P.S. Gilmore: Ireland’s first superstar

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

Documentary on One RTÉ Radio 1, 3 November 2018


By Donal Fallon

Above: Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore—born in Ballyfar, Co. Galway, in December 1829.

Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore lived a remarkable and colourful life. Indeed, listening to Tim Desmond’s latest contribution to the Documentary on One series, there is a constant feeling of bemusement at not having heard of Gilmore before. The title of this effort, Ireland’s first superstar, is no indulgence of hyperbole. Considered by many to be the principal figure of American music in the nineteenth century, Gilmore was a Galwegian composer and bandmaster who led parading bands through iconic moments in US history and earned his place in contemporary popular culture. While eternally honoured in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1970, he has undoubtedly fallen from popular memory. Here Desmond attempts to bring Gilmore to a new generation of listeners, drawing on a range of experts in the field and making brilliant use of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra to boot. Performing President Grant’s March, the orchestra adds another layer entirely to this production.

Gilmore, born in December 1829 in Ballyfar, represents almost the quintessential ‘emigrant done good’ story. The documentary first introduces us to Jarlath McNamara (who also hails from Ballygar), a researcher and collector of the Gilmore story who has devoted years to trying to unearth more. The story of Irish migration to the United States in the 1840s has been well documented, but the documentary keeps the focus very much on the life of this one character. In addition to Gilmore expert McNamara, we are introduced to musician Steve Dillon, who himself boasts a musical lineage stretching back to the 1770s and whose collection of instruments includes some played by members of Gilmore’s famous marching bands. There is a certain magic in hearing these historic instruments played on air, as well as new takes on songs written by Gilmore, including the emigrant ballad Good news from home.

Above: Sheet-music cover of Gilmore’s When Johnny comes marching home—the world’s greatest musical plea for peace?

Gilmore succeeded financially in America because he was able to tap into two booming industries. Songs like Good news from home appealed to cities of mass immigration, where longing for home had a transformative effect on culture in America. Even more importantly, Gilmore understood the significance of band culture to the military. ‘Gilmore’s Band’, founded in 1858 in Boston, later enlisted with the Massachusetts Volunteers on the outbreak of the American Civil War. Gilmore described his experiences on the battlefield as the most memorable of his career. Gerald Regan, from the excellent diaspora historical website ‘The Wild Geese’, ponders the impact of Gilmore and men like him in transforming the popular conception of Irish immigrants in American society through heroism on the Civil War field of battle. Perhaps, Regan ponders, the war was when the Irish became Americans.

Above: New York’s Statue of Liberty—Gilmore and his band performed at its dedication in 1886

Gilmore’s most celebrated contribution to the period of the war was When Johnny comes marching home again. Early on in the documentary we hear U2 performing the song, described by one contributor as being ‘now recognised as the world’s greatest musical plea for peace’ (which John Lennon aficionados may dispute). Correctly, though, it is acknowledged as a war song that doesn’t mention ‘war, victor, or vanquished’. It is a beautiful expression of the hope of loved ones that their men would return from the carnage of combat. Something that goes largely unexplored here is why Gilmore published the song under the pseudonym ‘Louis Lambert’.

Respect was earned in the field of war, but in a time of peace Gilmore’s effect on band music was transformative. As Michael Cummings notes, he introduced woodwind instruments into brass band culture, essentially creating hybrid orchestras with the ability to play a wide variety of music. Gilmore is rightly described as a showman who understood the power of visual spectacle, as well as the emotional power of musical composition. He even utilised cannons outside venues where he was performing, ensuring earth-shaking occasions.

Intriguingly, we hear of Gilmore performing in Dublin, but this interesting Irish angle is not pursued, with the documentary remaining firmly focused on American soil. Gilmore still holds the record for performing 150 times consecutively to crowds of 10,000 people or more in Madison Square Gardens, which was known as ‘Gilmore’s Gardens’. He performed at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, with his band playing La Marseillaise and The Star-Spangled Banner. The weather dampened proceedings, with one contemporary newspaper complaining that the day was ‘marred by unfavourable weather, with a drizzling rain and fog prevailing throughout’. Still, Gilmore and his band brought spectacle and a sense of real, historic occasion to proceedings. Two years later, Gilmore began the tradition of greeting the New Year in Manhattan’s Times Square. These things remain iconic symbols of American identity.

Gilmore died in September 1892, right at a time of transformative change in popular culture. One wonders whether, had he survived into the twentieth century, he would be a better-remembered cultural figure. Changing recording technology would have brought him into the homes and record collections of millions.

This being an immigrant story, and a story entangled in just what it means to be an American, it is unsurprising that the contemporary world should loom large over the conclusion of this documentary. Gilmore is even described as ‘the father of the American dream’, and the question is asked about changing American attitudes to migrants. At the very end, however, things are pulled back to Gilmore himself, and it is a 2018 recording of President Grant’s March that brings the documentary to its conclusion.

In many ways this was a masterclass in musical documentary. By taking Gilmore’s nineteenth-century scores and performing them again, this became a living history. There is certainly more work to be done on the extraordinary P.S. Gilmore, in particular on his cultural impact on this side of the Atlantic.

Donal Fallon is joint editor of the award-winning blog on Dublin life and culture Come Here To Me (https://comeheretome.com).


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