On the 15th January 1936, the world-famous Irish tenor Count John McCormack visited Sligo.
McCormack was born in Athlone, Westmeath in 1884. His parents Hannah and Andrew McCormack, were both born in Scotland. Andrew’s father was Irish and had originally hailed from Sligo. Hannah’s family was Scottish Presbyterian. McCormack’s father came to Athlone to work in the woolen mills.
McCormack was no stranger to Sligo as he had obtained a scholarship at age twelve to attend the Summerhill College. He completed his education at the school, graduating at aged eighteen years in 1902. After school, McCormack was offered a position in the Palestrina Choir of the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin under choirmaster Vincent O’Brien. He entered the Feis Ceol in 1903 and won the gold medal, this win helped him to gain a national following.
Recognition of McCormack’s promise as a tenor and a fundraising drive, enabled him to travel to Italy where he was trained by Vincenzo Sabatini, perfecting his famous breath control. He is said to have been able to sing 64 notes in one breath. In 1906, McCormack married Irish soprano Lily Foley and the couple had two children. After returning from Italy, McCormack worked in London, cutting records and performing at concerts.
For the next forty years, McCormack recorded songs, performed to large audiences all around the world and starred in radio shows and Hollywood movies. By 1918, McCormack had become a naturalised US citizen and had sold millions of records. He owned several homes, including a large ranch in America and in 1927 he bought Moore Abbey in Kildare. In 1928, the Catholic Church awarded him a papal count for his work with raising funds for Catholic charities. In 1932, he returned to Ireland to perform in the Phoenix Park during the Eucharistic Congress which was broadcast on the radio and filmed.
By 1936 when McCormack returned to Sligo, he had left his ranch in the US and returned with his wife Lily to this side of the Atlantic, preferring to reside closer to his children and grandchildren. He was still highly regarded in his career and performed regularly. In the same year, he had started to write his autobiography perhaps reminiscing about his Sligo days, he took up the invitation. McCormack was very charitable in his long career and an opportunity to perform a recital in aid of the Nazareth House in Sligo, which at the time was a home for the care of orphaned children, would have helped to sway him to make the trip.
On the night it was estimated that close to 1,000 people saw the concert in the newly opened Art Deco Gaiety Cinema on Wine Street in Sligo, with the aisles and balcony packed out. At the start of the night, the Chairman of the Gaiety, Mr T.P. Toher introduced Count John McCormack.
“His name is famous the world over, his friends are legion. He is one of Ireland’s most honoured and beloved sons. Those in Sligo have a special warm corner in their hearts for him, due to his earlier associations with this ancient Borough. I am sure it will be a great joy to him to see such a vast and distinguished audience to greet him here tonight, and I am sure it will be a far greater joy to know that the good Sisters of Nazareth, for whom this concert is organised, will benefit by a very considerable sum.“
When McCormack arrived on stage, it was reported by the Sligo Champion that the applause lasted several minutes.
McCormack sang twenty songs that night, including many of his famous operatic songs, Caro Amor, Where E’er You Walk and Panis Angelicus. Followed by some of his popular Irish songs; The Rose of Tralee, The Bard of Armagh, Where the River Shannon meets the Sea and The shortcut across the Rosses.
Before his last rendition of the night, McCormack spoke to the audience as reported by the Champion.
“It is seldom I make a speech, but I feel that this is a special occasion. I feel that I have come back home again. (Loud Applause.) Although I was born in Athlone I can safely and frankly say that the best six years of my life were spent here in Sligo, Summerhill College. Whether they were the happiest or not I do not know. Father Galvin, the President told me today to be careful not to say they were not, but as I am naturally a truthful man, I cannot say they were. (Laughter.) I just want to tell you that I feel I am back amongst home folks once again, and I thank you for your beautiful reception.”
The next day McCormack visited his old alma mater at Summerhill College and addressed the students. He told them that success was in their hands and to use the talents that God gave them. He spoke of his great love and affection for the College and that the pupils were the foundation of the new country. That evening he was entertained by the President Rev. Galvin and the faculty of the school. During his stay, it was said he renewed many old friendships and on his departure on Friday afternoon expressed himself as thoroughly pleased with his visit to Sligo.
McCormack was to officially retire two years later in 1938 with a farewell performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London but it was to be a short-lived retirement. He returned to the stage in 1939 to raise funds for the Red Cross for the war effort. He continued to perform concerts, toured, broadcast and recorded until 1943 when failing health finally forced him to retire permanently before illness affected his voice. McCormack returned to Ireland and lived in Booterstown, Dublin. He sadly passed away at only sixty-one years of emphysema and other complications.
Both in performance and on a recording, John McCormack is known for his signature “closing pianissimi” …a skill successfully achieved by few in the vocal world. The convincing portrayal of the words was an essential and integral part of his singing experience. The world-renown coach/accompanist Gerald Moore said, “…the secret of his hold on the vast public was his sincerity. If he could not sing a song with conviction he would throw it away. Every song had to have some special message for John.“
Sligo Champion – Gaiety Concert Advert 1936
Family portrait – Tatler 1916
Jim McSharry Collection – Gaiety Advert – http://bit.ly/1QVNKax