Muirsheen Durkin, or Goodbye Mursheen Durkin as it is often called, is a song about emigration from Ireland to America in the 19th century. Unlike many Irish emigration songs, it’s jaunty and optimistic in nature.
The singer quickly identifies himself as a bit of a playboy who likes courting women and visiting pubs. Now, however, he’s tired of his local area and wants to head to America to seek his fortune and become famous. Like many Irish emigrants, he’s sick of digging praties (potatoes) and wants to dig for gold in California. The reference to gold in California suggests the song dates from the mid-1840s when the gold rush was at its height.
It was the start of longstanding myth among emigrants from Ireland and all over Europe that everyone in America was rich and fortunes could easily be made – a myth that was quickly shattered, as described by Irish American historian Peter Quinn, when commenting on the song Fairytale of New York.
The phrase Muirsheen Durkin sometimes causes confusion among listeners and even some singers. The most likely explanation is that Muirsheen, which is variously spelt Muirsin or Mursheen, derives from the word Muiris, which is Irish for Maurice.
The –een part at the end could come from the way the Irish sometimes add ‘in’ to a name as a term of endearment to a child, meaning little. Thus Muirsheen Durkin simply means, little Maurice Durkin. He is probably a friend of the person singing the song.
One other explanation is that Muirsheen comes from Máirtín, which is the Irish version of the name Martin. The song is probably from the Connemara area in the west of Ireland, where the pronunciation of Máirtín is not that far removed from Muirsheen, but it’s still more likely that the name derives from Muiris.
The Cobh of Cork is the port area of Cork City on the south coast of Ireland. It was renamed Queenstown in the 19th century in honour of Queen Victoria. This was resented by many Irish people, and the singer in Muirsheen Durkin feels the need to explain where he means when he uses the term Queenstown.
It was renamed Cobh after Ireland regained its independence.
Muirsheen Durkin has been recorded by numerous artists including The Dubliners, Foster and Allen and The Pogues. It is set to an old Irish reel, Cailíní deasa Mhuigheo, which means the Pretty Girls of Mayo.
The song was first collected by the great Irish collector, Colm O Lochlainn, who published it in More Irish Street Ballads in 1965. He said: “I learnt the last verse in childhood and invented the other two finding nothing else but a fragment And now to end my story, I’ll marry Queen Victorey”.
O Lochlainn didn’t include that line in his published version of Muirsheen Durkin.