A Musical Feast

Nothing to do with Robert Muldoon the one-time prime minister of New Zealand, or Paul Muldoon the Northern Irish poet, or even Peter Cook’s Ballad Of Spotty Muldoon (1965). No, the roots of this quaint expression reach much further back. . .

trading card advertising Muldoon's Picnic

Back in the heyday of the music-hall, Muldoon’s Picnic was a popular comedy show, presented by Barry and Fay’s Comedy Company, run by Billy Barry and Hugh Fay, based at Hyde and Behman’s theatre in New York. It seems to have been a big hit in the New York area in the 1881 season. British productions starred the likes of Marie Lloyd and Horace Wheatley.

We have recently heard from Don Meade, a scholar of Irish-American history and an expert on the ‘Irish’ genre of music-hall, who has sent us a wealth of information on the origins and development of Muldoon’s Picnic the show. He has very kindly given us permission to upload his 6,000-word essay on the subject, The Life and Times of “Muldoon, the Solid Man”, which you can read in PDF format here. If you can supply any further information on the subject, we’d be very glad to hear from you: please drop us a line by mailing contact @ muldoonspicnic . org . uk.

To summarise, a satirical song called "Muldoon, the Solid Man", written by Edward Harrigan was first performed in 1874 as part of a long-forgotten sketch about a washing-line called Who Owns the Line?. The character of Muldoon was a great hit and was appropriated by (among others) Barry and Fay for their Muldoon's Picnic, a farcical romp involving Muldoon and his sidekick Mulcahy.

We have not seen the script, though we have been known to perform one of the songs from the show, but this excerpt from an 1882 New York Times review of an early production of the sketch gives a fair idea: There is no plot to this piece, the interest clustering entirely around the ridiculous situations in which two drunken Irishmen find themselves as the consequence of their devotion to the flowing bowl . . . if nothing can be said for the literary merits of “Muldoon’s Picnic” it at least fulfills the purpose for which it was designed—the production of unlimited mirth.

trading card

 
Muldoon's picnic tradecard

The song and the character spawned many imitations, and Muldoon became the archetype of the fun-loving, hard-drinking volatile Irish-American stereotype.

The name of the show even entered the language in the form of a rather quaint slang expression - a bit like Fred Karno's Army or the Keystone Cops - referring to any kind of informal, spontaneous, even chaotic gathering of assorted individuals for the purpose of happy-go-lucky merrymaking: "it was like Muldoon’s Picnic".

"I wouldn't exactly call it a dinner party. It was more like Muldoon’s Picnic." [The Complete Patter, Michael Munro, Edinburgh: Birlinn 1996 ISBN 1-84158-128-3]

So why is it the name of our group?

 

Well, what is a picnic but a spontaneous feast of assorted treats, where you can pick and choose the things that appeal to you? Traditionally it means a meal where everyone involved contributes something, a "potluck" — which is how we work as a group. And we specialise in variety. Folk-songs, madrigals, world music, spirituals, shanties, Victorian parlour songs, barbershop — a cornucopia, a smorgasbord, a banquet of delights, a musical picnic with something for everyone!

(Well anyway we liked the sound of it.)

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