The Mayo woman who became Italy’s favourite operatic diva

The opera singer refused the title of Papal Countess from Pope Pius XI anxious not to forget her humble roots as ‘Peggy of Mayo’

"Miss Sheridan is Irish. But either by instinct or by luck, she sings like an Italian." This, from a Milan Review of Margaret Burke Sheridan's 1919 debut as the first non-Italian Madam Butterfly, heralded the arrival of a prima donna whose name would become as familiar in the Europe of her time as John McCormack.

But Sheridan's name has somewhat receded from the public imagination. Her wide-eyed, fresh-faced portrait hangs outside the Gaiety Theatre's dress circle, a relic of a glamorous bygone era and her presence might still be felt in The Shelbourne Hotel, where she spent much of her later life.

Sheridan was born into humble surroundings in Castlebar, Co Mayo, in 1889, the daughter of a postmaster and the youngest of five children. She suffered misfortune at an early age when both parents died, but it was arranged for her to go to school with the Domincan nuns in Eccles Street in Dublin. She attended from the age of 11, receiving singing classes from music teacher Mother Clement, and beginning to compete at the Feis.

After winning the 1908 Feis Ceoil, a benefit concert was held in the Theatre Royal in Dublin to send Sheridan to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. In London, she met Guglielmo Marconi, then at the height of his fame, who was hugely impressed by her voice and offered to bring her to Rome to be trained. By this time in her late twenties, she was brought under the tutelage of Emma and Martini Correlli, who praised her voice, but were sceptical about her age and lack of technique. Sheridan threw herself into her training, but went against the advice of her teachers in accepting the part of Mimi in La Boheme in Rome, offered at four days' notice after another soprano had to pull out. The performance was a stunning success, and launched Sheridan's career. Praised by Toscanini, Gigli, Puccini, and spent the next 16 years dividing her time between Covent Garden, where she debuted in 1919, and Rome, where she performed in operas by Puccini, Respighi and Macagni.

At the height of her career, she was offered the title of Papal Countess by Pope Pius XI, who had heard her singing when he was Bishop of Milan. She refused the title, anxious throughout her career not to forget her humble roots as "Peggy from Mayo". Her Irish identity was important to her, as was her religion. She fell deeply in love with Eustace Blois, the managing director of Covent Garden, and though her love was requited the affair was unconsummated as he was a married man.

The two exchanged passionate letters, but Margaret remained single. She remained engaged with Irish politics of the day, and on the night when Terence McSwiney died of hunger strike in Brixton, she refused to perform in Naples, because "her compatriot is dead".

In the early 1930s, her Italian teacher's warnings about her lack of technique came back to haunt her. While singing at the BBC, she faltered on a high note - a natural mezzo soprano, she had not completed the training necessary to allow her to continually stretch her range for the soprano roles she sang. An illness followed, which sent her back to early retirement in Ireland, living much of the remainder of her life in the Shelbourne Hotel, a somewhat eccentric figure, but one renowned for her irreverent humour.

Sheridan died in 1958. Her retirement had been long and perhaps difficult for her, isolated from the glamour of her former years. Something of those heady heights is captured in former president Sean T O' Ceallaigh's tribute to her on her passing: "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".

It must have been difficult when the applause stopped, and a friend recalled her as being "an alien among her own, outrageous and witty". Anne Chambers, the biographer who has gone to great lengths to preserve Sheridan's legacy, recounts in a 2008 interview how, when suffering late stage cancer in the nursing home in which Arthur Griffith had died, Sheridan would remark "I get a great sense of history every time I go to the loo".

In 1995, opera fan Derek Walsh remembered her in her latter years: "I knew her near the end of her life and she was even then most fascinating - and joy of joys one afternoon in the lounge of the Shelbourne Hotel she sang Butterfly's entrance for me (sotto voce because the place was full of people). The quality of the voice I can still recall. Glowing is the way I would describe it".

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Jessica Traynor, deputy museum director of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (epicchq.com) in Dublin's Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.