History Of Kate Hayes

  Source: Catherine Hayes: The Hibernian Prima Donna

                           by Basil Walsh

Kate Hayes

Catherine “Kate” Hayes was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1818. As a child her father abandoned the family and she was plunged into the deepest level of poverty.  As a young girl, her beautiful singing voice impressed all within earshot. Her reputation grew locally during her teenage years. In 1839, Kate began formal voice training.  In 1844, she arrived in Paris.  After completing these initial five years of vocal study she made her debut at the Italian Opera in Marseilles in May 1845. 

A few months later Kate performed at Milan’s La Scala in 1845.  The reviews were glowing.  Shortly thereafter, the famous operatic composer Giuseppe Verdi, became interested in the possibility of Kate performing one of his new operas. Her great success continued throughout Italy and Austria.  Specifically, Kate became opera’s most desired “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

Early in 1849, Kate signed a contract to appear at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, in London.  In June 1849, she received an invitation to sing at Buckingham Palace.  Before Queen Victoria and 500 guests, Kate performed an evening of Italian music.  At the conclusion of the concert, Queen Victoria requested an encore. Irish-born Catherine sang the beautiful Irish rebellion song, "Kathleen Mavourneen."

In November 1849, Kate made an emotional return to her native country and performed in Dublin, Limerick and Cork. Rave reviews accompanied for her performances. In 1851 Kate came to America, where singer Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” was already an American favorite.  Kate achieved even greater success than Lind. Kate gave concerts along the Atlantic seaboard and throughout the South.  Her concerts in Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans and forty-five other locations were acclaimed. She met many prominent officials and leading citizens.  During this tour, Kate was also destined to meet her future husband, Jenny Lind's former manager, William Bushnell. 

Beginning in 1851, Kate's travels took her to the California gold fields where her presence created uproar.  Kate quickly became a favorite of the miners.  The great showman P.T. Barnum sponsored her tour.  She was billed as “The Swan of Erin,” or “The Hibernian Prima Donna.”
At San Francisco’s American Theater in 1852, the account of her appearance was breathless:  “Long and loud were the cheers and applause, which greeted her entrée,” reported the Far West News. “She acknowledged again and again the enthusiastic testimonial, and again and again the audience cheered and applauded.... It was while standing at the foot-lights, amid the storm of applause, that our citizens had the first view of Miss Catherine Hayes. ...Miss Hayes is about thirty years of age. She is a graceful, queen-like person, of medium stature, with a fair oval face. Her features are regular, hair bright auburn, eyes blue, and her face wears an intellectual expression without much animation. She dresses with taste, and her manner is perfectly easy and self-possessed; her gesticulation appropriate and graceful.”

Interestingly, the London Daily Express, in a review of Basil Walsh’s recent biography of Kate Hayes, wrote: “Hayes was the ‘Madonna” of her day, she was the 19th-century operatic equivalent of the world's most famous pop star.”  Maybe in renown, but certainly not in behavior.  From all accounts, Kate Hayes was not a scandalous figure like a Madonna or Kate’s contemporary Lola Montez, but the dignified and elegant embodiment of the 19th century definition of feminine virtue.
Kate Hayes

She was also enormously popular.  In February 1853, Kate performed in Sacramento.  The seats were sold at auction to the highest bidders.  The highest bid was $1200 for a front row seat.  In the 1850s, $250 was considered an average annual salary.  The high bidder was … John Sutter, who proudly took his seat on an ornate green sofa.

Through Spring 1853, Kate performed in the Gold Country, including Nevada County.  According to contemporary accounts, Kate was a visitor to many mining camps, and even tried her hand at gold panning. One of her last concerts was at the Alta Theater in Grass Valley on April 18, 1853.  The Nevada Journal reported:  “The voice of the [Kate Hayes] broke forth in notes of most bewitching sweetness and harmony. The excitement of the audience increased to a furious extent, no doubt with proud ratification that they had heard for once in their lives, the voice that had awakened the admiration of the western world.”

The Nevada County mining communities were captivated.  Soon, the name “Kate Hayes” was seemingly everywhere.  There was Kate Hayes Flat, Kate Hayes Hill, the Kate Hayes Mining Company, and even a little street that leads up toward the Empire Mine grounds was named in her honor, Kate Hayes Street.

Following her Gold Country tour, Kate performed in opera and concerts in South America and Hawaii before continuing on to Australia.  Kate Hayes was the first great European opera star to visit the young colony of Australia. Kate also traveled to India where she performed for the British Military.  She sang in Singapore and the island of Java before returning to Australia for more opera and concerts.

After traveling the world, Kate returned to London in 1856. In 1857, Kate married Bushnell.  And then tragedy struck.  After only seven months of marriage, Bushnell died of heart failure.  Kate lived only a few more years, dying from a stroke at age 42.

Her life was short but her influence continues.  A children's hospital in Sydney is named for Catherine Hayes. Kate had provided the seed money for the building. The Limerick Civic Trust has acquired Kate’s birthplace and converted it into a museum. The gravesite of Kate Hayes in London’s famous Kensal Green Cemetery has been recently restored.

The memories remain. Even in a narrow Grass Valley lane.