An Irish Lullaby. . . Or Maybe Not!

Killarney, Ireland

Killarney, Ireland

Here is a song with an Irish title (Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral), an Irish-descended composer (James Royce Shannon), Irish dialog in the lyrics, and a part of the Songs of Ireland Collection. The song must be Irish. Right?

But wait a minute! While the song has been enduring as a lullaby sung by mothers to their little children and most people consider this tune to be a traditional Irish tune, its origins are quite American!

James Royce Shannon was really James Royce, an American, and Royce is not an Irish name; it is the old form of the English name Rice. Royce/Shannon is a prime example of the use of pseudonyms to make a song more saleable. Shannon, born James Royce in Adrian, Michigan, became one of America’s more prominent actor, composer/lyricists of the Tin Pan Alley era. Royce added Shannon to his name to create a pseudonym for his writing efforts. He organized his own theatrical company and toured the United States and Europe. Shannon also was the drama critic for the Detroit Free Press for several years. His most famous song is Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, written in 1913 for the musical production Shameen Dhu, (Gaelic for “Black-haired Jamie”), produced by Chauncey Olcott, which was staged in New York in 1914 and ran for thirty-two performances. Its story line is set in Ireland in the late 1700s. This Broadway musical was an Irish love story set in Ireland in the late 1700s within the background of Ireland’s struggle to gain freedom from British rule.

James Royce Shannon also wrote the lyrics to The Missouri Waltz in 1916. That song had originally been published by the composer, Frederick Knight Logan in 1914 as a waltz without words. Shannon added the words and the song has since enjoyed the status of a lasting hit, becoming the state song of the State of Missouri and also as a song regularly played by President Harry S. Truman while in the White House.

Does the phrase Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral have any meaning? Various sources state that the word “tooraloo” is an Anglo-Irish word meaning “Goodbye for now! ‘’ll be seeing you.” It may be a variant of “tootle-oo.” The expression can be dated to circa 1910, and it was also used in James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922: “Toraloo,” Lenehan said, “see you later.” The word is also similar to the Australian expression, “too-a-roo.”

Conceivably, the expression “tooraloo” could have nothing to do with “Too Ra Loo Ra,” despite the apparent similarity. It may be just a nonsense word. Certainly, some songs use it this way.

On the other hand, “Goodbye for now” or “See you later” seem like reasonable themeS for a lullaby, in much the same way “rock-a-bye” in Rock-a-bye Baby has this meaning. The main point is that to the extent that “too ra loo ra” has a meaning at all, the connotation is “Goodbye for now.”

The popularity of Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral in the 1940s stems from the success of Bing Crosby’s hit from the Paramount Pictures film, Going My Way in 1944 in which Crosby plays a young, unconventional priest of Irish decent at St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church in New York City.

Bing Crosby sings Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral in a scene from Going My Way

Bing Crosby sings Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral in a scene from Going My Way

In the film, a series of events highlight the differences between Father “Chuck” O’Malley (Bing Crosby) and Father Fitzgibbon’s (Barry Fitzgerald) styles, as they deal with events like a parishioner being evicted and a young woman coming to the church having run away from home. The most consequential difference of opinion between the young easy-going priest, O’Malley, and the old curmudgeonly cleric, Fitzgibbon, arises in their handling of the youth of the church, many of whom are consistently getting into trouble with the law in a gang led by Tony Scaponi (Stanley Clements). Father Fitzgibbon is inclined to look the other way, siding with the boys because of their frequent church attendance. Father O’Malley, instead, seeks to make inroads into the boys’ lives, befriending Scaponi and eventually using this connection to convince the boys, against some initial reluctance, to become a church choir. The noise of the practicing choir annoys Father Fitzgibbon, who finally decides to go to the bishop and ask for Father O’Malley to be transferred away. In the course of the conversation, Father Fitzgibbon infers the bishop’s intention to put Father O’Malley in charge of the parish. To avoid an uncomfortable situation, instead of making his initial request, Father Fitzgibbon asks the bishop to put Father O’Malley in charge, and then, resigned to his fate of losing control over the church, he informs Father O’Malley of his new role.

Distressed, Father Fitzgibbon then flees the parish, leading to a search. He returns late at night, and as Father O’Malley puts the older priest to bed, the two begin to bond, discussing Father Fitzgibbon’s long-put-off desire to go to Ireland and see his mother, whom he has not seen in forty-five years, since he left Ireland as a young priest to come to America, and who is now over ninety. Father O’Malley puts the older priest to sleep with an Irish lullaby,Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral.

Here are the lyrics as sung by Chauncey Olcott (1914)
[Verse 1]
Over in Killarney,
Many years ago,
Me Mother sang a song to me
In tones so sweet and low;
Just a simple little ditty,
In her good old Irish way,
And I’d give the world if she could sing
That song to me this day.

Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Hush now don’t you cry!
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, That’s an Irish lul-la-by

[Verse 2]
Oft, in dreams I wander
To that cot again.
I feel her arms a-hugging me
As when she held me then.
And I hear her voice a humming
To me as in days of yore,
When she used to rock me fast asleep
Outside the cabin door.

[Repeat chorus]

Please note: Some versions have as many as fifteen verses.

To listen to a version of the song, click on the song title. To download a song, click on the song title, and then right click on Save target as

Chauncey Olcott (1914) Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral
Bing Crosby, John Scott Trotter and his Orchestra (1944) Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral
Charlie Spivak and his Orchestra (Instrumental) (1945) Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral

Kate Smith, Jack Miller and his Orchestra (1946 – did not chart) Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral


1 Comment

Filed under Pop Music

One response to “An Irish Lullaby. . . Or Maybe Not!

  1. bob daly

    You must be working very hard; what a project !

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