Old Parkinson, the English tenor

D 15.810-17: “For me,” said Aunt Kate, who had been picking a bone, “there was only one tenor. To please me, I mean. But I suppose none of you ever heard of him.”

“Who was he, Miss Morkan?” asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy politely.

“His name,” said Aunt Kate, “was Parkinson. I heard him when he was in his prime and I think he had then the purest tenor voice that was ever put into a man’s throat.”

John Scarry told the story of “William Parkinson in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’” in the Journal of Modern Literature (February 1975, pp. 105-7). William Parkinson, the English tenor (1834-1905), sang on at least three occasions in Dublin in the 1870s, when any of the Flynn sisters might have heard him. According to Scarry:

His first known performances there took place in March 1872 at the Gaiety with the Royal National Opera from London’s St. James Theatre; he was to return to Dublin in September of that year with Charles Durand’s Company for a second series of operas in English. (p. 105)

Scarry relates that Parkinson “returned to Dublin in the summer of 1876 with an opera company organized by Sidney Naylor”, and records Parkinson’s final visit with Richard Temple’s Grand English Opera Company in December 1879 (p. 106). Parkinson emigrated to Australia in 1885, where he became one of the leading teachers of voice production.1

When did one of Joyce’s aunts hear Parkinson? They could obviously have travelled over to mainland Britain to hear him in London or in one of his many tours around the provinces in the 1860s. As it happens, they would actually have had the chance to hear Parkinson sing fairly regularly in Cork in the 1860s, though he seems at that time not to have appeared on a Dublin concert, though it is more likely that they saw him in Belfast in 1865.

The British Operatic Association visited Cork throughout the 1860s. In 1863 their winter tour began at Cork in late December, and carried through till March. William Parkinson was apparently not with them on this trip (though Charles Durand, mentioned above, was in the company).2 The Association boasted over twenty operas (“which will be constantly added to”), including Maritana and The Rose of Castile. In 1864 the company was back in Cork for a short season, at the Theatre Royal, with “Mr. W. Parkinson (Principal Tenor, from Her Majesty’s Theatre, &c.”3 It is likely that John Stanislaus Joyce, who had a strong tenor voice and a lively interest in light opera, would have heard Parkinson at that time in Cork, as it was not until 1873 that he removed to Dublin. If he had, he is likely to have spoken about the occasion within his family as the young Joyce was growing up.

When John Stanislaus Joyce left Cork his son Stanislaus retells the story about:

a dinner [that] was given in his honour; to it, since he had been known as a singer on the concert platform in Cork from early boyhood, some members of an English opera company then visiting Cork were invited.

John Joyce sang after the dinner, and:

the English tenor, who seems to have been free from the usual professional jealousy, congratulated him warmly and said he would willingly have given two hundred pounds there and then to be able to sing that aria as my father had sung it.4

Maybe this English tenor was William Parkinson, who sang with the English Opera Company for a short Christmas season in Cork until 1 February, at the Theatre Royal. But this is unproven.

It is of course also possible that Joyce’s aunts heard Parkinson in Cork. But more significantly, they – or at least one of them, Ellen Callanan – are likely to have heard him after his short 1864 Christmas season in Cork, when he and the company went on to Belfast for another short stay. On Monday 20 February 1865 the British Operatic Association, with William Parkinson starring as Count Rudolph in Balfe’s opera Lurline (and Charles Durand as Rhineberg) were the main musical event in Belfast that evening, at the old Theatre Royal.

Ten minutes’ walk away, and featuring in Belfast’s other leading musical event of the evening, was Ellen Callanan “(from the Dublin Concerts – her first appearance in Belfast)”. She had been invited to sing in one of the Monday “Popular Concerts” or “Pops” at the Ulster Hall in central Belfast, and sang an Irish ballad “My Mary of the Curling Hair”, “Il Segreto” from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, and an old Irish favourite “Kathleen Mavourneen”.

Belfast News Letter (1865) 21 February

If Parkinson was the Flynn’s favourite tenor, then we might assume it was very likely that Ellen and perhaps some of her sisters took the time to hear him sing on one of the rare occasions he was performing in Ireland, and on the same night and in the same city as Ellen Callanan was also in concert. Molly Bloom, we remember, was going “to sing at a swagger affair in the Ulster hall, Belfast, on the twentyfifth”, with Blazes Boylan as her impresario, in Ulysses (5.151-2).

Next day the Belfast News Letter reported on both events. The British Operatic Association’s rendition of Lurline went down very well. William Parkinson’s performance is not singled out for comment in the review. It is followed by a shorter review of the Popular Concert at the Ulster Hall, where “Mrs. Callanan was the vocalist for the evening, and acquitted herself creditably”.5

John Simpson


1 See William Parkinson: 19th Century Operatic Tenor & 'Professor of Singing' – a biography, by Patricia Rogerson (2013).

2 Era (1863), 20 December.

3 Cork Examiner (1864), 10 December.

4 Stanislaus Joyce My Brother’s Keeper (2003), p. 26.

5 Belfast News Letter (1865), 21 February.

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