(Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania, 1/22.)
Once, many decades ago, there was an ethnic group that middle Americans conventionally looked down on. Its members were viewed as simple souls, close to the earth and not fully capable of grasping higher ideas. They spoke what was perceived as a comically distorted version of English, often exaggerated into caricature on the stage. Though assumed to be deeply religious and blessed with a natural musicality, they were also considered shiftless and untrustworthy, easy prey for their more violent impulses. Respectable folk felt the need to maintain a discreet distance from them.
Whatever you were thinking, the people I'm referring to are the Irish. The terms I've cited above were frequently applied to them, in middle-class parlance, during the waves of immigration that followed the great Irish famine of the early 1840s persisting down to the heyday of the great Irish-American vaudeville and theater stars who dominated our stage from the 1880s onward. These stereotypes were exploited by Irish and Irish-American performers, as well as by many who merely pretended to be Irish, producing a subspecies of minstrelsy in which people sang sentimentally about Cork instead of blacking up their faces with it.