Catherine Hayes was a legend in her own lifetime and afterwards.
She was born at 4 Patrick Street, Limerick, the third daughter of Arthur and Mary Hayes. Her father who was Bandmaster of the Limerick City Militia deserted his family causing great financial distress.
The young Catherine Hayes helped her cousin, Mrs Carroll who worked as a charwoman at Lord Limerick’s home at Henry Street. She was heard singing as she worked by a Dr. Knox, the Church of Ireland Bishop, who lived nearby, and who described her as having “the most beautiful voice I have ever heard” and immediately set about helping the young girl to have her voice trained.
He arranged sponsorship for her to study under Antonio Sapio in Dublin where she gave her first public performance at the Rotunda in 1839. She travelled to Milan where she studied under Signor Roncono. By the year 1846, Catherine Hayes was prima donna at La Scala, Milan and in 1849 gave a Command Performance for Queen Victoria with the Royal Italian Opera Company.
Catherine Hayes returned to Limerick in March 1850 where she gave a performance of Bellini’s La Somnambula at the Theatre Royal. She started a tradition in Limerick by singing to the people outside St Mary’s Parish Church where she had been baptised. ( Joseph O’ Mara followed the tradition by singing to the people of Limerick from the balcony of his father’s home at Upper Catherine Street, now Ozanam House).
Over the next three years, Catherine toured extensively in America and Australia. In San Francisco, her manager, William Avery Bushnell, whom she married in 1857, arranged huge fees for her performances. Her earnings were in excess of ?650 per month.
Catherine Hayes died in August 1861 and is buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London. She left an estate of ?16,000.
She was a generous woman who never forgot those who had helped her in Limerick. For example, on her return Limerick in April 1857 to perform with the Royal Italian Opera Company at the Theatre Royal in Henry Street, she spoke to members of the Limerick Harmonic Society who told her of their financial difficulties in procuring musical instruments for their new orchestra. Immediately she offered to help them with a free benefit performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Limerick Athenaeum.
In the audience was Dr Henry Griffin, a successor to her old mentor Dr Knox as the Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick in 1854. Someone told her of the enormous cost of the restoration of Limerick’s ancient St. Mary’s Cathedral. Catherine Hayes offered £10,000 to help defray the debt.
Evidence of this story emerged in 1913 when Mr Alfred Percival Graves (1846-1931) visited Limerick as President of the Irish Literary Society. He was a poet and the writer of the well known ballad “Father O’ Flynn” and a leading figure of the Irish Literary Revival. He was the son of Charles Graves, who succeeded Bishop Griffin as the Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick in 1866 ( who established the second Organ Fund at the Athenaeum). Mr A.P. Graves is remembered as a leading figure in the development of Technical Education in Ireland and at the Limerick Athenaeum in particular. He was also the father by his second marriage, of Robert Graves, the poet who wrote “The White Goddess”.
The Limerick Chronicle quoted the following story from his 1913 speech to the Limerick Literary Society:
“Mr Graves told a pathetic story of Catherine Hayes, the famous Limerick singer.
Bishop Griffin first heard her singing in Lord Limerick’s garden, which adjoined the Palace, Henry -street, and generously gave her the musical education which enabled her to become world famous. Years after, she heard the Bishop had sustained heavy monetary losses. She wrote to him saying she owed everything to him, and begged him to fill up the blank cheque she enclosed for any amount up to £10,000. The cheque, still blank, was found amongst the Bishop’s papers.” [ This account differs somewhat from local tradition where Bishop Knox is credited by Kevin Hannan and others with funding her career. As Bishop Knox was Bishop between 1834-1849 they are likely to be correct].
Catherine Hayes was remembered in other ways. For example, Joseph Fogarty, Civil Engineer, son of John Fogarty, the engineer who designed the Athenaeum., practised in London where he became a celebrated railway engineer who designed the great circular railway in Vienna. He made her the subject of his novel “Catherina” which was published in London by Hurst and Blackett in 1887.
The book is reviewed in the Limerick Chronicle in 1887 and according to the reviewer gives interesting insights in society life in the Limerick of the 1860s.