Storytelling school

Musical Irish Tales from a Teacher of Christendom

Chris Shannon has personal and professional expertise on the subject of Irish American history. He is an Irish American who teaches a course on the subject at Christendom College in Front Royal. The associate professor of history’s interest in the subject stimulated research, but also inspired him creatively. The result was a collection of original songs based on traditional Irish melodies that lyrically describe a post-WWII American Catholic Irish experience.

Shannon grew up in a predominantly Irish Catholic parish in Rochester, NY, although her neighborhood included Italian, German, and Polish families. “These ethnic attachments were certainly not as strong as when people came from the Old Country, but they were still there,” he said. “At my high school, the day after Thanksgiving, the Italians played the Irish in a game of flag football, and if the Irish won, we would call it the Potato Bowl and if the Italians won, it would be the Spaghetti Bowl.”

His earliest musical memory is of an Irish album his parents owned with songs such as “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”. But his father was also fond of Irish artists the Clancy Brothers and the Chieftains. As Shannon was growing up, an Irish American folk band, the Dady Brothers, caught her eye when they were playing in town. “The social camaraderie of listening to local bars heightened my attraction to her,” he said. They played at his wedding and at the weddings of most of his friends.

Shannon wasn’t always focused on her own story. “When you grow up with something, you don’t feel like you have to go to college to study it,” he said. “But after many years of doing that, I’ve gradually come back to the things that are most important to me.”

His first foray into Irish American history came while working at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester. Kodak’s headquarters are in Rochester, and the museum lists photographic and film archives. “I started coming across all these films with Irish American themes. I saw in these films an older, grittier version of the life I had grown up in – an urban northeast parish,” Eventually he wrote a book on the subject, “Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema.”

More recently, Shannon was working on a book about the Dady brothers, examining “music as a means of tracing cultural continuity”, he said. But as he researched he realized that most of their music was about Ireland and not Irish America. “I started to think that this life deserves to be expressed in song,” he said. “I played music on and off for many years, so I started thinking about telling the story of the neighborhood and Irish Catholic America more broadly.”

Using Irish melodies he wrote several songs about his life in Rochester. One features Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s brief stint as Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester and another on what President John F. Kennedy meant to Catholics. A song is about the greatest football player his high school team, The Little Irish, ever had. The player, Don Holleder, later died fighting in Vietnam and the stadium was named in his honor.

Other songs, like Dewey Avenue, tell the story of everyday life. “Kodak Park taught us to look for heaven in a yellow box/ From black and white to color, you gotta go where the chance comes/ The Sisters of St. Joseph tried to teach us the best part/ But the chimneys obscured the steeples of the Sacred Heart.

“Going out on the street, talking to the people you meet, / Feeling at home in the crowd / The best things we’ll ever have / Hiding in plain sight.”

Listen to the songs

Chris Shannon will perform “A Little Slip of Heaven: Songs and Stories of the American Irish, from Baby Boom to Baby Bust” on March 10 at 6 p.m. at Samuels Public Library, 330 E. Criser Road, Front Royal. For more information, visit samuelslibrary.net or call 540/635-3153.