Roses and poppies – The real-life characters behind a famous Irish ballad

Frank McNally: An Irishman’s Diary

Sligo Rose Julie Patterson, Galway Rose Deirdre O’Sullivan and Carlow Rose Shauna Ray Lacey. Photograph: Collins

Sligo Rose Julie Patterson, Galway Rose Deirdre O’Sullivan and Carlow Rose Shauna Ray Lacey. Photograph: Collins

 

As a piece of music, it may be a godawful dirge. And lyrically, even by the standards of mid-19th century romanticism, it’s a bit purple. 

But I have long been intrigued by the Rose Of Tralee’s central argument, vis-à-vis Mary, wherein the writer insists it was not her beauty that made him love her, or at least not her beauty alone. “Oh no,” as he elaborates: “Twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning”.

All right. But how would that work, in practice? We all agree truth is a good thing, that it sets us free. Unfortunately, it can also be a traumatic thing, especially when dawning. 

And yet the song’s narrator implies that, via his lover, it will never cease to dawn. In common with many philosophers, he seems to believe there is no settled truth, or if there is, it can be approached only gradually, through lifelong Socratic dialogue, in this case with Mary’s eyes. 

That might be entertaining at the start of a relationship. But I imagine him, after a few years of marriage, waking up every morning and turning with trepidation to his wife, wondering what terrible new insights await when her ocular oracles reopen.

Of course we know the ballad’s extravagant claims about Mary were not tested by time. As in all the best love-songs, death intervened to freeze the romance in its moment.

But whatever about the real-life Mary’s powers, the strange thing is that she and the song are now being vindicated by the annual competition they inspired.

The ballad first launched the concept of a beauty contest wherein mere physical perfection was not the crucial thing. This helped the Rose of Tralee outlive many pageants of the kind that used to define the female ideal by such statistics as “36-24-36”.

Now, however, it seems to be gaining a new lease by virtue of participants talking about aspects of women’s lives that were hitherto off-limits in public debate never mind beauty pageants: including sexual identity, abortion, and – most recently – heroin addiction.  

This is something the Rose of Tralee’s lyricist, William Mulchinock, could hardly have imagined. I doubt the real-life Mary O’Connor, visionary as she may have been, foresaw it either.

As anyone who has listened to his third verse will know, Mulchinock was first separated from Mary via India, and “war’s dreadful thunders”. We learn from historians that he went there not as a soldier, but a journalist, covering the Afghan wars of the 1840s. 

We are also told he was tricked into fleeing Ireland, by a false murder charge. As such, his fate has echoes of Barry Lyndon, who thinks he killed his love rival in a duel until discovering it was an elaborate ruse to get him out of Ireland until his dangerous romantic condition is cured. 

Alas, by the time Mulchinock returned from India, Mary was dead. So he travelled again, this time to the US, where he edited a newspaper and befriended Longfellow. He also got married, to one Alice Keogh. But if the truth ever dawned in her eyes, it must have been a bitter truth, because they soon separated. After that he went home again, where he died in 1864.

Getting back to those thunderous wars he covered, they must have included the campaigns of Field Marshal Gough, the Limerick-born general who became known as the “Hammer of the Sikhs” after the 1849 Battle of Gujarat. Gough was already 70 by then, with many campaigns behind him, including that great imperial adventure – whose echoes are still being heard at the Rose of Tralee – the First Opium War.  

That and the Second Opium War led to a situation whereby, generations later, one Richard Blair (father of Eric, aka George Orwell) would be a civil servant in the British Indian government’s opium department, overseeing the trade for which Gough fought.

Mind you, in between watching the Rose of Tralee this week, I’ve been reading Orwell’s Burmese Days, the novel inspired by his years as a self-hating policeman in what was still then greater India.  

And for all the opium, it was a more traditional western drug he and his fellow imperialists used to anaesthetise themselves against truth.

“Drink is what keeps the machine going,” he has a despairing character say at one point. It was “the cement of empire”, the only thing that made British expatriates tolerate each other and their lives.

Poor William Mulchinock had used it a lot too.

He never recovered from Mary and, aged 44, drank himself into an early grave. 

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