"The Rose of Tralee" is a simple song with memorable lyrics. It might not be a masterpiece, but it is a beloved Irish song which gave the name to the "Rose of Tralee" beauty contest that is held in Tralee in County Kerry every year.
In essence, "The Rose of Tralee" is a love song about a girl named Mary. It follows the sweet genre of Irish songs from the 19th century that pine over a (presumably somehow lost) love. Many similar songs are also set in a specific location, which helps to distinguish them from all of the other Irish love songs. For example, "Molly Malone" is set in Dublin, and we find another Mary in a different part of Ireland in the tune "Mary from Dungloe".
It is easy to imagine in the case of the "Rose of Tralee" that if the author had been somewhere else when he fell in love, we might instead be humming along to "The Rose of Clonee" or "The Rose of Dundee". Though, the songs don't have to be about a woman to be written about a place in Ireland, as proved by William Percy French's tunes about Ballyjamesduff and Mountains of Mourne.
It might be formulaic, but there is something undeniably charming about the Rose of Tralee song.
The Rose Of Tralee - the Lyrics
The pale moon was rising above yon green mountain,
The sun was declining beneath the blue sea,
When I strayed with my love to the pure crystal fountain,
That stands in the beautiful vale of Tralee.
She was lovely and fair, as the rose of the summer,
Yet t'was not her beauty alone that won me.
Oh no, t'was the truth in her eye ever dawning,
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee!
The cool shades of evening their mantle were spreading,
And Mary, all smiling, stood list'ning to me,
The moon through the valley her pale rays was shedding,
When I won the heart of the Rose of Tralee.
On the far fields of India, mid war's bloody thunder,
Her voice was a solace and comfort to me,
But the cold hand of death has now torn us asunder
I'm lonely tonight for my Rose of Tralee.
Note that the last verse is often omitted from live performances and song sheets as well, probably because it does not fit as well with the overall Tralee theme.
History of "The Rose Of Tralee" Song
There is no one agreed upon history when it comes to the author or the Mary behind the Rose of Tralee.
First of all, there are dozens of girls named Mary in any Irish village, and Tralee in the 19th century must have had a few hundred of them. Looking into the history of the Rose of Tralee, it would be almost impossible to find a connection to a specific person with the name Mary, even if we know the location. And it is definitely unlikely given the fact that we don't even know for sure who wrote the lyrics, so we can't look for a personal connection to the Rose of Tralee either.
Most people outside Tralee agree that the music was actually composed by the Englishman Charles Glover (1806-1863), and that the words were written by his contemporary Edward Mordaunt Spencer, who may or may not have spent time in the area around Tralee.
A book of poems by Mordaunt Spencer was published in 1846 and contains one titled "The Rose of Tralee". However, the note in the book (which you can still find in the British Library) states that it was "set to music by Stephen Glover and published by C Jeffrays, Soho Square". Stephen Glover (1813-1870) was another prolific composer at the time. The British Library also holds another book that claims that the music was composed by Charles Glover around 1850.
Now in Tralee itself, it is a different story. The local tradition here claims that "The Rose of Tralee" was instead written by a certain William Pembroke Mulchinock (1820-1864), a wealthy Protestant. He wrote it for a specific Mary, namely a certain Mary O'Connor, a Catholic servant girl employed in his parents' house.
In 19th century Ireland, an upper-class guy falling in love with a servant girl, and divided even more by their Protestant and Catholic upbringings, would make for a good love story indeed. Supposedly, Mulchinock was sent abroad, only coming back a few years later, to find (no surprise there) that his beloved Mary was already dead and buried.
Mulchinock indeed dabbled in writing, and in 1851 (five years after Mordaunt Spencer published the lyrics) a collection of his poems was published in the USA. However, this did not contain "The Rose of Tralee".
There may not be total agreement, but it definitely seems like one story holds a bit more truth in it.
The Christy Moore Song
Lover of Irish folk may notice that there also is a song on the same theme, namely the Rose of Tralee, by Christy Moore. The Christy Moore version does not, however, have a lot to do with the original version. For starters, it is a lot more upbeat and it pokes fun at everything Irish that is holy. It would have made Eurovision Song Contest material, thought Christy. With a few comely Irish dancers in the background, he might even have wowed the crowds who had no idea about the real history of the song.
To find out more, see the "Me and the Rose" song lyrics on Christy Moore's website