A Soprano in the House

On display at The People’s Museum of Limerick are three eclectic portraits of Limerick-born prima donna, Catherine Hayes. The portraits are exhibited in three spaces of the museum. In the reception area, a portrait of Hayes in pastel and conté forms part of visual artist Thomas Ryan’s twenty-four portraits of prominent Limerick people. A glass cabinet in the ground floor’s back room holds a framed mid-nineteenth century etching of Hayes. This etching appeared in an 1849 issue of Dublin University Magazine, an independent cultural and political publication from 1833 to 1882. (1) On the mezzanine level, a framed cover for the sheet music of ‘Home of My Heart’, sung by Hayes and composed by Richard Frederick Harvey. The cover of the sheet music is marked with S.J Pigott, a music shop active in Dublin from 1830 to 1866.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Catherine Hayes was one of the world’s greatest prima- donnas. Though Hayes’ date of birth is debated amongst historians, she was born at number 4 Patrick Street. Her father was a bandsman, her mother a domestic servant. In her early teens, Hayes’ singing talent for Irish songs and ballads was noticed by Limerick’s Church of Ireland Bishop, Bishop Knox. In 1839, Hayes’ musical education was provided for by the Bishop. Hayes moved to Dublin for her education and gained tuition from the esteemed singing teacher and member of Dublin Choral Society, Signor Antonio Sapio. In Dublin, the Limerick girl’s vocal talent was cultured by Sapio, with the aim of training her as a concert singer. (2) In these early years, Hayes sang in concerts held by the Choral Society in the Rotunda Maternity Hospital, often duetting with her tutor.

From 1842 to 1843, Hayes worked with vocal coach Manuel Garcia in Paris, and trained as a soprano. (3) She completed her music studies in Milan, under supervision of the Milan Conservatory.4 The young soprano filled her first role as prima donna in Milan’s opera house, La Scala. Following this came a string of successful continental performances. It is reported that Hayes’ execution of the tragic opera, ‘Lucia di Lamermoor’ in Venice, made the audience so silent that the buzzing of a fly could be heard. (5)

In 1849, Hayes travelled to London to play a private concert for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. (6) After London, Hayes returned to Ireland and to her home county, where she performed for two nights at the old Theatre Royal on Henry Street. At Limerick’s Theatre Royal, Hayes performed pieces from Vicenzo Bellini’s operas, ‘Norma’ and ‘La Sonnambula’. (7) The small etching of Hayes included in Dublin University Magazine joined a report of the prima donna’s performance of ‘Lucia de Lammermoor’ at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Sentimental Irish ballads also formed part of Hayes’ singing repertoire, as evidenced in the sheet cover for Richard Frederick Harvey’s, ‘Home of My Heart’ at The People’s Museum of Limerick. (8) Singing to the gold rush miners in the early 1850s, Hayes toured Philadelphia, San Francisco, and California. (9) After America, Hayes travelled to Australia, where she met her husband, William Bushnell. Before arriving in Liverpool at the end of 1856, Hayes had performed in both India and Singapore. (10) The Limerick born prima donna superstar died in 1861, predeceased by her husband.

Thanks to team member Aisling for researching and writing this piece.

1 Library Ireland, A Dictionary of Irish Artists, ‘John Kirkwood, Engraver’ ( ( 24 Mar. 2020).
2 Owens Blackburne, Illustrious Irishwomen: Vol.1 (London, 1877) p. 389. (hereafter, Blackburne, Illustrious Irishwomen).
3 Basil Walsh, Catherine Hayes, 1818-1861: The Hibernian Prima Donna (Dublin, 2000).
4 Ellen Creathorne Clayton, Queens of Song, Vol.II (London, 1863) p.280.

5 Ibid. p.284.
6 W.W Gleeson, ‘Catherine Hayes’ in Old Limerick Journal, 18 (1985) p.24.
7 Ibid.
8 Sydney Living Museums, ‘Catherine Hayes Illustration’ ( ( 18 Mar. 2020). 9 Irish Examiner, 5 Nov. 2018.
10 Blackburne, Illustrious Irishwomen, p.401.

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