The Limerick Nightingale

The rags to riches rise of Catherine Hayes

Limerick born soprano Catherine Hayes was feted the world over. Known as the Limerick Nightingale, her story is one of rags to riches. Eugene Phelan states that, 151 years after her death, her tomb in London is falling into disrepair.

The Mayor and people of Limerick were urged to put in place arrangements whereby the remains of our most famous soprano, Catherine Hayes, could be flown home to be laid to rest in Shannonside.
Retired Limerick builder, Michael O’Leary, who now lives in London, told this week of his sadness when visiting the grave of Catherine Hayes at Kensal Green cemetery, London.

“She was the greatest soprano Ireland has ever produced and is sad to see her grave the way it is,” said Mr O’Leary a native of Thomondgate.

Born in 1825 she performed at La Scala, Milan, and in Vienna, Venice, New York, California, South America, Australia, India and other parts of the world before dying tragically after bursting a blood vessel at just 36 years of age.

She was known the world over and received rave reviews wherever she performed.
Her remains, along with those of her husband, are buried in London under a white marble sarcophagus with claw feet surrounded by pillars, but the tomb has fallen into disrepair.
Michael says it would be proper to have her remains brought back to Limerick and laid to rest in St Mary’s Cathedral or some other burial ground.

“I am not sure if she has any relations and if she has they may have some opinion on this,” he said.
Born at 4 Patrick Street, according to some sources in 1818, and others in 1825 the story of Catherine Hayes is a real rags to riches tale.

Her mother was a housekeeper and her father a bandmaster. Catherine’s father left the family when she was just five years old.

Young Catherine often followed her mother to work, house keeping for the Earl of Limerick. On one of these visits the Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick Edmund Knox overheard the young songstress in the garden and was so impressed he arranged for her to sing in private houses.

From there, Bishop Knox and his wife Agnes set up a fund to train her voice professionally in Dublin. After three years she went to study in Paris, making her debut performance in Milan.

Her career skyrocketed, with tours across Europe, America and Australia. She even sang for Queen Victoria before 500 people at Buckingham palace performing her own favourite Kathleen Mavoureen.
This bright light of opera eventually came to an end when Catherine died of a stroke. But although her life was short, she lived it to its fullest. Her life was one of excitement, success, fame and fortune.
Ms Hayes was an instant hit in grand opera and was sought after by Verdi. Across Italy and France, in Vienna and beyond her fame spread, and she soon found herself doing an extensive tour in America, later Peru, Chile and even Australia.

Basil Walsh in his biography, Catherine Hayes - The Hibernian Prima Donna, notes that there is an article in Limerick City Library - undated and from an unknown source - which states that a Laurence Phillips of Dublin paid a sum of money to clean up Catherine Hayes’ grave in Kensal Green cemetery, London.

“It states that this was done and all that remained was to collect sufficient funds to ensure that it never fell into disrepair any more.

“It has fallen into neglect and the marble monument is in danger of falling into the tomb underneath,” he writes.

Mr Walsh notes that the article states that Mr Phillips was an occupational therapist at St Ita’s Hospital in Dublin, but that no one there had ever heard of him.

“The profession dates from only 1950, so it’s relatively recent,” and Mr Walsh goes on. “Now, it seems there was a Laurence Phillips who was a resident (ie patient) at this mental hospital. Did someone use his name and fraudulently collect funds?
Was the article a hoax?

- courtesy of Eugene Phelan, The Limerick Leader