Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore served as a musician and stretcher-bearer in the 24th Massachusetts Infantry during the American Civil War. His incredible post-army musical career includes penning “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, the tune he took from an old Irish antiwar folk song, “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye”, that was published under the name Louis Lambert. He performed some of the biggest musical shows ever seen, along the way becoming one of the icons of nineteenth century America.
Gilmore was born in Ballygar, Co Galway. He started his music career at age fifteen, and as a 19-year-old he emigrated with one million others, escaping the Great Hunger in 1849. Arriving in Massachusetts he conducted bands in Salem and Boston and developed his craft further as an innovative conductor and band leader. Whilst in Boston he developed the initial 4th July Celebrations and the Boston Promenade Concerts, and was invited to lead the inauguration parade of President Buchanan in Washington D.C. in 1857 (the first of eight inaugurations Patrick participated in). In 1860 Gilmore’s band played to both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions – Abraham Lincoln was selected to run at the latter. At the outset of the Civil War both he and his band volunteered en masse for service with what became the 24th Massachusetts Infantry, setting sail to take part in the famous Burnside Expedition to the Carolinas in early 1862.
In 1858 he founded “Gilmore’s Band,” and at the outset of war the band enlisted with the 24th Massachusetts Volunteers, accompanying General Burnside to North Carolina. After the temporary discharge of bands from the field, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts entrusted Gilmore with the task of re-organizing military music-making, and General Nathaniel P. Banks created him Bandmaster-general.
In 1878 he arranged for his band to tour Europe, taking to Ireland, the United Kingdom, Holland, Belgium, France and Germany. They played 151 concerts and were judged by all as the greatest band ever heard at this time in the world. They played for one month in the United Kingdom alone, performing 65 concerts between Bristol and Aberdeen and being cheered everywhere they went. The King of Holland and the Kaiser both attended concerts, and even Queen Victoria invited them to Balmoral Castle, but Gilmore declined as it would have made the band late for the planned 4th of July celebrations at the Paris Exposition at the Trocadero. The Germans acclaimed “Gilmore’s American Band” as the greatest musical organisation in the world, and Gilmore was delighted with the tour. He had helped to elevate the United States as a centre of serious cultural performance in the eyes of the Europeans.
In 1876, he set up “Gilmore’s Concert Garden” in New York City, which became Madison Square Garden. Gilmore’s Garden was an open-air arena that Gilmore used the venue for flower shows, beauty contests, music concerts, temperance and revival meetings and the first Westminster Club Dog Show. Gilmore also held boxing although it was illegal at the time. On 31 May 1879, Gilmore’s Garden officially became Madison Square Garden.
He was the Musical Director of the Nation in effect, leading the festivities for the 1876 Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia and the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. In 1888 he started the tradition of seeing in the New Year in Times Square.
Never did he forget Ireland, his heritage or his fellow Irish. He was acclaimed positively as an Irishman in American newspaper articles throughout his career. When Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt and their organisations needed to promote their policies it was to Gilmore that they turned, not only for monetary support but more importantly for public endorsement. Gilmore included references to Home Rule in his Concert Programs and even wrote a Ballad dedicated to Home Rule called “Ireland to England”. He raised money for Great Hunger Relief, Clan na nGael, the Annual Emerald Ball for Orphans, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, etc. Gilmore spoke on the value of the “Boycott” to the Irish People and declared publicly and proudly that “he was an Irishman”.
It was in 1892, preparing for a musical celebration of the quadricentennial anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery, that Gilmore collapsed and died in St. Louis. Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore was buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York, where his wife would later be interred.
Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.