A song in his heart

Buffalo-born composer/cocomposer Chauncey Olcott wrote two of the most popular Irish ballads


When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,

    sure ’tis like a morn in spring.

In the lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angels sing.

When Irish hearts are happy, 

    all the world seems bright and gay,

And When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,

    sure, they steal your heart away.

—Chauncey Olcott with George Graff Jr. and Ernest Ball, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”


It’s another case of a little-known Buffalo connection. Who knew that the composer/cocomposer of arguably the two most popular Irish ballads—“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “My Wild Irish Rose”—was born in Buffalo? Chauncey Olcott (1860–1932) also wrote “Mother Machree” and a number of other sentimental melodies as part of complete scores for over twenty musicals, in which the composer also acted and sang.


Olcott’s mother, Margaret Doyle, came over from County Cork with her family at the age of eight. They settled in Montreal and moved to Lockport in the 1840s, where Doyle married Mellon Whitney Olcott; the couple moved to Buffalo’s West Side, where Chauncey was born. His talents, including a light tenor voice, were apparent early on, and, in 1879, he started appearing with minstrel companies across the United States and even in London, where he eventually studied voice for three years. After this, he appeared frequently on Broadway. Olcott  started writing his own musicals and songs starting about 1894, including “Sweet Inniscara,” “Old Limerick Town,” “Barry of Ballymore,” “Macushla,” and others. “My Wild Irish Rose is from A Romance of Athlone and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (written with Ernest Ball and George Graff Jr.) is from The Isle of Dreams


Olcott fell ill in 1925 and was no longer able to tour with his productions. He moved to Monte Carlo, where he remained until his death in 1932. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Olcott’s wife, Rita, wrote a biography of the composer in 1939, entitled A Song in His Heart. It was made into a movie, My Wild Irish Rose in 1947, and starred Dennis Morgan. 


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