Recurring character – Tim Fanning on Kathleen Mavourneen

From musical comedy to the silver screen

Theda Bara, the first “vamp” of the silver screen, played the title role in the 1919 film Kathleen Mavourneen

On Christmas Day, 1891, the star of New York’s Irish-set musical comedy, Mavourneen, took ill on stage in the Fourteenth Street Theatre during the matinee performance. Playing the role of an eighteenth-century Irishman, William J. Scanlan suffered some kind of violent fit. A seasoned pro, he seems to have struggled on to the final curtain and recovered quickly to return to the stage for the evening performance.

The following day, however, Scanlan had relapsed and, for his own safety, his manager took him to his own home. Within weeks, Scanlan’s increasingly violent behaviour led to him being committed to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in White Plains. It was here that Scanlan died six years later aged 42.

Born to Irish emigrant parents in Springfield, Massachusetts, Scanlan had enjoyed a successful career in New York’s burgeoning musical theatre scene before illness tragically cut it short. He began working in Vaudeville before becoming a song composer, despite not being able to read music. From one song, Peek-a-Boo, he was said to have made more than $20,000 in royalties in six weeks. Scanlan then moved into musical theatre, becoming a well-known actor, composer and lyricist.

The sentimental flavour of the production in which Scanlan was performing when he succumbed to his breakdown may be gleaned from the names of some of the songs which featured. They included The Auld Country, Molly O! and Mrs Reilly’s Party. The title, Mavourneen, an anglicisation of the Irish mo mhurnín, most likely drew on the popularity of the song Kathleen Mavourneen.

Penned by English composer Frederick Crouch and poet Marion Crawford in the 1830s, Kathleen Mavourneen became very popular during the Civil War. Its haunting theme of parting sweethearts struck a chord with an audience coming to terms with the daily sundering of families and lovers, as well as the break-up of the Union.

The song had first come to prominence a few years earlier when one of the greatest musical stars of the era, the Limerick-born soprano Catherine Hayes, arrived in the States, bringing her signature piece, Kathleen Mavourneen, with her.

Hayes was born into a musical family in Patrick Street in 1818; her father was a bandmaster with the local militia. Having studied with a voice teacher in Dublin, in her twenties, she earned renown touring the country, even performing at one Liszt’s concerts in the capital in 1841.

Within a couple of years, she was performing in France and Italy, making her debut at Milan’s La Scala in 1845 in Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix and, therefore, becoming the first Irishwoman to perform on the stage of the prestigious Italian opera house. She holds the same distinction at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.

Hayes’s talents were widely recognised in Italy. In the late 1840s, she performed regularly in Milan, Venice, Florence and Verona. It was in Verona, on St Stephen’s Day, 1847, that she performed in the Italian premiere of Verdi’s I Masnadieri. Two years later, she was invited to perform for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. For her encore, Hayes chose to sing Kathleen Mavourneen.

The 1850s saw Hayes become a global superstar. In 1851, she performed in New York at a benefit concert for Fr Mathew, the founder of the Total Abstinence Society, before embarking on a gruelling tour of the United States, partly organised by the roguish PT Barnum. Stops in South America, Australia, India, Singapore and Java followed.

By 1856, she had returned to Europe. But tragedy struck the following year when the newly married Hayes lost her 35-year-old husband, the American-born promoter William A Bushnell, to consumption. Four years later, in 1861, the pressures of her career perhaps caught up with Hayes when she succumbed to a stroke. She was just 42, the same age as William J. Scanlan when he died in Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.

But the character of Kathleen survived, becoming the subject of a Dion Boucicault play. In 1919, Fox released Kathleen Mavourneen based on Boucicault’s play. It starred Theda Bara, the first “vamp” of the silver screen (she was literally nicknamed “The Vamp” by studio publicists).

Bara had built a career on playing the “exotic” seductress in contrast to fellow star Mary Pickford’s more innocent charms.

But she was desperate to move away from her bad girl image and relished the role of sweet Kathleen Cavanagh. However, she had not counted on the bigoted reaction of Irish America, which reacted to the casting of an actress of Jewish ancestry in the role of an Irish coleen by sending death threats and rioting in front of cinemas showing the film. The controversy helped put an end to Bara’s career. And as sound arrived in the late 1920s, cinema had already lost one of the silent movie greats.

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