John McCormack features in new book detailing the Irish impact on America

Favourite son of Athlone, singer John McCormack (1884–1945), is among the 50 figures brought to life in the newly published Irish Lives in America (Royal Irish Academy, 2021).

A new collection of biographical essays drawn from the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Irish Lives in America spans 300 years of history and seeks to illustrate the breadth of the Irish experience of, and impact on, American culture, politics and society. Edited by Dictionary of Irish Biography researchers Liz Evers and Niav Gallagher, the book’s foreword was written by Dan Mulhall, current Irish ambassador to the US.

Born and raised in Athlone, John McCormack’s parents were Scottish mill workers who had come over to Ireland, though his paternal grandfather was originally from Co. Sligo.

Shortly after leaving school (1902) he joined the Palestrina Choir of the pro-cathedral, Dublin and in 1903 he won the gold medal in the tenor section of the Feis Ceoil.

He moved to Milan in 1904 to develop his singing and made his operatic debut in the title role of Mascagni's ‘L'amico Fritz’ at the Teatro Chiabrero, Savona (13 January 1906). After a stint in London, where he made his debut aged twenty-three at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, he crossed the Atlantic in 1909 to sing at Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House in New York. This was followed with notable appearances in operas at other grand American venues.

However, it was as a recitalist that McCormack was propelled to fame, becoming arguably America’s, and the world’s, first music superstar. To the Irish in particular McCormack was an icon of the age and more than simply an entertainer. He brought solace to countless numbers who knew poverty and for whom the dislocation and tragedy of emigration were commonplace.

By the middle years of the first world war, McCormack could fill virtually any concert hall in any part of the States to overcapacity. Standing room and seats on stage became the norm. At one point he was making concert tours of eighty and ninety dates per season. In New York he would move between Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, and the massive Hippodrome (where he would give eight or ten recitals during the season), always to capacity audiences. In Boston he could sing four times in the space of a week to overflowing audiences. McCormack became a naturalised American citizen in June 1919.

The biographies of emigrants from Ireland featured in Irish Lives in America encompass political figures and artists, entertainers and soldiers, slaveholders and abolitionists; they range from scouts who opened up the western frontier to the religious who established congregations across the country and from those who spent their lives fighting for the rights of workers to the industry titans who capitalised on the labour of others to become the country’s first millionaires.