First Rose of Tralee: Servant-girl romance tells story of the original Rose

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Rose of Tralee Festival, which started in 1959. The festival took its name from the ballad written in the early 1800s and made famous in 1930 by John McCormack and later Bing Crosby (1945).

Officially, the lyrics of The Rose of Tralee were written by Edward Mordaunt Spencer and the music by Charles W Glover. However, according to local legend, the song was actually penned by William Pembroke Mulchinock, a wealthy merchant, poet and writer who fell in love with Mary O’Connor, a servant girl from a poor background. Locals even say they know exactly where the song was written and there is a monument to Mulchinock in the park near the railway station in Tralee.

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As writer of several historical novels, Patricia O’Reilly was always fascinated by the story she heard as a child in her aunt’s kitchen, and it took her four years to research and write the resulting book.

Weaving fact with fiction and moving between Tralee and India in the days of Empire, O’Reilly evokes the atmosphere of the period intensely.

Tralee in 1840 was a world of contrasts. For most it was about grinding poverty, there were numerous pregnancies, shocking infant mortality rates and ragged, hungry children ran around the lanes of the town where Mary O’Connor lived – a far cry from the comfort and luxury of the landed gentry. This was before the Famine brought even more bitter hardship. It was also a time of political turmoil as Daniel O’Connell campaigned for Catholic emancipation and the repeal of the Union.

Mulchinock’s mother Margaret is not pleased when he becomes involved in O’Connell’s campaign and she sends him to Dublin. While he is away, Mary gets a job as a servant in William’s home and quickly advances to become nanny for William’s nieces.

On his return, the pair fall in love and plan to marry. While more sympathetic than most of her class to the plight of the poor, Margaret, whose own marriage was a love match, believes the poor should know their place. Mary’s father has been brokering a marriage for her and Margaret has plans for her sons to marry suitable girls.

Before either of the young lovers can plead their case with their parents, William falls foul of the law when he is falsely accused of murder during one of O’Connell’s rallies.

His friendship with The Liberator is a hindrance as O’Connell himself has fallen from grace. Now, William must flee and heart-rending tragedy awaits. What is most striking, apart from the contrast between the haves and have-nots, is the complete lack of autonomy experienced by women of the day.

The poorer women are sold off by their fathers to the highest bidder and condemned to a life of child-bearing drudgery. For the women of the gentry, their parents are in the business of making a suitable match. Love doesn’t get much of a look-in.

We find out that William married and had a family in the US but separated from his wife and founded The Kerry Star newspaper in Tralee. Suffering from depression and alcoholism, he died alone at his residence in Nelson Street in 1864.

O’Reilly’s well-drawn characters keep the pages turning in a poignant tale which was clamouring to be told after all this time. She also captures something our shared history with India during those turbulent times.

Reminiscent of The Big Wind by Beatrice Coogan, The First Rose of Tralee will make a great summer read for all – but is perhaps of particular interest to this year’s Roses.

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