Margaret Burke Sheridan, the prima donna, is regarded as one of the greatest sopranos of all time. Her lovely voice charmed the crowds in the great opera houses of Europe, especially in La Scala, Milan, the Teatro Reale, Rome, the San Carlo, Naples, and Covent Garden, London.
The memory of Margherita Sheridan is revered in Italy today. Sean T. O Ceallaigh, the second President of the Republic of Ireland (1882-1966), said in a tribute to her:
"In the history of music, the name of Margaret Burke-Sheridan is inseparably linked with the great names of Giacomo Puccini and Arturo Toscanini. In La Scala opera house in Milan, her triumphs are commemorated in bronze. The years she spent in Italy were, indeed, years of triumph succeeding triumph. She lived there in a glittering world of music and song and reigned in that world as a queen, the centre of admiration and applause".
Margaret Burke Sheridan was born on the Mall, Castlebar, on 15 October 1889, the youngest in a family of seven. (There is a plaque on the actual house). Margaret Mary were the names given to her at Baptism, and some years later she used her father’s second name, Burke, in his memory.
She was only four when her mother and father died. She spent the following five years with a friend in Newtown, Castlebar, Canon Lyons P.P. Castlebar (1885-1911) arranged with Mother Peter McGrath, the prioress of the Dominican Convent, Eccles Street, Dublin, for Margaret to attend school there. Mother Clement, of Eccles Street Convent, gave Margaret her first music lessons. She showed exceptional musical talent and worked hard.
After winning a gold medal at the Dublin Feis Ceoil in 1908, a sponsored concert was organised for her at the theatre Royal in Dublin, and with the proceeds she was sent to the Royal Academy of Music in London. Margaret met her godfather and family friend, T.P. O’Connor M.P., in London, who helped her in every way he could. Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of the future Prime Minister, Winston, also helped her.
Margaret was a welcome artiste in the homes of many people in London. On one such occasion in 1911 she impressed the inventor of wireless- telegraphy, Guglielmo Marconi, who invited her to continue her career in Italy, and made the necessary arrangements.
Margaret Burke Sheridan arrived in Rome to study under Martini and Emma Correlli. When Martini first heard her sing Madame Butterfly’s entrance song he said to her: "You have a wonderful voice, but you don’t know the first thing about singing". Margaret worked hard at her singing, and within two years made her operatic debut in Rome, in La Constanzia.
It was an immediate success, and she received a magnificent ovation. Arturo Tuscanini, the great virtuoso conductor, heard her and invited her to sing Mimi in La Boheme. Margaret Burke Sheridan gave an outstanding performance, which led her to a long series of successful engagements in operas by Puccini. She made her debut in Covent Garden, London, in 1919, in the title role of Madame Butterfly.
She returned to Italy and over the following sixteen years thrilled audiences with outstanding performances in operas by Puccini, Mascagni, Respighi and other composers.
La Margharita Sheridan, as she was called in Italy, was a perfectionist and sought excellence in her art. She reached the zenith of her distinguished career with performances in La Scala in Milan with Toscanini conducting. Pope Pius XI, when Archbishop of Milan, said: "heaven came very near when I heard her singing". When he became Pope he offered her the title Countess, but with characteristic modesty and humility she declined the honour.
During her singing career in Italy, Margaret brought distinction not alone to herself but also to Ireland. She always stated that she was Irish and proud of it. When Terence Mc Swiney (1879-1920) died on hunger strike, at Brixton Prison on 24th October 1920, the San Carlo Opera House in Naples had to be closed, because it was announced: "La Sheridan will not sing, her compatriot is dead".
Margaret Sheridan never married. She was engaged to an Italian Count, but broke it off when she later heard that he was already married. Margaret had a severe illness in 1934 and lost confidence in her ability to attain her own high standards. She retired from singing in 1935 and returned to Dublin.
She went to America in 1950, on the invitation of the New York Foundation of Opera, to help in their search for talent. She made a few trips to America but never sang there. Margaret Burke Sheridan died in St. Vincent'’ Hospital, Dublin, on 16april 1958.
The Italian Ambassador to Ireland paid this tribute to Margaret Burke Sheridan on her death:
"She was a great friend of my country. Italy admired her and loved her. She was more than a prima donna; she was literally the first great lady of opera houses in Rome, Milan and Naples. She made is the gift not only of her golden voice, but of her warm Irish heart. Toscanini and Puccini will ever be linked to her name." She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Extract from "MAYO- Aspects of it’s Heritage", by Bernard O Hara. Published by kind permission of the author.