America’s First Superstar

A TV documentary on the 1904 St. Louis World Fair mentioned how John Philip Sousa and his band dominated the entertainment, which included a young John McCormack singing at the Irish Pavilion.  It brought to mind a forgotten era when American superstars were not individuals with a current hit record, but band leaders – people with the ability to not only play, but compose, arrange, and lead a musical organization.  In the beginning, America’s first superstars were the leaders of America’s first marching Brass Bands, and though Sousa was certainly one of them, he was not the first.  That honor goes to a man whom Sousa himself called his mentor and whom he acknowledged as matchless.   He was a man who, in his day, was called America’s Greatest Bandleader, and The Musician of the People.  Sadly, today few remember his name, though most still know his works, and his life story would be a movie of epic proportions.

It began on Christmas Day, 1829, when a boy was born to the Gilmore family in Ballygar, Co. Galway named Patrick.  After a difficult childhood, having experienced the horror of Great Hunger in Ireland, he emigrated to America in 1848 at the age of 18.  His love of music led him to one of the many Brass Bands that were popular in America at the time, which he joined as a coronet player.  He settled in Massachusetts where anti-Irish bigotry was rampant and adopted the middle name of Sarsfield to rebuke the “No Nothings” of Horace Greeley in Boston by saying, You know little about Patrick Sarsfield and what he did to the British, but I do!

His talent overcame the prejudice and he eventually became the leader of the Charlestown Brass Band, then the Boston Brigade Band, and finally the Salem Brass.  In 1856, he started his own band, which he called Gilmore’s Boston Band, and began to change the image of American music.  At a time when the prevailing notion was the louder the brass the better the band, Gilmore became the first major bandleader in America to conduct brass band arrangements of classics by Mozart, Liszt, and Rossini.  When that made everyone sit up and take notice, he extended his repertoire to standard works, one of the most popular of which was his own composition, Seeing Nellie Home, inspired by his wife Ellen O’Neill, who was organist and choir director at St. Patrick’s Church in Lowell, Mass.  Another of his compositions, written for a civil rights leader of the time, was called John Brown’s Body.  Most will recognize that as the song to which Julia Ward Howe later rewrote the lyrics to create the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Perhaps his most enduring work was a military march that he wrote to the air of an old Irish anti-war song.  Based on the tune, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya, Gilmore created the classic: When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again written for his brother-in-law, Capt. Johnny O’Rourke from Limerick who was a prisoner of the Confederates.  Even the recent movie Lincoln features his song, We Are Coming, Father Abraham.

Despite his great fame as a composer and band leader, his crowning achievements were the organizing and directing of two of the largest music festivals ever held.  In 1869, he organized the National Peace Jubilee, and later, the World Peace Jubilee.  For sheer numbers of performers, nothing has ever surpassed that latter concert which consisted of 2,000 musicians, and a chorus of 20,000 voices.  He brought together leading bands from England, France, Germany, Belgium and Ireland.  The Irish band, by the way, was one he personally demanded after England insisted on sending only one band to represent the Empire, of which Ireland at the time was a part.  Gilmore told the Brits to send an Irish Band or stay home themselves.  Such was the power of Gilmore’s name; he not only attracted the world’s best musicians and singers, but he even convinced the renowned waltz king, Johann Strauss, to compose a special piece, The Jubilee Waltz, for the occasion, and to make his first trip across the Atlantic to conduct it himself.  One of the highlights of the event was the performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Anvil Chorus, with one hundred Boston firemen hammering out the rhythm on blacksmiths’ anvils.

Shortly after this triumph, Gilmore left Boston for New York, where he became leader of the 22nd Regimental Band of the National Guard.  For the next 20 years he concentrated on developing what became universally recognized as simply the greatest band in the world.  In 1878, he became the first American bandmaster to make a concert tour of Europe.  It was a smashing success.  He returned to New York, and took over P.T. Barnum’s old Hippodrome building, and renamed it Gilmore’s Concert Garden.  It became the showplace of New York where he played nightly to a full house.  If you haven’t guessed yet, when he moved on, it became Madison Square Garden.  Everything this man did was colossal.   It was Gilmore who originated the tradition of ringing in New Years in Times Square, it was Gilmore who was musical director for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in 1886, and it was Gilmore who, in 1891 was invited by Thomas Edison to record on wax cylinders, thereby becoming the first band to make commercial recordings.

He never forgot Ireland or his fellow Irish either.  Acclaimed as an Irishman in American newspaper articles throughout his career, when Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt and their organizations needed to promote their policies it was to Gilmore that they turned for public endorsement.  Gilmore included references to Home Rule in his Concert Programs and even wrote a Ballad dedicated to Home Rule called Ireland to England.  He raised money for Famine Relief, Clan na nGael, the Annual Emerald Ball for Orphans, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, etc.  Gilmore spoke on the value of the Boycott to the Irish People and often declared publicly and proudly that he was an Irishman.

In 1892, Gilmore was named musical director of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but while on a national tour that year, he died of a heart attack on Sept 24 at 62 years of age.  He was mourned by the entire nation, and thousands lined the funeral route from his home on Central Park West to St. Xavier’s Church across town, and then to his final resting place in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.  The great Victor Herbert said that for the hard, but glorious struggle from the old bands of loud brasses and drums which made the most noise possible, to bands which interpret the works of the world’s great composers to satisfy the most exacting musician, most of the glory belonged to Gilmore.  It is sad that although many still know his works, so few remember his name; yet sadder still is that many who do see his name on his compositions, don’t even know that P.S.Gilmore was Irish.  Yet he was not only Irish, but one of the Irish who helped to shape America.  His musical legacy lives on to this day despite the demise of his memory.  Despite the fact that no Irishman ever left so many footprints of musical influence, there are only 4 memorials to America’s First Superstar worldwide: a street in St Louis, a Plaque in New Orleans, a Plaque in Ballygar and the P.S.Gilmore Marching Band in the Restoration Village at Bethpage, Long Island, NY.

Galloping Hogan

In 1649, Cromwell’s Puritan army overpowered all resistance in Ireland.  He introduced the Cromwellian Settlement, by which all land belonging to Irish Catholics were forfeit to pay the debts incurred by the war.  The land was sold to loyal Englishmen, and the Irish land owners were told to relocate or die – To Hell or to Connaught – the most  agriculturally poor province in Ireland.  Over 40,000 Irish were relocated beyond the Shannon by the end of 1654.  Those who didn’t were hunted down and press-ganged into the British Navy, or sold as slaves to Barbados.  There was one group however, who refused to relocate.  They eluded capture in the hills and glens near their ancestral homes and raided the new settlers on the lands of their clans.  They led an outlaw existence, and were called Rapparees after their favorite weapon – a half-pike known in Irish as a rapaire.  They were a  concern to the English for many years.

The new owners of the land refused to stoop to menial labor, so some native Irish were allowed back east of the Shannon to provide that labor for the landlords, but the Rapparees continued to strike from hiding.  By the time Parliament invited William of Orange to usurp the throne of King James II, there were many Rapparees in Ireland.  When James promised religious freedom to those who would support him in defending his crown, many Rapparee’s joined him.  After William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne however, James fled to France leaving his Irish supporters in the field.  Patrick Sarsfield eventually took command of the remnants of the Irish forces and withdrew to defend the only remaining Gaelic land in Ireland – the portion to which the Irish had been forced by Cromwell 36 years earlier; in hot pursuit was William’s vastly superior army.  Sarsfield decided to make a stand at the walled city of Limerick, but he needed help, and he turned to the local Rapparrees.  There were at least 5 different bands of Rapparees controlling the glens and mountains around Limerick, but the Rapparee who was to ride into history with Sarsfield was Michael ‘galloping’ Hogan, who controlled the mountains of Tipperary and Clare, southwest of Nenagh.

King William’s forces reached Limerick on August 9, 1690, ahead of his siege artillery.  His demand for surrender was refused, and an assault on the town was repelled.  He bellowed for his artillery which, he was informed, was on its way from Cashel.  Hogan’s riders, who had been scouting the arriving siege train, said it was the biggest collection of artillery ever seen in Ireland – 153 wagons drawn by 400 horses.  Hogan proposed a daring plan.  He would lead Sarsfield and a detachment of 500 men out of Limerick under cover of night, travel north along the Clare side of the Shannon to a point where he knew men could cross with ease and attack William’s siege train from the rear.  Sarsfield agreed, and Hogan led the detachment to a point just north of Killaloe where the Shannon was narrow and shallow.  They crossed and began south toward Ballyneety, where the Siege train was camped for the night, using the Silvermines Mountains as cover.  They covered 90 miles through mountain glens, with burlap covering the horses’ hooves to silence their approach.  One of Hogan’s men, left behind to shoe his horse, met the wife of a Williamite soldier headed for the English camp.  The Rapparee befriended her, and learned the password of the enemy camp.  Ironically, it was Sarsfield.


On the night of August 11, Hogan led Sarsfield to the edge of the English camp.  Sentries, who accepted the password when they challenged the approaching shadows, were dead before they hit the ground.  The Irish swarmed into the camp, and dispatched the enemy.  Sarsfield ordered the guns into a circle, muzzles inward.  They were filled with gunpowder and the muzzles driven into the ground.  The remaining shells and supplies were put in the middle of the circle, and a powder trail was laid to the edge of the woods.  The troops were ordered into the wood, and Hogan was given the honor of putting a match to the powder.  The resulting explosion shook the earth with the loudest man made sound ever heard in Ireland and it lit up the sky with a flash that was seen from the walls of Limerick.

Without his artillery, William realized that he could not take Limerick, so he offered terms to the Irish.  Those who had fought in James’ army would have to leave Ireland, but their families who stayed behind would get their lands back and the free practice of their religion.  The terms were accepted and the treaty of Limerick was signed on October 3, 1691.  True to its terms, 14,000 Irish left Ireland and among them Sarsfield and Galloping Hogan.  The Flight of the Wild Geese had begun.  They would distinguish themselves in the Irish Brigades of foreign armies, but they never saw Ireland again.  As for those left behind, they never saw the promises of the Treaty fulfilled.  By 1709, when the threat of Irish retribution was gone, it was broken by the Popery Act which denied Catholics the right to own land.

Today, many memorials exist to that time in Irish history; the most notable of which is the road along both sides of the Shannon from Limerick to Killaloe.  It is called Sarsfield’s Ride, but there are many who think it should be called the Hogan Highway, after that superb horseman and early guerilla fighter – the Galloping Hogan.

Lament for Art O’Leary

More than three hundred years ago, in 1691, the Treaty of Limerick was offered by the English to end hostilities between the Irish followers of King James and King William of Orange. By the terms of that treaty, all who took arms against William were to join the English Army or quit Ireland. If they agreed, religious freedom would be guaranteed to those who remained. On October 5, the Irish under Patrick Sarsfield, accepted the terms, laid down their arms and marched out of the besieged City of Limerick. Only 1,046 of the 14,000 Irish forces turned to William’s banner. The rest sailed away to form the Irish regiments in the armies of Europe. Ireland never saw them again, and their grieving families called them `na Gaena Fiadhainne’ – the Wild Geese.

History tells how well the English kept their word, for in 1697 they reversed the terms of the treaty and enacted The Penal Laws – which have been denounced as the most repressive laws ever enacted against a nation. It marked the beginning of a national persecution never before approached in its severity. Professor Leckey, a prominent British historian, stated in his History of Ireland in the 18th Century, It was not the persecution of a sect, but the degradation of a nation. And indeed, when we remember that the greater part of it was in force for nearly a century, that its victims formed at least three-quarters of the nation, that its degrading and dividing influence extended to every field of social, political, professional, intellectual, and even domestic life, and that it was enacted without the provocation of any rebellion, in defiance of a treaty which distinctly guaranteed the Irish Catholics from any further oppression on account of their religion, it may be justly regarded as one of the blackest pages in the history of persecution. The persecution began with the seizure of 750,000 acres of land and forbade the Irish their religion, an education, a profession, a vote, property, and countless other rights. One of the laws even forbid an Irishman to own a horse valued at more than 5 Pounds, and that was the cause of one brave man’s death.

Art O’Leary was the son of one of those Wild Geese and like his father, he entered the service of Austria. A brave and courageous soldier, he was soon elevated to the rank of Captain of Hussars in the Cavalry of Empress Maria Theresa’s Austrian Army. In 1773, he traveled to his ancestral homeland with his wife, Eileen O’Connell of the Derrynane O’Connells and aunt of the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. Since a good Cavalry Officer and his animal were inseparable, the Captain brought his mount – a beautiful brown mare with a white star on its forehead – with him from Vienna. In Ireland, the captain attended a local horse race; he entered and took the top prize much to the surprise of the local English gentry.

The local landlord approached him after the race and offered him 5 Pounds for his horse. The Captain laughed at the insulting offer, but the landlord, who was also the local magistrate, demanded the horse or the Irishman would be arrested for owning an animal worth more than the 5 Pounds that the law allowed. That a free-born Continental Officer should part with a fine cavalry steed at the behest of an alien landlord was more than O’Leary could tolerate; he again refused and departed. He was declared an outlaw and troops were summoned to apprehend him. On May 4, 1773, they caught up with the 26-year old O’Leary near the town of Carriganimy, near Macroom in Co. Cork, and shot him dead. His startled horse ran back to the courtyard at Rath Laoi where his family was staying. His wife ran to it, leapt into the blood-stained saddle and the horse took her back to Art’s lifeless body. Distraught, she reached into her very soul and, in an ancient Gaelic tradition, delivered a tearful caoine (lamentation) for her dead husband.

Art O’Leary was interred in the old Kilcrea Abbey in County Cork, built by Cormac MacCarthy, the builder of Blarney Castle. His wife, Eileen, expanded on her grief and left more than 400 lines of a traditional Caoine (keen) or lamentation in the Irish language. As a literary work, the Lament for Art O’Leary is one of the last of its kind and has taken its place as one of the great pieces of Gaelic Literature, translated centuries later by Frank O’Connor. Today, it serves to keep alive the memory of a proud Irishman, the terrible times in which he lived, and a love remembrance that began with:

Long loss, bitter grief
that I was not by your side
when the bullet was fired
so my right side could take it
my fine-handed horseman!

Did You Know About The Mitchels of Dungiven?

John Mitchel was born to a radical Presbyterian minister, in Dungiven, Ireland, in 1815. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin and became a lawyer and journalist. An outspoken nationalist, his love for Ireland led him to establish the United Irishman newspaper in 1848, but his impassioned articles soon led to his arrest on a charge of treason. Found guilty, he was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania). In 1853 he escaped and made his way to the United States. He settled in the south where he published a newspaper, and gave three sons to the Confederate cause in the American Civil War. His eldest son, Captain John C. Mitchel, served in the South Carolina Regular Artillery, which opened the barrage on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 which started the war. Later on July 20, 1864, he was killed commanding a battery at Fort Sumter. As he lay dying, he uttered, in paraphrase the last words of Patrick Sarsfield, the Earl of Lucan (killed at Landen, Holland, 1693), I willingly give my life for South Carolina. Oh, that I could have died for Ireland! Those words are inscribed on his headstone in nearby Magnolia Cemetery, in a plot surrounded by a replica of Fort Sumter.

His youngest son, Willie, was killed in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. After the battle, members of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, learned from Confederate Irish captives that John Mitchel’s son had fallen on the field. They left a detachment behind to locate the body. It was discovered in a shallow grave – one of the only ones to be buried during the fierce battle – wrapped in a blanket secured with three pins and a note attached that read, Willie Mitchel, son of an Irish patriot. Another son, James, survived the war but lost an arm in combat.

Old John himself returned to Ireland in 1874 and the following year was elected to the House of Commons from Tipperary. Denied his seat because he was considered a felon, he returned to his constituency and was overwhelmingly re-elected. However, he died before he could take his seat.

After the Civil War, John’s only surviving son, James, relocated to New York and settled in the Fordham section of the Bronx. There he had a son whom he named after his father. Somehow, the family had become Roman Catholic and young John Purroy Mitchel was raised with the same strong sense of patriotism and civic duty that marked his grandfather’s family. After graduating Law School, he became an incorruptible reformer fighting the graft of Tammany Hall. His successes led him to become the youngest man ever elected Mayor of New York City (1914-1917) at age 34.

While in office Mitchel cut waste, improved accounting practices, and professionalized the city’s civil service by standardizing salaries and work guidelines for municipal employees. Widely known as the “Boy Mayor,” he also fought police corruption, instituted the nation’s first zoning guidelines, and appointed the first woman to lead a major municipal agency in any U.S. city.

After his term as Mayor, World War I was raging and young John joined the new Army Aviation Service. Sadly, he was killed in an accident during a training flight in Louisiana; he was only 38 years old. New York and the nation responded with a flurry of eulogies and memorials, including a memorial at the entrance to New York’s Central Park on 5th Avenue at 90th Street. The next time you end the NY St. Patrick’s Parade at 86th and Fifth, walk up a few blocks and check it out. Also named in honor of this beloved public servant and American patriot was Mitchel Square, a small triangular park in Manhattan, at St. Nicholas Avenue and 166th Street; and Mitchel Field, a former Army Air Service airfield on Long Island from where Charles Lindbergh took off on the first trans Atlantic flight to Paris. As he flew over Ireland, I wonder if Lucky Lindy realized he was flying over the resting place of the grandfather of the man for whom his point of departure was named. Among the many eulogies given at Mitchel’s passing, President Theodore Roosevelt was moved to say,…”No stauncher American, no abler public servant, and no finer natural soldier than [John] Purroy Mitchel was to be found in all our country.”

John Purroy Mitchel’s patriotism for America was a reflection of his grandfather’s patriotism for Ireland. It seems that the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.