Historian closes in on Rose fountain

IT’S famed in song and story, but how many people know the exact site of the pure crystal fountain referred to in The Rose of Tralee?

Tralee man Maurice O’Keeffe, who takes an avid interest in historical matters, is absolutely certain about its location, which he has pinpointed close to Skehanagh crossroads, on the western fringes of the town.

“The owners of the land have always maintained that this is the spot. The spring is still there and, if you lift the sod around it, you’ll come on the limestone blocks that surround the spring,” he said yesterday.

But he warned time is running out for the once-pure crystal fountain where in the immortal words of the song William Pembroke Mulchinock strayed with his love, Mary O’Connor, in the middle of the 19th century.

“A lot of housing development is taking place in that side of Tralee and the site could be built upon before too long,” Mr O’Keeffe said.

“The site is now a swamp and this could be the last opportunity for the people of Tralee to ensure it is cleaned up and preserved in some way.

“A plaque, or some kind of memorial, should be put there to ensure that the site is maintained for future generations,” he said. Tralee-born Professor Valentine Rice of TCD is also convinced the fountain was at Skehanagh. He spent a lot of time in the area as a child with his grandmother, who was well versed in local history and lore.

“I’m satisfied from the stories she told me this was the pure crystal fountain and a very important site for Tralee,” he said. Professor Rice explained, in former times, the area was known as Iscahanach, or Uisce Taithneamhach (pleasant water) in Irish.

“It was an ideal place for a young man to bring his lady. This was a very large spring, known for the high quality of the water it produced,” he added.

Mr O’Keeffe has produced a double CD on the original Rose of Tralee, to be launched at the Siamsa Tire Theatre, Tralee, tonight by former Tánaiste and Labour party leader, Dick Spring.

It’s the romantic story of how William Pembroke Mulchinock, the son of a wealthy Tralee merchant, fell in love with the beautiful Mary O’Connor, from Brogue Lane, who worked as a dairy maid for his family.

William was a poet and journalist who penned the lyrics when, on his return from India where he worked for three years, he found Mary had died. He died in 1864 and is described as the author of the song in an obituary in The Nation newspaper.

“Some doubts have been cast on the authenticity of the song and of William’s authorship, but I have no doubts following some excellent research by Sister Dora at the Mercy Convent in Tralee,” Mr O’Keeffe emphasised.

Always a popular local song in Tralee, it became internationally known through a recording by Count John McCormack more than 70 years ago. But, McCormack adapted the song, changed some of the lyrics and omitted the last verse about the far fields of India from his recording.

Tralee traditional singer Paddy O’Brien, 84, still renders the full, original version, which he also sings on the CD.

The song has already inspired the famous rose festival, shortly to be held for the 45th time, but what next for the pure crystal fountain?

Maurice O’Keeffe suggests that some commercial company could bottle the water, using the ready-made brand name known in many parts of the world.

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