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During the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, John Philip Sousa and his band dominated the entertainment, which included a young John McCormack singing at the Irish Pavilion. It was an era when America’s musical superstars were not individuals with a hit recording, but band leaders – people with the ability to not just play, but compose, arrange, and direct a musical organization. In early America, the superstars were those who led marching Brass Bands, and though Sousa was certainly one of them, he was not the first. That honor goes to a man whom Sousa himself called his mentor and whom he acknowledged as matchless. He was a man who, in his day, was called America’s Greatest Bandleader, and The Musician of the People. Sadly, today few remember his name, though most know his works, and his life story would be a movie of epic proportions.

It began on Christmas Day, 1829, when a boy named Patrick was born to the Gilmore family in Ballygar, Co. Galway. After a difficult childhood, experiencing the horror of Great Hunger, he emigrated to America in 1848 at the age of 18. His love of music led him to one of the many Brass Bands popular at the time and he joined as a coronet player. He settled in Massachusetts and, in defiance of the local nativists, he proudly adopted the middle name of Sarsfield as a way of saying, You know little about Patrick Sarsfield and what he did to the Williamites but I do! He eventually became the leader of the Charlestown Brass Band, then the Boston Brigade Band, and finally the Salem Brass. In 1856, he started his own band, which he called Gilmore’s Boston Band, and began to change the image of American music.

At a time when the prevailing notion was the louder the brass, the better the band, Gilmore became the first major bandleader in America to conduct brass band arrangements of classics by Mozart, Liszt, and Rossini. When that made everyone sit up and take notice, he extended his repertoire to standard works, one of the most popular of which was his own composition, Seeing Nellie Home, inspired by his wife Ellen O’Neill, who was organist and choir director at St. Patrick’s Church in Lowell, Mass. Another of his compositions, written for a civil rights leader of the time, was called John Brown’s Body. Most will recognize that as the song to which Julia Ward Howe later rewrote the lyrics to create the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Perhaps his most enduring work was a military march that he wrote to the air of an old Irish anti-war song. Based on the tune, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya, Gilmore created the classic: When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again written for his brother-in-law, Capt. Johnny O’Rourke from Limerick who was a prisoner of the Confederates.

Despite his great fame as a composer and band leader, his crowning achievements were organizing and directing two of the largest music festivals ever held. In 1869, he organized the National Peace Jubilee and later, the World Peace Jubilee. For sheer numbers of performers, nothing has ever surpassed that latter concert which consisted of 2,000 musicians, and a chorus of 20,000 voices. He brought together leading bands from England, France, Germany, Belgium and Ireland. The Irish band, by the way, was one he personally requested after England insisted on sending only one band to represent the Empire, of which Ireland at the time was a part. Gilmore told the Brits to send an Irish Band or stay home themselves. Such was the power of his name; he not only attracted the world’s best musicians and singers, but he even convinced the renowned waltz king, Johann Strauss, to compose a special piece, The Jubilee Waltz for the occasion and make his first trip across the Atlantic to conduct it himself. One of the highlights of the event was the performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Anvil Chorus, with one hundred Boston firemen hammering out the rhythm on blacksmiths’ anvils.

Shortly after this triumph, Gilmore left Boston for New York, where he became leader of the 22nd Regimental Band of the National Guard. For the next 20 years he concentrated on developing what became universally recognized as simply the greatest band in the world. In 1878, he became the first American bandmaster to make a concert tour of Europe. It was a smashing success. He returned to New York, and took over P.T. Barnum’s old Hippodrome building, and renamed it Gilmore’s Concert Garden. It became the showplace of New York where he played nightly to a full house. If you haven’t guessed yet, when he moved on, it became Madison Square Garden. Everything this man did was colossal. He was musical director for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in 1886; in 1891 he was invited by Thomas Edison to record on wax cylinders, thereby becoming the first band to make commercial recordings and it was Gilmore who originated the tradition of ringing in New Years in Times Square which continues to this day.

He never forgot Ireland or his fellow Irish either. Acclaimed as an Irishman in American newspaper articles throughout his career, when Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt and their organizations needed to promote their policies it was to Gilmore that they turned not only for monetary support but more importantly for public endorsement. Gilmore included references to Home Rule in his Concert Programs and even wrote a Ballad dedicated to Home Rule called Ireland to England. He raised money for Famine Relief, Clan na nGael, the Annual Emerald Ball for Orphans, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick and spoke on the value of the Boycott to the Irish People always publicly and proudly declaring that he was an Irishman.

In 1892, Gilmore was named musical director of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but while on a national tour that year, he died of a heart attack on Sept 24 at 62 years of age. He was mourned by the entire nation and thousands lined the funeral route from his home on Central Park West to St. Xavier’s Church across town, and then to his final resting place in Calvary Cemetery in Queens. The great Victor Herbert said: that for the hard, but glorious struggle from the old bands of loud brasses and drums which made the most noise possible, to bands which interpret the works of the world’s great composers to satisfy the most exacting musician, most of the glory belonged to Gilmore.

It is sad that, although many still know his works, so few remember his name; yet sadder still is that many who do see his name on his compositions, don’t even know that P.S.Gilmore was Irish. Yet he was not only Irish, but one of the Irish who helped to shape America. His musical legacy lives on to this day despite the demise of his memory. Sadly, there are only four memorials in the world to America’s First Superstar: a street in St Louis; a Plaque in New Orleans; a Plaque in Ballygar, Co. Galway and the P.S.Gilmore Marching Band in the Restoration Village at Bethpage, Long Island, NY, despite the fact that no Irishman ever left so many footprints of influence. So this year, when the Waterford Crystal Ball drops in Times Square to the roar of thousands, remember Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore – the man who started it all.


Were there Irish slaves?

The Irish slave trade began when James II sold 30,000 Irish prisoners as slaves to the New World. His Proclamation of 1625 required Irish political prisoners be sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. By the mid 1600s, the Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat. At that time, 70% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves.

Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. The majority of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.

From 1641 to 1652, over 500,000 Irish were killed by the English and another 300,000 were sold as slaves. Ireland's population fell from about 1,500,000 to 600,000 in one single decade. Families were ripped apart as the British did not allow Irish dads to take their wives and children with them across the Atlantic. This led to a helpless population of homeless women and children. Britain's solution was to auction them off as well.

During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.

Many people today will avoid calling the Irish slaves what they truly were: Slaves. They'll come up with terms like "Indentured Servants" to describe what occurred to the Irish. However, in most cases from the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish slaves were nothing more than human cattle.

As an example, the African slave trade was just beginning during this same period. It is well recorded that African slaves, not tainted with the stain of the hated Catholic theology and more expensive to purchase, were often treated far better than their Irish counterparts.

African slaves were very expensive during the late 1600s (50 Sterling). Irish slaves came cheap (no more than 5 Sterling). If a planter whipped or branded or beat an Irish slave to death, it was never a crime. A death was a monetary setback, but far cheaper than killing a more expensive African.

The English masters quickly began breeding the Irish women for both their own personal pleasure and for greater profit. Children of slaves were themselves slaves, which increased the size of the master's free workforce. Even if an Irish woman somehow obtained her freedom, her kids would remain slaves of her master. Thus, Irish moms, even with this new found emancipation, would seldom abandon their kids and would remain in servitude.

In time, the English thought of a better way to use these women (in many cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new "mulatto" slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves.

This practice of interbreeding Irish females with African men went on for several decades and was so widespread that, in 1681, legislation was passed "forbidding the practice of mating Irish slave women to African slave men for the purpose of producing slaves for sale." In short, it was stopped only because it interfered with the profits of a large slave transport company.

England continued to ship tens of thousands of Irish slaves for more than a century. Records state that, after the 1798 Irish Rebellion, thousands of Irish slaves were sold to both America and Australia.

There were horrible abuses of both African and Irish captives. One British ship even dumped 1,302 slaves into the Atlantic Ocean so that the crew would have plenty of food to eat.

There is little question that the Irish experienced the horrors of slavery as much (if not more in the 17th Century) as the Africans did. There is, also, very little question that those brown, tanned faces you witness in your travels to the West Indies are very likely a combination of African and Irish ancestry.

In 1839, Britain finally decided on it's own to end it's participation in Satan's highway to hell and stopped transporting slaves. While their decision did not stop pirates from doing what they desired, the new law slowly concluded THIS chapter of nightmarish Irish misery.

But, if anyone, black or white, believes that slavery was only an African experience, then they've got it completely wrong.

Irish slavery is a subject worth remembering, not erasing from our memories. But, where are our public (and PRIVATE) schools???? Where are the history books? Why is it so seldom discussed?

Do the memories of hundreds of thousands of Irish victims merit more than a mention from an unknown writer? Or is their story to be one that their English pirates intended: To (unlike the African book) have the Irish story utterly and completely disappear as if it never happened.

None of the Irish victims ever made it back to their homeland to describe their ordeal. These are the lost slaves; the ones that time and biased history books conveniently forgot.