Despite its name, My Irish Molly-O isn’t an Irish song at all. It originated in the United States in the early 1900s.
There were thousands of Irish immigrants in New York at the turn of the 20th century. Many of them had been forced to emigrate because of poverty and lack of opportunity at home.
Although they were committed to building a better life for themselves in the US, they missed their home country and welcomed anything that reminded them of where they had come from.
American songwriters were quick to recognise that the Irish represented a large market. Numerous songs were written on Irish themes; When Irish Eyes Are Smiling and My Irish Molly-O are two notable examples.
These songs often included the occasional Irish word to add a little ‘authenticity’ to the lyrics. Some terms, however, like ‘begorrah’ in My Irish Molly-O, were more stage Irish than real Irish.
An instant hit in Vaudeville
The first known published version of My Irish Molly-O appeared in 1905 in New York. The sheet music cover proudly announces that the song was sung by Miss Blanche Ring in the music farce, Sergeant Brue.
It was a great hit with Irish immigrants who had an insatiable appetite for anything that reminded them of home, but its catchy tune and clever lyrics ensured it was also popular across the country. Soon the song made its way back across the Atlantic where it went down equally well in the music halls of Ireland and the UK.
The song fell out fashion for longs spells but was revived when the Irish band De Dannan covered it in 1981 with Maura O’Connell on vocals. Other artists including Daniel O’Donnell also helped to make it popular.
It received its biggest boost, however, when it was recorded by the hugely successful Irish group, Celtic Thunder, with Emmet Cahill taking the lead vocals.
My Irish Molly from New York and Budapest
My Irish Molly-O was written by William Jerome and Jean Schwartz, two vaudeville and Broadway songwriters.
William Jerome Flannery, to give him his full name, was born in New York in 1865 to Irish parents.
Schwartz was from Budapest in Hungary and moved to New York when he was 13. The two men collaborated on several Broadway shows. Their song, Mr Dooley, was used in The Wizard of Oz.
They only wrote two verses in their version of My Irish Molly-O. The third verse, about Molly having 100 sovereigns, was added later. The fact that sovereigns were British currency at that time suggests, this verse originated in Ireland or the UK, probably from music hall performers who wanted to add a little extra humour.