The Harp Without the Crown – The Heart of Paddy Whack


“St. Patrick’s Day isn’t what it used to be …the outbursts of eloquence and appeals to Irish patriotism become fewer each year.” Quotation from the Daily Missoulian editorial March 17, 1923. Although that might have been the case in Missoula, Butte was preparing for a grand celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in 1923. Hello, this is John Conlan, host of The Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF, and welcome to this episode of the Harp without the Crown, where I will be discussing St. Patrick’s Day events in Butte, Montana, March 17 and 18,1923. One particular event, the performance of a very famous play, The Heart of Paddy Whack, will be the focus of this episode.

Butte has always been known as one of the best cities in America to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. In 1923, Butte celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with notable events that included dances held at the Columbia Garden and Hibernia Hall, a banquet given by the Friendly Sons of St.Patrick at the Silver Bow Club and a solemn high mass with a choir celebrated at St. Patrick’s Church. At Hennessey’s Department Store, you could buy a St.Patrick’s Day kerchief embroidered with a harp and shamrock for 25 cents. The Butte Newspapers even noted that a St. Patrick’s Day baby was born to Mr. and Mrs. Cyrill Kahn of 1727 Wall St. in Butte. It was also noted there would be no parade that year.

One special highlight of the 1923 St Patrick’s Day celebration was the performance of a very famous musical comedy, entitled “The Heart of Paddy Whack.” The performance celebrated being Irish but also touched on social, cultural and political events in Ireland, thereby connecting the Butte Irish American community to Ireland in a way that only a theater performance can do.

The Heart of Paddy Whack was performed at the Butte Broadway Theater on March 17 and 18, 1923. It was directed by Joseph Riley and it was reported the cast was selected from “Butte’s best talent.” Before the play was adapted for Butte audiences in 1923, it was performed at the New York City Grand Opera House from November 23 to December 5, 1914, totaling 17 performances. The play was written by Rachel Crothers, who is considered to be one of the most influential playwrights of the early 20th century. Crothers was a feminist, social activist and philanthropist. Many of her plays explored feminist themes and the role of women around the world. Her play, Susan and God, was made into a 1940 MGM film starring screen legend Joan Crawford.

Her play was billed in Butte as a “clean, romantic comedy of tenderness and sentiment,” and was performed as a musical in three acts set in 1830 Ireland. The musical score was impressive and featured favorites such as My Irish Rose and When Irish Eyes are Smiling. The play also attempted to depict life in rural Ireland and undoubtedly resonated with many in Butte. Crothers also used two characters to explore contemporary issues facing women, gender roles, corruption and greed.

The play’s protagonist, Dennis O’Malley, also known as Paddy Whack, leaves the city life of Dublin and its wealth to return to his rural roots in the Irish countryside. There he dedicates himself to community service and assists and defends the poor as they navigate the legal system. He realizes the limitations of country life lamenting that ” it doesn’t take much to make the whole county talk,” referring to local gossip and news.. Despite the small town nature of his community, he seems content in knowing his move home will make him poorer but that he will be making a difference in his community. However, he is also aware of the toll that the economic situation in Ireland has had on its population, especially women. He laments that “the

sorrows of Ireland are on their backs, trampled in the rain and wind, herding the hills, living on crusts, with no hope of anything in their hearts.”

Dennis is also the foster father of Mona, a school girl, who has just returned home from a fashionable Dublin school. Mona is an important and conflicted character in the play, as she faces pressure to marry a man she does not love that involves a dowry. Mona contemplates the benefits of becoming a young bride, and not old and single. She observes,”what a lot of old women there are in Ireland…where do they all come from?” She found that eligible males “are as scarce as hen’s teeth here.” She leans toward marriage because she doesn’t want to become like Miss Margaret Flynn, a tall thin spinster in the play who unsuccessfully pursues Dennis in her later years.

Mona’s dilemma is resolved when the play takes an unexpected turn. Dennis and Mona, who seemed to have a platonic relationship throughout the play,decide to marry despite the age difference and community values. Crothers, the playwright, brilliantly uses the character of Mona to explore the societal pressures to marry, gender inequality and lack of opportunities that some women faced in Ireland in the early 1800s. A most important theme, follow your heart and not societal conventions, emerges as the play ends on a happy note.

Despite these serious themes, Butte audiences found much to laugh about during the play. It depicted rural Irish life in a humorous fashion, such as the dispute over the sale of a dead horse between the O’Dowd and McGinniss families. Also, the somewhat exaggerated
character of Bridget, described as the stout and sturdy she-dragon of a maid who ruled the O’Malley household. Her social commentary was sure to bring smiles to the audience. As mentioned earlier, the musical score was excellent and contained many songs about people and places in Ireland.

Many comedies incorporate romance and sometimes result in marriage, as the case with The Heart of Paddy Whack. Rachel Crothers was successful in mixing light comical moments with serious topics throughout the play. The musical selection undoubtedly resonated with Irish American audiences and for a brief period of time brought them a bit closer to their native shore of Ireland.

This is John Conlan and thanks for listening to this episode of The Harp Without the Crown.