The Mc Nulty Connection
Annie Brigid Burke was born on 2nd December 1887 in Cloonmurly, Kilteevan, Co. Roscommon . She was the youngest of a nine children. Her father Pat was a weaver by trade who worked from home. Her mother was Abbey Hanly. The family lived in a thatched cottage close to the crossroads in Kilteevan. When Annie's father, died, his widow, Abbey, married Edward Fannon.
It is believed that Annie’s six other older siblings had emigrated at the time of this census.
Annie Mc Nulty’s musical talent was recognised early in life. At a very young age she began performing locally as a singer and an accordion player, and gave her first concert in Kilteevan NS in 1907. She was in great demand as a musician at local dances and social occasions.
Annie emigrated to America in 1910 and settled in Massachusetts. There, she met and married John McNulty who had emigrated in 1911, from Drumkeeran, County Leitrim. Annie and John were married on 20 April 1914.
They had two children, Eileen was born in 1915 and Peter in 1917. At an early age Annie began training the children for the stage. When they were very young, she had them performing in amateur shows and they started performing as a family.
Annie played the melodeon. Eileen sang and danced and Peter sang, danced and played piano and violin. While Annie’s husband was not a musician, he was a good céilí dancer, and he supported the family in performances.
John McNulty passed away on 13 December 1928, at the age of thirty eight.
Annie Mc Nulty soldiered on and with her two children they started performing professionally as The Mc Nulty Family. A woman ahead of her time, she showed her business acumen in developing a good entertainment package. In a time of limited public opportunities for women Annie McNulty was fortunately, hugely successful.
The family moved to New York and were in shows all over the city several nights a week. By 1930 they were on radio, and for sixteen years they staged a hit variety show; “Irish Show Boat Review” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Opera House with a full cast of performers.
The McNulty’s were known as the Royal Family of Irish Entertainers. They were possibly the most popular Irish entertainment act on the East Coast, and perhaps in all of North America, from the 1930s through the 1950’s. In 1953 they appeared on Milton Berle’s national TV programme.
The trio performed polished acts with full costume and make up. While they sang and played music they also acted and performed skits to accompany songs and comedy routines. Their shows were full of energy and fast-paced.
They performed everywhere from New York to Newfoundland in theatres and bars. Venues were so packed that they frequently had to turn people away. Their reign was long and their decline in popularity was gradual, with some members of the family still doing occasional shows as late as the 1980’s.
Their songs covered the themes of immigration, homesickness, courtship, maternal love, nostalgia, wit, whimsy, and both Irish and American pride and patriotism.
Among their more famous songs were “Danny Boy the Greenhorn” “Likable Lovable Leitrim Lad”, “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.”
They recorded over 150 records with the famous Decca label.
The Online 78-rpm Discography Project provides an impressive list all the songs recorded by the McNulty Family on the Decca (USA) label between 1936 and 1947.
Kilteevan Community Development Group is pleased to learn that Patricia Grogan, Eileen McNulty’s daughter, has been working with Brendan Dolan, Project Archivist for the Archives of Irish America at New York University’s Tamiment Library, to establish the McNulty Family Collection. The collection holds a wealth of information and resources, most of which was amassed by the McNulty’s themselves. The collection consists of scrapbooks, hundreds of photographs and clippings, three accordions, two top hats, 155 recordings, 40 posters, and more than 25 programs. There are also unpublished lyric books, contracts, copies of all the Irish Advocate columns, songs that were never commercially released, rare bits of video footage, and detailed scripts and musician’s directions for some of their numbers.
Annie Mc Nulty thankfully collected lots of family memorabilia including a treasured programme and a ticket from her first concert in Kilteevan National School on Sunday February 24th in 1907. Thanks to her wisdom there is now a treasure trove of Mc Nulty legacy preserved for future generations. Perhaps the archive will travel to Annie’s homeplace Kilteevan some day! We would happily display the archive in our Community Centre, a place where no doubt, Annie Mc Nulty whispered prayers as a child.
So how did the Mc Nulty era end?
Peter joined the army in 1942. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and was a second lieutenant by the time the war ended. While in the army he entertained the troops. He wrote sketches and performed for them in foxholes and bombed-out buildings. During this time Annie and Eileen kept the Mc Nulty show on the road.
Peter also wrote a weekly column for The Irish Advocate, the most prominent Irish American newspaper at the time. Despite his good intentions, he never got to visit Ireland. .Peter died in 1960 aged 43 years bringing the original Mc Nulty act to a sad close.
Eileen married John J Grogan in 1937 and they had two children Patricia and James After the death of her brother and mother, Eileen did visit Ireland and trained as an Irish dancing teacher. After returning to America she taught for the remainder of her life. Eileen died in 1989
Having made a name for herself as an entertainer and entrepreneur on the New York stage and beyond, sadly, Annie Mc Nulty never returned to Kilteevan or Ireland.
She died in January 1970 in Hoboken New Jersey aged 82 years.
Below a photograph of plaque inserted in the front wall of Kilteevan National School in 2007. The plaque marks the 100th anniversary of Annie Mc Nulty’s her first concert in Kilteevan National school. This event took place as part of the fifth annual South Roscommon Singers festival.
The Irish Arts Centre in New York hosted a special concert “A Tribute to the Famous Mc Nulty’s the First Family of Irish Music”. The concert took place in The Symphony Space, 2537 Brodway at 95th Street on March 11th 2011 at 8.00pm.
By Eileen Fahey