New Year’s eve had been celebrated with cheerful noise for many years, but in New York City on December 31, 1888, that all changed with the formal addition of music to the annual celebration and it took an Irishman to do it. In those early days, the tiny triangle of land at the intersection of 7th Avenue, Broadway and 42nd Street was simply known as the Long Acre.  The name wasn’t changed to Times Square until 1904 when the New York Times opened its offices there. On New Year's eve in 1888, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, leading the greatest brass band in America, went to Longacre Square to perform for the large audience that gathered up and down Broadway. Gilmore performed for the crowd and then led them in a countdown, firing two pistols in the air at the stroke of midnight. The event quickly became an annual tradition.

In 1904 the celebration was expanded to coincide with the official opening of the new headquarters of The New York Times. The newspaper's owner had lobbied the city to rename Longacre Square to Times Square in honor of the new Times Tower which stood thereon. The celebration began with an all-day street festival and culminated in a fireworks display.  At midnight, the joyful sound of cheering erupted from more than 200,000 attendees listening to the music that had become a part of the tradition thanks to the late Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore.

Left: Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore

Gilmore, called "matchless" by John Philip Sousa, was born on Christmas Day, 1829, in Ballygar, County Galway. After experiencing the horror of Great Hunger, he emigrated to America in 1848 at the age of 18. His love of music led him to join a popular brass band as a coronet player. He settled in Massachusetts, and 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. He became the first to conduct brass band arrangements of classics and 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, organist and choir director at St. Patrick’s Church in Lowell, Massachusetts. 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 tune to which Julia Ward Howe later rewrote the lyrics  in order 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."

Among his crowning achievements were organizing and directing the National Peace Jubilee (1869) and the World Peace Jubilee (1872), two of the largest music festivals ever held. The latter concert 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 recruited to represent his homeland 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. He even convinced the renowned Johann Strauss to compose a special piece, "The Jubilee Waltz," for the occasion and to 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.

Gilmore left Boston to become leader of the 22nd Regimental Band of the New York National Guard. It was universally recognized as simply the greatest band in the world. He 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. When he moved on, it became Madison Square Garden. Everything this man did was colossal including the tradition of ringing in the new year in Times Square. Gilmore was musical director for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in 1886 and was invited by Thomas Edison to record on wax cylinders in 1891, thereby becoming the first band to make commercial recordings. In September 1892, Gilmore passed away leaving a remarkable legacy. So when you see the new year ushered in with music, think of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore. He was the first to add music to the celebration of cheerful noise that once ushered in that event.

As for the tune "Auld Lang Syne" (old long since), that became a standard part of that musical tradition in 1929 when Guy Lombard played it for a radio broadcast from the Roosevelt Hotel. That song owes it origin to one of our Celtic cousins as well – the Scottish poet, Robbie Burns.  It had been sung informally for years until it became an unmoveable part of the tradition in 1929. Today, as we watch the departure of 2014 and welcome the new year to the descent of the 12-foot diameter, near 12,000-pound ball made up of 2,688 Irish Waterford Crystal triangles, think of the Celtic connection to that unique celebration that is viewed around the world and stand a little taller!

Related:

1872 World's Peace Jubilee July 4th Celebrations

Manhattan's Duffy Square: The Man Behind the Name

Top Image: New Year's Eve in Manhattan's Times Square, 1945

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Tags: Boston, Galway, Holidays, Music, NYC, New York, P.S. Gilmore

Comment by Catherine White on December 30, 2014 at 9:36am

Thank you so much for this article. I certainly learned something new and because of that,I am even more proud of my Irish roots. My Dad was born in Brooklyn and he used to talk about the celebrations in Times Square when he was a boy. I am hoping to go and experience New Year's Eve in NY one day. This year I will watch it on tv and I will have a pint of Guinness raised to user in the new year. I will be proud to say I am an Irish American. 

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