During the summer of 1923 Athlone welcomed John McCormack, the internationally renowned tenor, as he returned to his home town after an absence of many years. Here, in one of a series of articles that will explore life in Westmeath after the end of the Civil War, we follow McCormack’s Irish journey of August and September 1923.
A photo taken in Custume Barracks, Athlone, in August 1923. Seán MacEoin, in uniform, stands near the centre of the photo. Seated to MacEoin’s right is John McCormack and to his left is Michael Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore in the United States of America (Athlone Public Library).
When John McCormack arrived at the port of Dun Laoghaire on 9 August 1923, he was revelling in the success of his recent European tour in which he performed to audiences in cities such as Berlin, Prague and Paris. His fame extended across the globe, although he was especially successful in the United States. By then, according to historian Gordon Ledbetter, McCormack could fill virtually any American concert hall. In New York, he regularly moved between Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera and the Hippodrome, always performing to full houses.
McCormack was scheduled to perform at Dublin’s Theatre Royal on multiple nights and the reaction to the first of those performances was described by the Freeman’s Journal on 13 August: ‘It was a great occasion for Ireland, and for Athlone and Dublin in particular. One noticed among the audience (there was not even standing room) many familiar faces – Bishops, artistes, famous surgeons, black-capped Franciscan Friars, soldiers and statesmen, all of whom had come to pay tribute to the Irishman who is without doubt the greatest singer now living. When Mr. McCormack appeared, a deafening din broke out, and when he had finished his last song the audience sat still and breathless. It was not until he had sung two encores and had bowed many, many times that his listeners began to move (and with great reluctance) towards the doors...’
While his nights were taken up by performances, his days were taken up with receptions and visits from well-wishers. Amid the voluminous newspaper coverage one small item proved of significance to Athlone. Dublin’s Evening Herald reported that ‘amongst those who called on Mr. John McCormack at the Shelbourne Hotel was Very Rev. Canon Crowe, P.P. V.F. St. Peter’s Athlone, an old friend and class-fellow of the great tenor’.
Canon John Crowe became a friend of McCormack when they were both students at Summerhill College in Sligo, a friendship that the ever-persuasive Crowe may have used in urging the tenor to add another stop to his Irish itinerary. During their chat, newspapers reported, ‘it was arranged that Mr. McCormack would visit the old home-town of his boyhood’. It would be McCormack’s first visit to Athlone for at least a decade.
Although McCormack’s wife Lily and the couple’s children, Gwendoline and Cyril, had accompanied him to Ireland, it seems that none of them made the journey to Athlone. McCormack drove from Dublin along with his manager and accompanist. Also in the car was Michael Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore, who was in Ireland to visit his mother. Like McCormack, Curley was from Athlone and both men had known each other as schoolchildren, a fact that was repeated in many newspapers, including the Westmeath Independent: ‘John McCormack was born in the parish of St. Mary’s, Athlone in 1884... He went to the little National School at first and subsequently to the Intermediate School conducted by the Marist Brothers, where he spent many happy years…’ According to the paper, ‘Dr. Curley, who from his earliest boyhood contemplated a religious life, was also a pupil at the Marist School and an intimacy which turned to be life-long, sprang up between himself and Mr. McCormack.’
McCormack and Curley arrived in Athlone around 2.30pm and visited ‘the beautiful and picturesquely situated residence of the distinguished ecclesiastic’s mother’ at Golden Island. There, after being joined by Seán MacEoin, they remained for about an hour. While at Golden Island the party was photographed by members of the press although Athlone citizens who hoped to catch a glimpse of the singer were to be disappointed. When the press first reported that McCormack was to visit Athlone, a reception committee was formed with the intention of providing a public welcome for the singer. At the last moment, however, those plans were cancelled after McCormack, according to the Westmeath Independent, ‘intimated his desire to see his old Athlone friends without being made the object of show or display of any kind’.
McCormack’s refusal of a civic reception, although understandable, caused ‘keen disappointment to those whose anxiety was to accord the great singer a reception worthy of the town of his nativity’. A large number of people congregated in Athlone, ‘all anxious to participate in the civic welcome’ but once McCormack’s car left Golden Island it drove directly to Custume Barracks. When the vehicle passed through the entrance to the barracks the guard turned out and saluted while the local army band ‘struck up a popular selection of Irish airs’. It was in the barracks that McCormack, amid a small group of selected guests, was given his official welcome to the town.
Athlone-born tenor John McCormack laying a wreath in 1923 at the cenotaph of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith on the grounds of Leinster House (National Library of Ireland). The cenotaph was later replaced by another monument that still stands and which honours Collins, Griffith and Kevin O’Higgins.
There were, perhaps inevitably in the context of the time, political overtones to McCormack’s Irish visit. While in Dublin, McCormack was a prominent member of the audience at the official unveiling of a cenotaph erected by the government in honour of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. That cenotaph was designed by Professor George Atkinson of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and it took the form of an immense Celtic cross. Located on the lawn at the Merrion Square West side of Leinster House, it stood over 12 metres high and 2.4 metres wide. During the ceremony, McCormack laid a wreath at the base of the monument, a moment that was captured by a photographer and printed in numerous contemporary newspapers.
While in Athlone, McCormack chose to spend most of his time with Seán MacEoin and Archbishop Curley. MacEoin was one of the government’s most important military officers, having led National Army campaigns in the midlands and west during the Civil War. While fulfilling those duties he had been associated with a number of controversial incidents, such as the October 1922 shooting dead in Custume Barracks of Patrick Mulrennan, an anti-Treaty IRA prisoner. Curley was also a proponent of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and a vocal supporter of the government. As discussed in previous articles, he made numerous public denunciations of the anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War. In August 1922, while on a visit to Athlone that coincided with the death of Michael Collins and an attack on National Army soldiers in Glasson, Curley accused those who opposed the Treaty of offering ‘no constructive programme, nothing that attracts in the future, but wreckage and ruin’.
McCormack’s public appearances occurred at a time when a general election – the first since the end of the Civil War – was due to take place (an election that is discussed here). Seán MacEoin was a sitting TD, having being elected as a pro-Treaty Sinn Féin candidate for Longford-Westmeath in the general election of June 1922. Although MacEoin was not standing in the 1923 general election, scheduled for 27 August, McCormack’s participation in official ceremonies and association with prominent National Army officers was likely welcomed by the Cumann na nGaedheal party that had emerged from the pro-Treaty side of Sinn Féin and which was then in government.
McCormack did not linger long in Athlone, returning to Dublin for more concerts and receptions, including a ceremony in which he was honoured by Dublin Corporation with ‘the freedom of the city’. In presenting this award, as reported in the Freeman’s Journal, the Corporation praised McCormack’s many successes and also his fundraising achievements. During recent years, the Corporation noted, McCormack had starred in numerous charity concerts to raise money for ‘the suffers in the recent wars in Ireland’.
Evening Herald, Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Longford Leader, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see John Burke’s, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Liam Cox, Moate - County Westmeath: A History of Town and District (Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004); Eoin Kinsella The Irish Defence Forces 1922-2022: Servant of the Nation (Four Courts Press, 2023); and Gordon Ledbetter’s John McCormack: The Great Irish Tenor (Town House, 2003).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 27/06/2023