pencil drawing catherine hayes

Irish Women in History – Catherine Hayes, The Victorian Pop Star

Catherine Hayes (not to be confused with the murderess of the same name) was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1818. Abandoned by her musician father at age 5, Catherine grew up in poverty with her mother and younger sister.

 While singing in the garden one day, the purity of twenty-year-old Catherine’s voice was heard by Edmund Knox, the Church of Ireland’s bishop of Limerick. Impressed by the quality of her voice, he helped to arrange funding to send the girl for vocal training. She and her mother traveled to Dublin where she studied under Antonio Sapio.

In her first appearance, she performed a duet with Sapio at a charitable fundraiser singing O’er Shepherd Pipe from the opera Joan of Arc. That first performance started a whirlwind tour and Hayes traveled to Milan, Marseilles, Vienna, and Venice for the next several years. In June of 1849 she sang for Queen Victoria and 500 of her esteemed guests at Buckingham Palace. So taken by the young soprano, the queen requested an encore. Loyal to the Irish cause, Catherine opted to sing the beautiful Irish rebellion song Kathleen Mavoureen.

 In 1851, Hayes toured America, performing in New York, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, several cities in the American South, and over 40 other locations. The famed showman P.T. Barnum sponsored Hayes’ tour of California, and billed her as “The Swan of Erin.”

With her popularity at its height, Hayes fees to perform averaged around £650 per month, which is equivalent to $84,000 today. When she visited the well-to-do, yet semi-civilized California gold miners in their camps they bid up to £1150 ($167,000) to hear her sing. California had fallen in love with the Swan of Erin. They not only paid top dollar to attend one of her performances, they named a street after her – Kate Hayes Street—in Grass Valley.

Popular and loved across the globe, some historians have dubbed Miss Hayes the “Madonna” of her time.

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