The Society is Born
Although the memorials to John McCormack were scarce the world has by no means forgotten him. Since the time of his death there have been many collectors of his gramophone records in both America and Britain. It was a strange fact, however, that in the country that had produced the greatest lyric tenor of the century there was not even a John McCormack Society until fifteen years after his death. True, the Irish newspapers had waxed eloquent when they published obituaries of him, naming him as the greatest singer who ever left their country. Yet for those fifteen years the only tributes paid to him by Ireland were the masses in his honour twice a year and short radio programmes tracing his life somewhat sketchily and playing some of his records.
Only his family and close friends and those who had helped him in his career really knew in detail the life of the man and his interesting personality.
A friend of the singer, a man named F. J. Kelly, who was secretary of the Dublin Gramophone Society, became an unofficial authority on the the tenor and dispensed information to hundreds of people who wrote to him with their questions about McCormack records. But he died shortly after the singer himself, and there appeared to be no one in Ireland to answer such queries until Mr. Kelly's place was taken by an Irishman living in Dublin who has been an enthusiastic collector of the tenor's records for thirty years.
His name was Mr. Robert Webster, a caretaker of office premises in the city and a trombone player in a Salvation Army band.
Now after all those years, there was a McCormack revival in Ireland, and Mr Webster, a man who never saw the tenor and never heard him sing in person, was one of a group of Irish people who started it. In Dublin in 1960 they organised the John McCormack Society of Ireland, which within a few short years had managed to recruit 150 members.
Its objects were:
To bring about a re-birth of interest in the man and his music.
To make known as widely as possible McCormack's art.
To try to form a McCormack museum in Ireland.
How did the society begin? Were the first Irishmen to think of it old friends of the tenor? Instead, they were men who had never known him. Men like Mr. Webster and a twenty-six-years-old Dublin bank clerk, Mr. Morrough Linnane, who was eleven years of age when McCormack died.
Mr Linnane had collected 350 McCormack records, and his father, Mr. Maurice Linnane, a fifty-five-years-old customs officer, had another 100. The young bank clerk related how the society began.
"I only knew McCormack from his records, and my father only saw him once in Glasgow," he said. "I consider he is the finest singer on record, but we had always thought that if a Mccormack society were formed it should be started by someone who was more closely associated with the tenor."
"My father and I continued collecting his records. Many are not now readily available, an they have to be searched for in the second-hand record shops. if you are collecting Mac records you have to keep at it. You can pay as much as £10 for a lesser known McCormack record."
On an October evening in 1959 the bank clerk and his father were having a drink in a public house in Clontarf, on the coast, three miles from the centre of Dublin.
"Why don't we start a McCormack society?" suggested Morrough.
"I don't see why not, for no one else is doing anything about it," replied his father.
They decided to send a letter to a Dublin newspaper with a request for its publication, and on a piece of scrap paper beside their stout glasses they composed it that evening.
The newspaper published it in its correspondence column. It read:
"The art of John McCormack is known and acclaimed throughout the world, but in his native land his voice is seldom heard today. This is indeed a shame, and those who knew and loved that voice in his lifetime are dwindling.
"The present generation have little opportunity of hearing it, as apart from the occasional records played by Radio Eireann and local gramophone societies there are no other sources available to them. We believe that something more is necessary, and I invite anyone interested to get in touch with me with a view to forming a John Mccormack society to foster a love of the art of this great singer."
They received only twenty replies! One was from a Glasgow doctor, another from a music teacher in America. There were several from people living in Dublin.
To the tiny group of organisers it looked like defeat. But two months later a Dublin priest, Father Oliver, who was a lover of McCormack's voice, offered them free of charge the use of his church hall beside the river at Merchant's Quay for a recital of McCormack records.
When they pubished a notice in January, 1960, inviting the public to the recital they were guilty of a slight but excusable exaggeration. They stated in the announcement that the response to their earlier suggestion to form a McCormack society had been "so encouraging that a public recital of the tenor,s music was essential."
"The words of the notice stared at me accusingly from the paper," Mr. Linnane told me. "But we filled the hall with 500 people. After the recital we were able to form a committee of eleven and draw up rules."
Gus Smith - A Voice to Remember