The song Mary of Dungloe is based on a true story of a young couple from Donegal who were kept apart by the girl’s parents in the 1860s.
Mary Gallagher came from a hardworking but happy and comfortably off family. She was the most beautiful girl in her town.
It was common in mid-19th century Ireland for fathers to take their daughter to the local fair and suggest a young man who might make a good husband.
Mary’s father took her to the Summer Fair in 1861 and suggested that she marry a handsome young man who was born in a nearby parish of Gweedore but had been away in America.
He had become wealthy by the time he returned to Ireland and would be a good provider for a wife and family. Whenever he visited her home, Mary’s family made him feel welcome and she was delighted that they were to be married.
However, just before the wedding Mary’s parents began hearing things they didn’t like about the young man. They refused to allow the wedding to go ahead and told Mary she must never see him again.
The couple were deeply in love and found it unbearable to be apart. The young man got down on his knees and begged Mary’s parents to reconsider but Mary knew they would never change their minds.
The man wanted Mary to run away with him and although she desperately wanted to she couldn’t as it would have broken her parent’s hearts. He was too heartbroken to stay in Ireland so went back to America.
Soon enough, there were other young men trying to catch Mary’s attention but she had no interest in them. She went to live with her brother who had moved to New Zealand and become a successful farmer.
She met a man called Donal Egan on the boat to New Zealand. They married and had a son but tragically, Mary died four months after giving birth and her son died when he was just nine months old.
A local Donegal songwriter Padraig MacCumhaill knew Mary’s family and heard about her story. He wrote the original song, Mary from near Dungloe.
Mary from Dungloe came back into prominence when it was recorded by the Emmet Spiceland Ballad Group and became a number one hit in Ireland in 1968. It has since been recorded by other leading artists including Christy Moore, Daniel O’Donnel and Tommy Fleming.
The song has become a kind of unofficial anthem for the town of Dungloe which has been holding an annual Mary from Dungloe festival for more than 40 years.