Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore was once the most famous entertainer in the USA. Born in Ballygar in 1829, he spent six years studying music in Athlone before emigrating to Boston aged 20. He excelled as a bandmaster, composer, conductor and showman. His band performed at the inauguration of six US presidents, as well as the ceremony to open the Statue of Liberty. He also organised some of the biggest musical festivals the world had yet seen and wrote the anti-war ballad ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’, arguably the most famous song of the US Civil War. His funeral in 1892 was among the biggest in New York history.
Lafayette Square, New Orleans, 4 March 1864. It started quietly, a lone trumpet perhaps, allowing the 15,000 people seated in the vast half-moon shaped amphitheatre a moment to settle. Another 20,000 spectators stood around the square, likewise bracing themselves for the coming onslaught.
And then, slowly but assuredly, the rest of P. S. Gilmore’s orchestra joined in. 500 musicians, playing on violins, flutes, oboes, trombones, drums and a dozen other instruments. Alongside them, shades of Danny Boyle and the London Olympics, 50 blacksmiths were keeping time on 50 anvils.
As the audience took stock, a chorus of 5,000 children unleashed their voices into the Louisiana sky ‘as though the very heavens had opened, and all the angels therein were participating’. Then every church bell in New Orleans began to chime and regimental bands began marching to and fro, adding their musketry fusillades to the throng. Finally, the crescendo, accomplished by fifty cannons booming their deep bass across the young city as the crowd began to cheer and cheer and cheer.
Held in the latter stages of the American Civil War, the New Orleans ‘Monster Concert’ of 1864 was one of many musical triumphs orchestrated by the extraordinarily talented bandmaster P. S. Gilmore. Over the ensuing decades, he became unquestionably the most popular musician on the American continent.
And yet, while the impact of his musical legacy is hard to overstate, he remains perhaps the most famous Irishman that nobody in Ireland has ever heard of.
Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore was born near Dublin on Christmas Day 1829, the son of Patrick Gilmore and his wife Mary (née Sharkey). He grew up between the thriving market town of Ballygar, Co. Galway and Athlone, where he is said to have worked as an apprentice grocer. As a youngster he developed a fondness for drums and fifes, possibly from watching the regimental bands of the British Army stationed in Athlone barracks. The Athlone composer Patrick Keating taught him the cornet and was reputedly so impressed that he urged the boy to take his musical skills to the USA.
By 1849 Gilmore was in Boston, performing with Ordway’s Aeolians, a blackface minstrel troupe. He subsequently became leader of Boston’s Suffolk Band, the Boston Brigade and the Salem Band. During this time, he proposed and hosted the USA’s first 4th July “Promenade Concert”.
By the mid 1850s, he was the leading Conductor and Bandleader in Massachusetts and the surrounding states. In 1857, he led the first of his seven Presidential parades in Washington DC for the inauguration ceremony of President Buchanan whose father was an emigrant from Donegal. That same year, Gilmore married Ellen (‘Nellie’) O’Neill; their only daughter Minnie was to become a writer and poet of considerable repute.
In 1860, Gilmore’s Band was so well regarded that it played to both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; Abraham Lincoln was selected to run for President at the latter.
With the outbreak of the US Civil War, Gilmore’s Band enlisted in the Union Army They subsequently participated in the North Carolina campaign, often acting as stretcher-bearers on the battlefields. As well as entertaining the Union soldiers, the band played for Confederate prisoners. Gilmore subsequently composed the ballad “When Johnny comes Marching Home”, arguably the most famous soldier song of the war.
President Lincoln, his cabinet and generals were acutely aware of the importance of band music to boosting morale and the war effort. As such, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts asked Gilmore to re-organize the state’s military bands. The Irishman was particularly influential in the teaching and evolution of Black Regimental Bands like the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Volunteers, the African-American regiment which was to feature in the 1989 film ‘Glory’ starring Denzel Washington and Mathew Broderick. Gilmore related to the plight of Afro-Americans both before and after slavery and he continued to promote such bands, both Instrumental and Choral, long after the war.
The New Orleans ‘monster concert’ of 1864 was held to celebrate the election of Michael Hahn as Governor of the newly reconstituted state of Louisiana. Gilmore went on to host two huge music festivals in Boston, namely the National Peace Jubilee in 1869 and the International Musical Festival of 1872. The 1869 event involved an orchestra of 1,000 musicians, accompanied by a choir of 10,000, who performed before an estimated audience of 50,000 people, including President Ulysses S Grant and his cabinet.
In 1872, he organized the World’s Peace Jubilee, ostensibly to celebrate the end of the Franco-Prussian War in Europe but also to test how his band might fare on the international circuit. The event lasted 18 days and took place in a purpose-built coliseum capable of holding from 60,000 to 120,000 people. As well as the Americans, there were bands from France, Prussia and Austria. He even persuaded Johann Strauss Jnr. to perform. It was to be the Austrian waltz king’s only American appearance but he subsequently dedicated his “Jubilee Waltz” to Gilmore. The ‘Peace Jubilee’ was reported all over the world and was amongst the largest gatherings in 19th century America. Indeed, the crowds were so big that Harper’s Weekly coined ‘Gilmorean’ as an adjective for extra-large events. However, Gilmore concluded that his band was not yet good enough to compete in Europe.
Gilmore was particularly passionate about Irish Home Rule, stating that his greatest dream was to open an Irish Parliament on College Green with ‘a grand presentation of Ireland’s national melodies.’ In 1875, he held a fund-raiser for the Irish Land League in Gilmore’s Concert Garden (formerly New York’s Hippodrome and renamed Madison Square Garden in 1879) where his band played a record-breaking 150 consecutive concerts. He later wrote a ballad dedicated to Home Rule entitled ‘Ireland to England’ which was published in its entirely in the New York Herald on St Patrick’s Day 1889.
President Grant once declared that if Gilmore were an American he would have been elected President. Renowned for his humour and devoid of either jealousy or vanity, Gilmore was the most popular musician of his day by a long shot. He was also central to every major celebration held in the USA during the 1870s and 1880s.
In 1878 the moustachioed maestro finally brought his band to Europe where he was well known among composers such as Jacques Offenbach, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. They played 151 concerts over 3 months, performing in Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium and his native Ireland. His audiences frequently included prominent Royals and heads of state. In terms of introducing the talents of the New World – and competing against the best musical organisations in Europe – the tour was adjudged a comprehensive victory.
From 1880 until Gilmore’s death, his band – the highest paid in America – were the star attraction at the Manhattan Beach Hotel in Brooklyn. Crowds of up to 70,000 people per day would crowd in to catch one of their performances. They were mid-song when an earthquake shook Coney Island in 1884; the ever-playful Gilmore quickly whispered to his band and, moments later, the crowd heard the opening chords of ‘O Dear What Can the Matter Be!’
In 1886, he was Musical Director for the Inauguration of the Statue of Liberty at which County Cork born William Russell Grace, New York’s first Catholic Mayor, presided. After the unveiling ceremony, Harpers Weekly declared that, Liberty notwithstanding, Gilmore’s Band were still the city’s No. 1 attraction. Later that year, the man hailed as “Americas First Superstar” brought his band on tour across America and Canada and over the ensuing years they visited all the major cities and towns on the newly laid railroads. The Mormons closed down Salt Lake City for three days so everyone could see them perform in the Tabernacle, while the 1889 tour was seen by over one million people – 12,000 per night in Austin, 5,000 per night in San Francisco, 10,000 per night in New Orleans.
Gilmore was a workaholic, driven by his immense gratitude to the USA for providing him with a refuge from the famine in Ireland. Despite all his success, he was immensely modest and never wrote a biography on the basis that pride was one of the seven deadly sins. To considerably reduce the paper trail, he celebrated his annual birthday by burning all his papers.
Gilmore also made his mark on New York history when he started the annual tradition of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square in 1891. The following year he was selected as Musical Director for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. However, on 24 September 1892, the 63-year-old unexpectedly collapsed and died in a hotel room in St. Louis, Missouri. Thousands lined the sidewalks of 5th Avenue to pay their respects as his coffin made its way to Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.
With thanks to Maria O’Brien, Damien Shiels and Jarlath MacNamara who knows far, far more of PSG’s life than anyone on this planet.
NB: The details of the New Orleans concert come from a major feature on Gilmore in the Daily Evening Traveler [Boston] (15 June 1869).