Notable Irishwomen/Catherine Hayes


Catherine Hayes.

The Swan of Erin.


SOME scenes in the lives of some people stand out, with all the clearness and distinctness of a picture, before the mind's eye. It is impossible to forget them, they stamp themselves on the memory. Such a scene belongs to the life-story of the gifted Irishwoman, of whom a slight account will be now given.

A summer evening on the shores of the Shannon, "the silver Shannon spreading like a sea," gardens sloping down to the river's brink, mists of twilight slowly spreading over the tops of the hills, clothing them with mystery. From the City of Limerick—Limerick the Beautiful—boats flit up and down, It was a time for whispering lovers, for music, for romance. The silence was broken by the sound of a voice—a voice clear and silvery, sweet and strong; it seemed to be coming from a woodbine-covered arbour in the grounds of the Earl of Limerick, wnich bordered the river. Who was singing? Was it the spirit of the Shannon, was it some Lorelei calling to her sisters, or was it another Undine hungering for the love of a mortal, so that she might gain a soul? Higher and higher the voice soared, now a simple ballad, now a lullaby that might have been sung,

"When Malachi wore the collar of gold,
That he won from the proud invader."

And hark, now is heard the well-known song of The Lass of Gowrie. One by one, the boats stopped under the shadow of the trees, everyone was listening, spellbound, not a whisper was heard. When the concluding words came,

"And now she's Lady Gowrie!"

a shake on the high notes, brilliant and ringing, rose on the evening air, like the thrill of an imprisoned nightingale. The audience could no longer remain silent, a burst of applause followed. Amongst the listeners on this momentous evening was the Hon. and Rev. Edmond Knox, Bishop of Limerick. He inquired who this wonderful singer was, and he found out that she was no fairy minstrel, but simply little Catherine Hayes, then barely ten years old. She had to sing. The birds had taught her, the murmur of the river had spoken to her, and her own soul, that stirred within her mightily. The child's voice that came from that woodbine-covered arbour was destined in after years to stir hundreds of thousands, not only in her native Ireland, but in Italy, America, Australia, even in the remote Sandwich Islands. It was the first scene in the life drama of Catherine Hayes's eventful life—not a long life was hers—it was as the life of roses that bloom only for a day. Thirty-six years, and it was ended, but what years were they, years of inspiring work, crowned by success, giving joy to thousands and sorrow to none!

Catherine Hayes was born at No. 4 Patrick Street, Limerick, on the 29th October, 1825. Her parents belonged to a very humble rank in life; we hear nothing of her father, only of her mother and a sister, Henrietta. Little Kitty was a delicate, reserved child, and rather shrank from the rough games of the other children. Her great delight was to steal away to an old relative, who was in the service of the Earl of Limerick. Lord Limerick's town mansion was then in Henry Street, near the Bishop's Palace or See House, as it was sometimes called. The gardens attached to those houses stretched in parallel lines down to the river's edge, and were remarkable for their beauty. The woodbine-covered arbour was Catherine Hayes's favourite retreat. A lady in the town, who understood music, took a fancy to her, and used to teach her ballads. One day she played a shake on the piano, and asked little Kitty if she could imitate it. The child went to the arbour, and in a few days came back, and at the end of the ballad, broke into a shake so perfect, so finished, that her teacher gave a scream of delight and surprise. The kind-hearted Bishop did not forget the impression the child's singing had made on him. He sent down to invite her to come and sing at the Palace, where she took part in various musical reunions, which were under the direction of the Brothers Rogers, one of whom became organist of Limerick Cathedral. The Bishop did more than this; he and his daughter-in-law got up a subscription to defray the expenses of Catherine Hayes's musical education. Money flowed in rapidly, and it was arranged that she should be sent to Dublin, and put under the tuition of Signor Sapio and his wife, who lived in Percy Place.

The Bishop wrote to him as follows:—

"Miss Hayes will be prepared to leave this in a week or ten days. … She is a most modest, gentle, unassuming girl, and so anxious is she for improvement—knowing, indeed, that her livelihood depends upon it—that I am convinced she will give her very soul to it."

It was on the 1st April, 1839, at the age of 14, that Catherine Hayes took up her residence with Signor Sapio, and a month afterwards she sang at a concert with him in a duet. O'er Shepherd Pipe, and was loudly encored. Her voice was a soprano of considerable compass, even at that early age, and when she appeared at a concert, after six months teaching from Signor Sapio, the Evening Packet pronounced that she was a highly promising vocalist.

When she returned to Limerick on a visit, the Bishop gave a concert in her honour. Two years afterwards she was introduced to the Abbe Liszt, after a concert, and he wrote to Mrs. Edmond Knox as follows:—

"I do not know of any voice more expressive than that of Miss Hayes. As to her singing, it is easy, natural, and devoid of all false method. Whether in London, Paris, Italy, or wherever I may be I shall always be happy to forward her in her profession."

To give one proof of her advance as a singer, she raised her terms for singing at concerts in Dublin from five to ten guineas. She visited Belfast, singing at the opening of the Anacreontic Hall, and after brief visits to Parsonstown and her native Limerick, a great event in her life took place. She was introduced to the great Lablache, whose opinion on all musical matters was considered final. Terrified and trembling, the young singer was prevailed on to give Qui la voce, always considered a formidable test. He asked her to try a still more difficult solo, then a duet, then another duet. After this trial he communicated his opinion to Signor Sapio, which was that "Miss Hayes possesses all the qualities to make a good singer.… I am certain she will end by becoming a perfect vocalist in every sense of the word."

During this interview with Lablache in Dublin, he urged her to go and see Grisi and Mario in Norma the following evening. She had never witnessed great acting before, and when the Druid priestess, personated by the Queen of Italian song, received an ovation at the close of the performance, and was covered with wreaths and bouquets, her spirit was stirred within her. Tame indeed did the applause of the concert-room appear to such a triumph as this. She at once resolved that she, too, would be an opera singer. After a private concert given for her by the Countess of St. Germains, she went to see her friends at Limerick. They all dissuaded her from going on the stage, but she held firm to her determination and made up her mind to go to Paris and study under Emmanuel Garcia, who educated Mahbran for the operatic stage. So feverishly anxious was she to waste no time, that she would not even wait for a family who were going to Paris in two months, but started alone—rather a formidable undertaking for a timid girl of 17, sixty years ago.

On the 12th October, 1842, she arrived at Paris with a letter of introduction to George Osborne, a celebrated pianist. His wife, an amiable and accomplished woman, promised to look after her. She found Garcia "the dearest, kindest, most gracious of masters." After a year and a half under him, he declared that "he could not add a single charm or grace to her voice, so pure in tone and so extensive in compass." She ascended with ease to D in alt; her upper notes were limpid and like a well- tuned silver bell up to A, while her lower notes were the most beautiful ever heard in a real soprano; and her shake—her wonderful shake — was remarkably good. She was tall, with a fine figure, and very graceful in her movements.

Garcia strongly advised her to go to Italy, and, not dismayed by the long distance, she went to Milan, and put herself under Signor Ronconi. At one of the musical parties she sang at she made such an impression on Madame Grassani, aunt to Madame Grisi, that she wrote off to the manager of the Italian Opera at Marseilles telling him of the new star, and advising him to offer her an engagement. He forthwith came to Milan, heard the young singer, and offered her terms that seemed to her like a fortune. On the 10th May, 1845, she made her first appearance at Marseilles as Elvira in I Puritani. She was absolutely faint from terror, and not a hand was raised to encourage her; not the feeblest cheer was heard, not until the eighth scene, when Elvira appears in her wedding robes. The beautiful opening polacca, Son virgin, seemed to inspire her. In spite of her trembling lips, she sang it with such sweetness, such tenderness, and such expression, that shouts of applause, deafening and unmistakable, burst forth, and flowers filled the stage, making a perfect garden about her. She felt that she had succeeded. Her popularity grew so much that when the three months' engagement came to an end, the manager urged her to accept his offer of appearing at Paris. But she knew that art is long, and that she had still much to learn, so she decided to go back to Milan, and continue her studies under Signor Ronconi. At a concert given by Regondi, she met the manager of La Scala, and he offered her an engagement which she gratefully accepted. La Scala was then looked upon as the first theatre in Europe, and to be heard there was a proud distinction for any singer. When Catherine Hayes appeared as the Linda di Chamouni of Donizetti, she was called before the curtain no less than twelve times, and her appearance the following night as Desdemona won for her the name of the "Pearl of the Theatre." At Verona her success was quite as dazzling, and at Venice "The Hayes," as she was called, created quite a furore, there were hurricanes of "bravas," which lasted for ten minutes, and numerous calls before the curtain. Later on, in 1846, she had a successful visit at Vienna. While she was at Florence, Catalani's villa was open to her, and the ex- queen of Itahan song kissed her affectionately, and said, "What would I not give to be in London when you are making your debut! Your fortune is certain."

An offer of a London engagement soon followed. She was engaged for the season at a salary of £1,300, and made her first appearance at Covent Garden on the 10th April, 1849. Native singers who had won a reputation on the continent, such as she had done, were indeed scarce, and she received such an uproarious welcome, that she was quite overcome. The opera chosen was Linda di Chamouni, and it was not till the end of the well-known air, O Luce di Quest Anima, that she recovered herself and introduced her celebrated shake, winning great applause and an encore. The mad scene was, according to the Times, sung with admirable effect, especially the bravura passage, "Non e Ver," in which her execution of the chromatic passages was perfect, and the ascending scale with the violin was accomplished with remarkable decision and brilliancy. At the end of the performance, after the curtain fell, she was seen kneeling in a private box before her first patron, the Bishop of Limerick, sobbing out her gratitude to him for all he had done for her. No doubt, in that moment of triumph the scene by the river, the singing in the woodbine-covered arbour, came back to her with renewed force.

She was commanded by Queen Victoria to sing at a private concert at Buckingham Palace, and during the evening the Queen talked to her for some time, and congratulated her on her deserved success, and so did Prince Albert, whose opinion on musical matters was always worth having. She re-visited Dublin, after seven years' absence, in the autumn of 1849, "to fulfil an engagement at the Philharmonic Concerts, and her singing created an immense sensation, only equalled by that of the Lind epidemic. She also appeared at the Theatre Royal, when an extraordinary scene took place—a scene calculated to shake the nerves of any singer, much less a timid girl of four and twenty. The opera was Lucia di Lammermoor, and the hero provided was a Signor Paglieri, who was quite incompetent for the part. Again and again he broke down, and at last Catherine Hayes made him a curtsey, and left the stage. Now followed shouts and "cat-calls" from the gallery and a regular row seemed to be at hand. It so happened that Sims Reeves, then in the zenith of his fame, was present with some friends in a private box. He was recognised and shouts of "Reeves, Reeves!" rang through the house. The manager, Mr. Calcraft, then came forward and said that he had no control over Mr. Reeves, whose engagement had terminated. Sims Reeves then stood up and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I will sing to oblige you, but not to oblige Mr. Calcraft."

Mr. Calcraft, not to be out-done, said—

"I am not angry, I assure you, that Mr. Reeves has declined to sing to oblige me, but I am gratified to find that he has consented to do so to please the audience, and doubly gratified that, under the untoward circumstances, he will support your gifted and distinguished young countrywoman."

The curtain again rose, and the opera proceeded, Catherine Hayes showed no trace of the nervousness she must have felt, she threw herself into her part, and she and Sims Reeves were again and again called before the curtain, amidst waving of hats, canes, handkerchiefs, and umbrellas. The manager and Sims Reeves finally shook hands and a riot that threatened serious consequences ended in peace. I am indebted to the Rev. Dr. Tisdall for pointing out to me another account of this scene, given by Sims Reeves himself in his book, "My Jubilee, or Fifty Years of Artistic Life." Paglieri was not the only Edgardo who failed, for another tenor named Damcke, who happened to be at hand, was sent on for the part, and was found equally incompetent. Miss Hayes was therefore, subjected to two painfully embarrassing disappointments. Reeves, who was in a private box, after considerable delay, kindly came to the rescue. He had good reason for being reluctant to comply with the request of the manager, Calcraft, that he would sing. He had dined late, and whenever he had to appear either on the stage or on the concert platform, he invariably had dinner served for him at an early hour. Besides, he was incensed at what Willert Beale (who was concerned with Calcraft in that engagement) had said to him in the box, that his conduct was ungentlemanly in refusing to help Miss Hayes out of the difficulty. Beale was undoubtedly culpable in using that irritating expression, and it was surprising that Reeves sang with such effect under the circumstances. Little did those who witnessed the scene of disorder and delay expect to hear the voice of such an Edgardo, blending with that of such a Lucia. His opinion of her acting and singing of the parts is expressed in the before-named book, in the words—"She was the beau ideal of Lucia. With her I really felt myself 'Edgar of Ravenswood,' and she 'Lucy Ashton'—I have sang with many Lucias in my time, but Catherine Hayes was the sweetest of them all."

Cork and Limerick were visited, and on the occasion of the benefit night at Limerick, intense excitement prevailed. An eye-witness says of Catherine Hayes's departure—"The hotel was surrounded from an early hour, and it was with difficulty that Miss Hayes was able to proceed to the carriage in waiting to convey her to the railway terminus. Hundreds of the poor, to whom she gave liberal charity, blessed her as she departed, and amid the farewell salutations of large bodies of ladies and gentlemen, the latter uncovered in her honour, she at length drove away, affected to tears by the favours enthusiastically heaped upon her."

An engagement the following year at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, by Lumley, was not entirely satisfactory. Catherine Hayes appeared but seldom, and other singers took her place. Dr. Tisdall has kindly thrown a light on this matter, which has hitherto been unexplained. He says:—"I well recollect the cause of Miss Hayes's objection to appear, and was present at a performance of the opera in which she refused to sing. It was La Tempesta, composed by Halévy, and its plot was founded on Shakespeare's play, The Tempest. Sontag was the 'Miranda,' a tenor named Calzolari 'Ferdinand,' and Lablache, 'Caliban.' Miss Hayes had carefully rehearsed the music assigned to 'Ariel' in the music room of the theatre, and then rehearsals on the stage began. She, to her great disappointment, heard from Lumley, the manager, that some of the music of her part was to be sung while she was suspended from a wire, to be worked from above the stage. She properly refused to sing in such a position, telling Lumley that she was not a member of his corps de ballet. He was indignant at her refusal, and, as the opera was to be produced at an early date, it became absolutely necessary to make some speedy change. Carlotta Grisi, the graceful and popular danseuse, appeared as the 'dainty Ariel,' The opera was performed for but a few nights. Miranda was the only part in which I heard Sontag. Lablache, notwithstanding his enormous physique was a surprisingly nimble Caliban. The name of Miss Hayes regularly appeared in the bills in the list of singers engaged. Lumley paid her weekly salary, but positively refused to permit her to appear in any theatre or concert hall until the expiration of the term of her engagement."

After another visit to Italy, when she sang at Rome during the Carnival, Catherine Hayes appeared in London in the oratorios of Haydn, Handel and Mendelssohn, and sang at the Philharmonic Concerts at Liverpool. She now resolved on a gigantic tour—not as common then as such tours are now—and left for New York in September '51. Bad management threatened the tour with failure, but an electioneering agent, Mr.W. E. Evory Bushnell, came to the rescue, and volunteered to see her through triumphantly. By his advice she forfeited £3,000, and he undertook the management of the tour.

Dr. Tisdall has most kindly supplied a copy of the following letter, the original of which was given to him by Doctor Joy, who accompanied Catherine Hayes as her agent and secretary through the United States. It is unusually interesting, as it refers to her triumphs in New York and other centres:—

"Clarendon House, N.Y., November 2, 1851.

"My dear Mr. Beale,—At last I take up my pen to write, thanking you for your two kind letters, which, I need hardly say, gave me very great pleasure. Since my arrival in this mighty country, I have been kept very busy, one way or other—indeed, so much so, that I fear all my friends on the other side of the Atlantic will think I have forgotten them, which is not the case. Want of time alone has occasioned my silence. You have already heard, from Dr. Joy, the good news of my success. I can, without vanity, tell you that my début has been great—indeed, all you could have wished. We longed for you on the first night of my concert. 'It would have done your heart good,' as we say in old Ireland, to hear the outbursts of applause with which I was received. It was, indeed, overpowering. But, enough of this. You know, or at least can imagine, it all, so I shall not weary you with repetitions. I was delighted to learn, from your second letter, that dear Mrs. Beale has recovered from her recent attack. I trust you all may enjoy the blessing of health. We have been visting Boston, Providence, Hartford, and Newhaven with most encouraging results. I have to say of Doctor Joy that he is unremitting in his attention to my every wish, and I believe that all our party have but one feeling towards him—of kindness and respect for his many excellent qualities. Give my best love to your dear mother, to Maria, and the little ones. I look forward to a happy meeting with you all in England. Mamma and Henrietta desire their warmest love to all.—Believe me, my dear Mr. Beale, yours very sincerely,

"Catherine Hayes.

"Postscript.—Do you not observe an improvement in my writing C.? I have writen so many autographs that it has gained, by practice, an additional flourish. May all happiness be yours. Kindest regards to your dear father.
"To Willert Beale, Esquire."

Dr. Tisdall adds that, " With her eminent musical qualifications the writer of this letter was gifted with great histrionic ability. Her acting as Anna in La Somnambula, and Lucia, in Lucia di Lammermoor, left nothing to be desired, and I have been told, by competent judges, that her performance of the part of the Druid Priestess, Norma, was deserving of the highest praise. Fortunate, indeed, was it for her and for lovers of operatic music that she disregarded the counsel of those Limerick friends who endeavoured to dissuade her from going on the stage."

Philadelphia, San Francisco and California were visited in turn: fabulous sums were given in California for seats, one ticket selling for 1,150 dollars. Then came South America, the Sandwich Isles, and Australia, visiting Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Miss Hayes went on to Batavia, and in the capital of Java she created an extraordinary sensation. After an absence of five years, she reached London in August, 1856, and two months afterwards she was married to Mr. Bushnell, at St. George's, Hanover Square. He soon fell into ill-health, and died the following year at Biarritz. His widow returned to London, and sang at Jullien's Promenade concerts and at Her Majesty's Theatre. Her ballad singing was the branch of her art in which she was unapproachable. Her singing of The Last Rose of Summer was something to be remembered by those who had the good fortune to hear it.

Professor Harvey, of Dublin, who is the composer of so "many well-known and popular songs and pianoforte pieces, Irish fantasias, &c., sung and played by such celebrated artists as Marie Roze, Zélie de Lussan, and Arabella Goddard, gives the following graphic description of the first song he ever composed, which was sung by Catherine Hayes, the Irish nightingale:—

"The composition occurred in this way. Catherine Hayes had returned to Ireland after a long tour in Australia, India, and America. I had composed a song suitable to the occasion, with the above title. I was but a young lad at the time, so taking the song with me, I waited on her one morning at Morrison's Hotel, and having obtained an interview, she asked me to play it over for her. She then sang it and so delighted was she with it, that she ran out of the room, bringing back several members of the company to hear it, who all were loud in their praises.

"It was then and there arranged she would sing it the following evening as a 'surprise song at the short concert following the opera. Accordingly it was carried out in this way. She had sung The Last Rose of Summer, and, as usual, delighted all; cheers and encores of course, followed. Catherine Hayes remained very quiet until a lull took place, then, turning to the accompanist, who played the opening bars, she rushed to the footlights, and with outstretched arms, impassionately broke out into the opening strain, 'I breathe once more my native air,' ending with a brilliant cadenza and her marvellous shake on the final words, 'Home of my heart.' The effect was magical—description fails. I occupied an humble and nervous seat in the pit, but there are many who still remember the scene."

In the prime of her powers Catherine Hayes died in the house of a friend, Henry Lee, at Roccles, Upper Sydenham, Kent, on the 11th August, 1861, and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery. The personality of her will, which was proved August 26th, was sworn under £16,000, a goodly sum to have been gained entirely by her own exertions. She lost $27,000 by the failure of Saunders and Breen, of San Francisco.

The name of Catherine Hayes should always be cherished in Ireland. As a woman, and as a singer, she reflected credit on her country, and well deserved the name that was given to her of "The Swan of Erin."