Sunday 18 March 2018

Limerick's Joseph O'Mara: Ireland's forgotten tenor

Opera star: Joseph O'Mara's family were synonimouse with the pork trade in Limerick
Opera star: Joseph O'Mara's family were synonimouse with the pork trade in Limerick

George Hamilton

The city of Limerick is famous for many things. Home to a national radio station and an internationally successful rugby team, it's also synonymous with superior quality ham. And it was that connection which gave the world of music a hugely successful singing star.

Technology - or rather the absence of it - can be blamed for the fact that not too many people these days know the name of Joseph O'Mara. Born in 1864, 20 years before John McCormack, his was a career that was experienced live.

Little enough of O'Mara survives in recordings, and what little there is does him scant justice.

He came from a family synonymous with the pork trade in Limerick. His father had founded the bacon-curing company that bore the family name and finally closed only last year.

His tale is an intriguing one. He left Crescent College, determined to make a career at sea. But 12 months on a ship cured him of that notion.

Still, during that time he discovered that he had what he would describe as "some kind of a voice"'.

He trained in Milan - a route John McCormack would later take - and got his break in London in unusual circumstances.

Arthur Sullivan, the musical half of Gilbert and Sullivan, was providing a première for the opening of a new West End venue. The production of his opera Ivanhoe was costing so much, the composer decided, in a break with operatic convention, to run the show across the whole week.

For this he needed not just understudies but a full back-up cast of principals who would perform on alternate nights.

So two leads were needed. Ben Davies, the great Welsh tenor of the time was the main Ivanhoe, Joe was the other. Comparisons would be inevitable. Joe came through with flying colours.

He was 26 and ready to set sail across the world of opera. Hugely talented as an actor as well as a singer, he was in great demand.

His range was extensive. He excelled as Tannhäuser in Wagner's opera of the same name, Don José in Bizet's Carmen, the male lead in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In all, his repertoire took in 67 tenor roles.

He was made a Freeman of the City of Limerick in 1908, and would go on to form his own opera company. They toured extensively.

Joe O'Mara appeared on Broadway in the musical Peggy Machree, a romantic comedy which featured old Irish ballads. He was famous enough to have his arrival headlined in the New York Times as "Singer O'Mara Here".

They wrote of his big ambitions for Irish music. "My American tour, I hope, will refresh the love of the beauties of the ancient Irish airs," he was quoted as saying.

Back at home his standing was such that he was the tenor chosen to perform at the opening of Ireland's first radio station, 2RN, out of which Radio Éireann would grow.

On New Year's Day 1926, as Douglas Hyde, the founder of the Gaelic League, and subsequently first President of the Irish Free State, opened 2RN, O'Mara sang 'Turn Ye to Me'.

Ninety years ago today, Joseph O'Mara passed away at his home off Ailesbury Road in Dublin, just around the corner from RTÉ. He was 63.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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