St. Patrick’s Day with Benny Goodman, 1939

Washington D.C., U.S.A

While not a national holiday in the United States of America, Saint Patrick’s Day is an immensely popular celebration of Irish heritage and American-Irish culture held annually on March 17. The festivities aren’t only for those of Irish descent, though. Americans from all backgrounds are encouraged to wear green, sport a shamrock, or perhaps enjoy alcoholic imports from the old country. Some keen revellers even dye their rivers — and beer — an Irish green.

Saint Patrick’s Day has been observed in some cities since the 18th century but truly hit its stride with the influx of refugees from the Great Famine in the 19th century. Despite facing discrimination that is all too often the lot of new immigrants, Irish-Americans have since made countless contributions to American culture and continue to enthusiastically celebrate their heritage.

Taken on March 17th, 1939 on the steps of the Capitol, the most recognizable figure in this image is the incomparable King of Swing, clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman. (He’s also the least Irish, a first generation Jewish-American.) In 1939 he was 30 years old and had recently hit the peak of his early career with the knockout 1937 concert at Carnegie Hall — the first time jazz was heard in that hallowed space. We highly recommend this album! The other three people in the photograph are Eunice Healy, Senator Joseph O’Mahoney playing the harp, and Claude Pepper observing the proceedings.

Original Photograph: Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress)
Digital Color Reconstruction: Dynamichrome

Benny Goodman met Eunice Healy on the set of the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy in 1930. (They were both in fine company with Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers on stage and Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Glenn Miller in the pit!) Benny and Eunice struck up a friendship, and she toured with his band as a dancer until her retirement not more than a year after this photograph was taken. Her surname suggests Irish ancestry, but the “sons of the auld sod” are the Senators who bookend the image. Less glamorous, perhaps, but interesting in their own right.

Senator Joseph O’Mahoney’s parents emigrated from Ireland to America in 1861, just as the Southern states declared secession from the North in the opening moves of the Civil War. His father worked as a furrier in the northern state of Massachusetts. After a career in law and politics, O’Mahoney was appointed Senator for Wyoming in 1933 to replace a colleague who died in office. He served his first term until 1946 — one can hope playing the harp every year! Following the suicide of Senator Lester C. Hunt — a grim episode of American history — Senator O’Mahoney served a second term until his retirement in 1961.

Senator Claude Pepper was widely known as “Red Pepper” for his fiery rhetoric, politically left leanings, and striking red hair. His Irish heritage was presumably from the side of his father, a poor sharecropper in rural Alabama. After attending Harvard Law School, Pepper taught at the University of Alabama and set up his own legal practice in Florida. He represented Florida as Senator from 1936 to 1951 and is remembered as a champion of egalitarianism and the elderly.

Original Photograph | Harris & Ewing Collection
Format | Glass Negative
Source | Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Color Reconstruction | Jordan Lloyd
Words | Emily Kern

Original Caption
“St. Patrick’s Day spirit at Capitol. Washington, D.C., March 17. Sons of the auld sod in Congress, assisted by Benny Goodman, swing band leader, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with music today on the Capitol steps. Seen in the photo are, left to right — Senator Joseph O’Mahoney, Wyoming — Eunice Healy, dancer in Goodman’s show — Benny Goodman, and Senator Claude Pepper of Florida”
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