One would expect a song with a title like this to have been written by an Irish troubadour, but "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" is actually an American song; in the words of Thomas Hischak, author of The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia, it was "written by two of New York's most prolific professional songwriters in collaboration with a leading vaudeville performer, none of them Irish."
The most successful song with an Irish angle of the decade was published by the New York firm Witmark, copyright 1912; the credits were shared by George Graff Junior and Chauncey Olcott who wrote the words, and Ernest R. Ball, who composed the music.
Technically Hischak's claim about the song's authors is true, but to this day many Americans with even quite tenuous ancestral roots in the Emerald Isle refer to themselves or are referred to as Irish-Americans, including Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama! Although Chancellor John Olcott was American born and bred, his mother was born in Ireland and came to the United States via Canada, and Olcott himself wrote and co-wrote many Irish songs.
"When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" was first performed by Olcott, in The Isle O' Dreams, which was based on a play by Rida Young set in Ireland in 1799. The show appears to have gone down like a lead balloon; it opened at the Grand Opera House, New York on January 27, 1913 and closed February 22.
Needless to say, the song faired much better; it has long become a St. Patrick's Day standard, and has been performed by artists as varied as Bing Crosby and Frank Zappa. A live recording was made by Perry Como in January 1994; an early recording, c1923, was made by John McCormack on HMV with an orchestral accompaniment.
Unsurprisingly, it has been used in many films including Irish Eyes Are Smiling - the 1944 bio-pic of composer Ernest Ball - and in the 1947 production Wild Irish Rose (the title of another Olcott song).
In April 1943, a copyright dispute concerning "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States, to quote from the judgment: "This case presents a question never settled before, even though it concerns legislation having a history of more than two hundred years." Although the judgment is very lengthy, the song is now in the public domain.
Suggestion credit: Alexander Baron - London, England