Swan Song – Frank McNally on the mysterious origins of Molly (aka Polly) Bawn
An Irishman’s Diary
Bob Dylan: the ballad “Polly Vaughn” is a favourite. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Until a Bob Dylan bootleg version turned up on YouTube recently, the song “Polly Vaughn” (as he sings it) had somehow passed me by. As I now know, it’s at least two centuries old, maybe three, with upwards of 100 different versions. And on it hangs an intriguing Anglo-Irish tale.
The ballad is generally agreed to have originated on this island, except that here the “Polly” tends to be “Molly” while the “Vaughn”, or Vaughan, is “Bhán”, from the Irish for “white” or “fair”.
That in turn was typically half-anglicised to “Ban” or “Bawn”. It was as “Molly Bawn” the Dubliners sang it, for example. But some Irish versions are more specific about the identity of the protagonists, including the tragic heroine, who is also given the surname “Lavery”.
Throughout the multiple variations, the events described remain fairly constant. I’ll take the word of a scholar writing in the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music some decades ago who studied “88” different versions and summarised the agreed plot:
“As the sun is setting, Molly Ban Lavery makes her way home from her uncle’s when a sudden shower of rain comes on. A green bush is her only shelter, and huddling beneath it, Molly covers herself with her white apron. Meanwhile her lover, the squire James Reynolds, has been hunting all day with his dog.
“Upon returning home with his gun in hand, he is attracted to a patch of whiteness showing among the green leaves of a bush. In the falling darkness, he supposes this must the whiteness of a swan’s feathers, or the light colour of a fawn’s breast. Jimmy raises his gun and shoots; [then] to his horror and great grief he finds only his sweetheart lying dead . . .”
In most versions, there follows a trial, which the panicked lover is tempted to flee. Persuaded to stay, he is then vindicated when the ghost of Molly/Polly turns up to testify for the defence. The trial verdict is left unsaid.
The notion of people turning into swans and other animals is well known in mythology. Indeed, the tale of Molly Bawn could be an update on the Greek tragedy of Pocris, who ends up on the wrong side of an arrow fired by her hunter husband. But as with another tragic heroine of Irish folk history, Colleen Bawn, there may well have been a real-life tragedy involved.
Folklorist Patrick W Joyce, who heard it sung on a Dublin street once, assumed there was. So did the Belfast-born musicologist, Hugh Shields, who noted the song’s inclusion in an 1845 collection by one John Hume from Kilwarlin, Co Down. And Kilwarlin seems to be of special interest to any inquiries into original events, because as Shields pointed out, the surnames “Lavery” and “Reynolds” are well known there, while at least one version of the song also mentions Kilwarlin itself.
According to one of his informants about the ballad’s origins, it was written by a local poet of the 19th century, Pat Reynolds, a friend or even relative of the culprit. As quoted by Shields, even the informant’s description of the song sounds like a witness statement:
“An he was coming back with a gun and he seen this white thing going up and he thought it was a cran [ie heron]. (But] it was his sweetheart Molly Bann […] And he came home in a terrible state, you see, they’d have to get him till America out of the road, because, says he, ‘the Banns and the Bann Laverys,’ he said, ‘my life they’d swear away’.”
Even if a 19th-century Pat Reynolds did write a version, however, the song appears to have been around for much longer than that in oral tradition, perhaps since the 17th century.
But whenever it dated from, Shields thought, the surnames added a complication to the tragedy. Lavery was Catholic. Reynolds, in that area, was Protestant. Thus, the shooting might have had a sectarian appearance, an added reason why the careless fowler might want to get “till America” in a hurry.
Speaking of America, it was Dylan’s impending 80th birthday (Monday next) that drew my attention to the song. I’m also reminded of how, while adapting another Irish ballad once, he played down the importance of both age and name, stressing place instead: “Oh, my name it ain’t nothing’./My age – it means less/The country I come from is called the Midwest.”
On which note, it may or may not be significant that the sad story of Molly/Polly may originate in northwest Co Down. Kilwarlin is just outside the better-known Hillsbororough, a village now synonymous with the tortured history of attempts to achieve Anglo-Irish agreement.