Ever wonder who started the tradition of welcoming in the new year in Times Square? Well, it was a Famine Irish immigrant, Galway man Patrick Gilmore who was the most well-known Irish immigrant of his day and a famous person, but today sadly, Gilmore and his contributions to American music are forgotten, even though his great song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again,” has endured as an American classic. His funeral was a huge event with tens of thousands turning out, but today few people visit his grave in Calvary Cemetery. I have profiled this amazing Irishman in my new book: "The Irish in New York: Profiles of Irish New Yorkers Who Have Shaped The Empire State."
Today few people recognize the name Patrick Gilmore, but in his day, he was the most famous Irishman in America and his legacy to American music and popular culture is huge. Gilmore opened the doors that had previously been shut for Irish musicians such as John McCormack, Victor Herbert, and George M. Cohan. An organizer of massive public concerts, ‘Harper’s Weekly created the word Gilmorean to describe his massive concerts, whose huge audiences were beyond compare. Gilmore also had a lasting effect on American popular culture. He conducted the first promenade concert on July 4, 1855, on Boston Common, which became the forerunner of today’s hugely popular Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade, and Gilmore began the world-famous tradition of greeting the New Year in New York's Times Square.
A Famine refugee, Gilmore was born in Galway in 1829 and immigrated to the United States as a 19-year-old in 1849. Arriving in Boston, he conducted bands in both Salem, Massachusetts, and Boston, while developing into an innovative conductor and bandleader. A gifted cornetist, he started Boston’s first musical July 4th celebrations and the Boston Promenade Concerts, which made him a celebrity. He was invited to lead the inauguration parade of President Buchanan in Washington, D.C., in 1857, the first of eight such inaugurations for Gilmore. In 1860, Gilmore’s band played for both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention, where Abraham Lincoln was chosen.
When the Civil War broke out, Gilmore and his band volunteered for service with what became the 24th Massachusetts Infantry. He saw action in North Carolina, at Roanoke, New Bern, and Tranter’s Creek. He and his band played music for his fellow troops, as well as entertaining captured Confederates. He also acted as a stretcher-bearer on the battlefield. In 1863, he composed a timeless ballad, which both Confederates and Union troops embraced, titled, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” for which Gilmore was posthumously inducted into the American Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1864, Gilmore was asked by General Banks and Governor Andrews of Massachusetts to organize the inauguration ceremony of Governor Michael Hahn, the first Union governor elected in Civil War Louisiana. For this occasion, Gilmore conducted a band of 500 musicians, accompanied by a choir of over 5,000 voices, singing for an audience of over 35,000 in Lafayette Square, New Orleans.
After the war, Gilmore organized a National Peace Jubilee in Boston in June 1869, featuring 1,000 musicians,10,000 choral singers, and 6,000 Boston schoolchildren. To hold the monster concert, they built a 50,000 seat coliseum in Boston’s Back Bay, where the Copley Plaza Hotel and Hancock Towers now stand.
U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant attended the five-day-long musical extravaganza, which helped foster a post-war national reconciliation. In 1872, Gilmore organized a World Peace Jubilee in Boston, inviting bands from Europe, including the waltz king, Austrian Johann Strauss. Participating bands in the jubilee included the French band of the Garde Républicaine, the Prussian band of the Kaiser Franz Grenadier Regiment, the band of the Royal Grenadier Guards, and an Irish band from Dublin. At the end of the festival, Gilmore realized that both his band and the U.S. Marine Band were inferior to the European bands, and so he instituted new higher musical standards, which survive to this day. The following year, Gilmore organized another monster concert to help the City of Chicago recover from the fire which had devastated it two years previously. Gilmore led a five-day concert while conducting an orchestra of 300, combined with a choir of 3,000, in the city’s new railway passenger terminal building for 40,000 spectators.
The same year as his Chicago concert, Gilmore moved to New York City determined to build a world-class orchestra in the country’s largest city. Over the next five years, Gilmore increased the frequency of his band’s rehearsals, broadened its repertoire, and expanded its library of music to include 11,000 scores. The band appeared all across the land at parades and in festivals, cementing its reputation as the country’s top band. In 1878, Gilmore’s band was ready to tour Europe with the goal of proving that American musicians could equal their European rivals. The Gilmore band played 151 concerts, earning praise as the greatest band in the world. They played for one month in the United Kingdom alone, performing 65 concerts while being lionized everywhere they went. The King of Holland and the Kaiser both attended concerts, and even Queen Victoria invited them to Balmoral Castle, but Gilmore had to decline to keep a booking for the 4th of July celebrations at the Paris Exposition at the Trocadero. The Germans acclaimed “Gilmore's American Band” as the greatest musical organization in the world, and Gilmore reveled in his band’s success.
His band’s success in Europe made him America’s first superstar in a modern sense, but he still had more great achievements. He leased the Hippodrome in New York City, which became ‘Gilmore Gardens’ and later became famous as Madison Square Garden. Gilmore’s record still stands there when he played more than 150 consecutive concerts in front of crowds of 10,000 or more. He acted as the musical director at the inauguration ceremony for the Statue of Liberty, the opening of the state capitol in Austin, Texas, and expositions in Kansas City and St. Louis. His musical tours drew thousands of listeners across the country.
Gilmore became by far the best-known Irishman in 19th century America, but despite his good fortune and celebrity, he never forgot Ireland. When Charles Stuart Parnell and Michael Davitt needed to promote the Land League, they turned to him not only for monetary support but also for public endorsement. Gilmore included references to Home Rule in his concerts and even wrote a ballad dedicated to Home Rule, titled ‘Ireland to England.’ He raised money for famine relief, Clan na Gael, the Annual Emerald Ball for Orphans, and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, while always declaring proudly that he was an Irishman. Gilmore also raised the profile in America of Irish music and culture. He continuously featured the works of Thomas Moore, while organizing a Moore memorial ceremony. In addition, he performed the American debuts of the works of Irish composers Michael William Balfe and William Vincent Wallace.
When he died in 1892, an estimated half-million people lined Fifth Avenue for his funeral. The legendary “March King” John Philip Sousa called Gilmore the “Father of the American Band and later said (If anyone) “ could do one-thousandth as much good for mankind as was done by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, his memory will indeed be blessed.” He was buried in Calvary Cemetery, in Woodside, Queens, but today few people recall his amazing achievements.