal called Talking Machine World detailed the phenomenon:

“Few people are more interested in music and entertainment than those hardy foreign-born Americans who constitute so large a portion of the population of the average town or city, and… although they may live thriftily in many ways, music plays an important part in their lives and they spend annually large sums of money for this entertainment.”

With this in mind, record labels were eager to get native Irish musicians into the studio and they scoured the dance halls of New York and Boston for talent.

New York, in particular, became a hub for recording and it was here that well-known musicians like Michael Coleman, John McKenna, William Mullaly and James Morrison made influential records in the 20s.

A booming economy, the growing success of Irish immigrants and a rising interest in Irish culture all contributed to the creation of hundreds of records. In time, they would make an impact in Ireland.

Diverging styles

After the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, influence from the Catholic Church meant that Irish music was no longer played at informal crossroad dances or house parties.

Instead, dance halls were developed and traditional Irish music was played in controlled settings. This move was intended to impede the popularity of set dancing and jazz. But, according to academic Gerard Dooley, moving to these larger venues led to the decline of solo fiddle and bodhrán players, as well as the rise of large céilí bands.

In the US, on the other hand, waves of Irish migrants had crossed the Atlantic bringing older song and dance traditions with them. They were also free to experiment with their sounds. The likes of the Flanagan Brothers, for example, commonly used banjos and experimented with jazz sets.

Bringing it back across the Atlantic

While Irish music recordings were selling fast in America, they weren’t readily available in Ireland.

They were often sent across the Atlantic as gifts or brought home with returning emigrants.

Chicago’s Chief Francis O’Neill, who was originally from Co. Cork, was a famous collector of Irish music and he sent some of the first wax cylinder recordings back to Ireland by post.

While some records could be bought from London through catalogues and newspaper supplements, it wasn’t until the end of the 1920s that records from the UK became easily accessible.

As sales slowed down in the US due to the Great Depression, reissues were introduced to Ireland – many of which continued to sell right through until the 1970s.

From these records, many players learned new songs and discovered unique fiddle styles and piano accompaniments. Recordings from the likes of Coleman and Morrison made a particularly prominent impact in Ireland and influenced the way Irish music is played there today.

Want to find out more about Irish music’s influence around the world? Check out the Music and Dance gallery in our virtual tour.