11 August 1861: Catherine Hayes ‘the Swan of Erin’ died on this day. She was probably the most internationally famous Irishwoman of her day. Her fame rested not on her notoriety but on her talents as a First Class singer – notably as an Operatic Soprano - in which role she toured the World.
She was born in Limerick circa 1818. Her parents were of humble origins and the father abandoned the family when Catherine was still a child. But from an early age she displayed great talent as a singer. Her accomplishments were brought to the attention of the Church of Ireland Bishop Knox of Limerick and he arranged that funds were raised to send her to Dublin to study under Antonio Sapio. Her first appearance took place on 3 May 1839 at Sapio's annual concert in the Rotunda, Dublin. Early next year she sang in her native city, and then frequently in Dublin, and soon raised her terms to ten guineas a concert.
Going to Paris in October 1842, studied under Manuel Garcia, who after a tuition of a year and a half advised her to proceed to Italy. At Milan she became the pupil of Felice Ronconi, and through the intervention of Madame Grassini was engaged for the Italian Opera House, Marseilles, where on 10 May 1846 she made her first appearance on the stage as Elvira in I Puritaui,' and was enthusiastically applauded. After her return to Milan she continued her studies under Ronconi, until Morelli, the director of La Scala at Milan.
She was described as a soprano of the sweetest quality, and of good compass, ascending with ease to D in alt. The upper notes were limpid, and like a well-tuned silver bell up to A. Her lower tones were the most beautiful ever heard in a real soprano, and her trill was remarkably good. She was a touching actress in all her standard parts. She was tall, with a fine figure, and graceful in her movements.
After a tour of the Italian cities, she returned to England in 1849, when Delafield engaged her for the season at a salary of 1,300l. On Tuesday, 10 April, she made her début at Covent Garden in 'Linda di Chamouni,' and was received with much warmth. At the close of the season she sang before Queen Victoria & 500 guests at Buckingham Palace where she daringly sang her signature tune the ‘rebel song’ Kathleen Mavourneen/ Caitlín mo mhúirnín for the Royal audience. On 5 Nov. 1849 she appeared at a concert given by the Dublin Philharmonic Society, and afterwards at the Theatre Royal, Dublin.
At this stage the World outside of Europe beckoned and in September 1851, she left London for New York first singing there on the 23rd of that month. During 1853 she was in California, where fabulous sums were paid for the choice of seats, one ticket selling for 1,150 dollars. She then departed for South America, and after visiting the principal cities embarked for Australia. She gave concerts in the Sandwich Islands, and arrived at Sydney in January 1854. After singing in that city, Melbourne, and Adelaide, she went to India and Batavia; revisited Australia, and returned to England in August 1856, after an absence of five years.
Whether such an attractive and talented woman received the favours of her many male admirers in the course of her career we do not know but on 8 Oct. 1857, at St. George's, Hanover Square, she married a William Avery Bushnell. However the Union was to be short and tragic. He soon fell into ill-health, and died at Biarritz, France, on 2 July 1858, aged thirty five years. Catherine continued to perform but she had bouts of ill health in the past and such a demanding schedule from an early age must have taken their toll. The end came for her in the house of a friend, Henry Lee, at Roccles, Upper Sydenham, London, on 11 August 1861. She was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery on 17 August where her tomb can still be seen. She was just forty three years old.