Catherine Hayes, the Irish Diva

J.C. Prendergast, an Irish native, published and edited the Daily Orleanian in New Orleans. He always supported the Irish cause. So, he was thrilled when Catherine Hayes came to the Crescent City. Catherine Hayes was the singing sensation known as the “Swan of Erin.” She was born in Limerick in 1818. Born into poverty, her father, a bandmaster for the local militia, abandoned the family. Her mother worked in the household of the Earl of Limerick.

She studied singing in Paris, and later in Milan. She sang opera at La Scala in Milan, and appeared in operas in Marseilles and London. She was invited by Queen Victoria to sing at Buckingham Palace. It is said that when she concluded her presentation for the Queen, she asked the singer for an encore. It is said that with a slight grin, Ms. Hayes responded with the Irish patriotic song, “Kathleen Mavourneen.”

Kathleen Mavourneen

And, in February and March, 1852, she came to New Orleans as part of her American tour. Prendergast described the first of her concerts as a “triumph.” He believed the other newspapers in the city offered only tentative praise. Prendergast, always sensitive to bias against the Irish, likely felt some reluctance on the part of the French and Anglo newspapers to fully acknowledge her extraordinary talent. Prendergast did note the editor of the Bee had some background in music. Prendergast appreciated his review:

“We thought we had heard the “Last Rose of Summer” twenty times, but feel confident that it has never been executed with the touching and tearful pathos which the fair vocalist infused in every line of that plaintive melody. . . .  Let it suffice that Catherine Hayes is all that her admirers have declared her – not Jenny Lind – not a Grisi – but though differing widely from both – a consummate artist, and one of the most delightful songstresses that has ever visited America.”

Ms. Hayes sang the Irish ballad, “Savourneen Deelish Eileen Oge,” “The Harp that through Tara’s Hall,” and “Kathleen Mavourneen.” She also performed traditional operatic numbers, such as “Come Per Me Sereno” from “La Sonnambula” and “Ah, Mons Fils,” from “La Prophete.” “Kathleen Mavourneen” became the singer’s signature song. Partly due to her American tour, the song became very popular in the U.S. Mavourneen is the anglicized version of the Irish phrase, mo mhuirnín which means “my beloved.”

The Daily Orleanian liked to refer to referred to Kate Hayes as the “Irish Sky Lark.”

Serenaded

Ms. Hayes was herself serenaded while in the city. One evening, a group of men from the Irish Benevolent societies sang to her beneath her window at the St. Louis Hotel. Another evening, men from the Irish militias serenaded the Swan of Erin. Lt. Castell, probably W.J. Castell, a well-known notary and Irishman in the City, organized one such serenade on behalf of the Irish militias. The men, after meeting with Ms. Hayes and her mother in her hotel room, described the singer, using an observation made by the author Thackeray about Irish women, “the most delightfully fascinating creature on God’s earth, is a highly accomplished Irish lady.”

Prendergast and the Daily Orleanian effused in their praise of her concerts, proclaiming the Armory Hall was full. But, the Daily Crescent mentioned that the cheaper seats were sometimes not all sold. Ms. Hayes charged $3, $2, and $1. The Crescent claimed that the cheaper seats were not all sold, because some patrons preferred not to attend if they could not sit in the better seats. The editor noted that the French Opera House, which generally sold all its seats throughout the winter season, charged only $1.50 per seat.

Ms. Hayes performed six concerts and brought a sweet taste of the old country to thousands of Irish immigrants. See Dictionary of Irish Biography for more information about Catherine Hayes here.

Sources:

Dictionary of Irish Biography

Sierra College article, https://www.sierracollege.edu/ejournals/jsnhb/v1n3/hayes.html, accessed June 20, 2021

New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Feb. 18, 20, 24, 1852, p. 1, col. 1

New Orleans Daily Crescent, Feb. 26, 1852, p. 4, col. 4

New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 1, 1852, p. 2, col. 2

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