Polly Vaughn

Polly Vaughn

Infobox Standard
title = PAGENAME
english_title =
comment =

image_size =
caption =
writer =
composer =
lyricist =
published =
written =
language =
form =
original_artist =
recorded_by =
performed_by =

Polly Vaughn is an Irish folk-song.


A man, sometimes called Johnny Randle, goes out hunting for birds. Usually this is described as being in the evening or by moonlight in the rain. He sees something white in the bushes. Thinking this is a swan, he shoots. To his horror he discovers he has killed his true love, Polly Vaughn, sheltering from the rain. Returning home, he reports his mistake to his uncle and is advised not to run away. He should stay and tell the court that it was an honest mistake. The night before Polly's funeral, her ghost appears to confirm his version of the events.

The narrator imagines all the women of the county standing in a line, with Polly shining out among them as a "fountain of snow". Since the fairest girl in the county has died the girls are said to be glad of her death. In some versions there is no scene of guilty confession and no ghost.


We are not told of the outcome of the trial. Is he found guilty of murder or not? Would he be guilty of poaching? Is seems rather mean-spirited of the girls of the county to be glad of her death, simply because she was fairer than them all. The emphasis on Polly's fair skin, and the reaction of all the girls of the county has led most commentators to suggest that there is a supernatural element.

Polly wears a white apron, and has a name which usually sounds like "Mailí Bhán". In Irish Gaelic, this translates as "Fair Mary".

Baring-Gould commented that there is some similarity to Celtic legends about "The Swan Maidens". (see Swan Maiden). Anne Gilchrist in the Journal of the Folksong Society (number 26) points to many tales about women turning into swans. There is a fairy tale called "An Cailin" (The Fair Girl). A version of this story was recorded as "Cailín na Gruaige Báine" on the album Aoife by Moya Brennan. Roy Palmer recalls the story of the death of Procris in classical antiquity. In Ovid's collection of stories "Metamorphoses" Nephele throws a javelin at his sweetheart, and kills her while hunting. This interpretation might be called the "Romantic Celtic" version, and has been embraced by Shirley Collins and others.

A more mundane interpretation is that the invention of the rifle inevitably led to an increase in accidents while hunting. If this song had really been an echo of ancient mythology we would expect to find versions in Scotland and indeed throughout Europe. With the exception of one version in Scotland, the song has been found only in England, Ireland, USA, Australia and Canada. Moreover, there are no versions known before 1806. We would have expected earlier versions or fragments. This down-to-earth interpretation of the song is rare.

Hugh Shields suggested that the story might be based on a real event in Kilwarlin, co. Down.The song is discussed in "EDS" (English Dance and song) Autumn 2006 edition.

Historical Background

At the end of the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth century there was an increase in the use of rifles among hunters, as it became cheaper to manufacture.

The absence of any trial in the song suggests that the sympathies of the hearers were with the hunter. Swan is not a particularly tasty bird, and most hunters would have preferred to shoot deer. There are versions of this song called "This Shooting of his Dear", where Polly is killed in mistake for a deer. There is obviously a play on words with the word "Deer/Dear".

Cultural Relationships

The idea that someone who accidentally killed someone should not run away, shows a certain confidence in the judicial system. The song is a domestic tragedy, and has no elements of class conflict.

There is a slight tendency for the name "Molly" to be used more frequently in the Irish versions of the song, and for "Polly" to be used in the English versions.

tandard References

Most traditional songs involving tragic death are included among the Child ballads. The absence of this song from that list has puzzled several commentators, since Francis Child must surely have known about the song.

It was published in Robert Jamieson’s ‘Popular Ballads and Songs from tradition, manuscripts and scarce editions’, 1806. Jamieson writes about this song, “This is indeed a silly ditty, one of the very lowest description of vulgar English ballads which are sung about the streets in country towns and sold four or five for a halfpenny”. Jamieson's opinion might have coloured Child's decision to exclude it.

Jamieson says that it also goes by the name "Lord Kenneth and Fair Ellinour", but nobody else has used this name for the song. This sounds like a misinterpretation, since there is a Child Ballad (number 73) called "Lord Thomas and Fair Elleanor" which involves a man killing a fair woman, but without any of the motiviation of hunting for a swan.

* Roud 166
* Laws O36
* The website "irishtune" categorises this as tune number 590 "Molly Bán" [http://www.irishtune.info/tune/590/ Irishtune]
* In Francis O'Neill and James O'Neill's "O'Neill's Music of Ireland" it is tune number 1474
* In Francis O'Neill and James O'Neill's "The Dance Music of Ireland. 1001 Gems" it is number 703.


Broadside printings of this songs are known from:

* Pitts (London) (between 1802 and 1819)
* Disley (London)
* Kendrew (York)
* Kenedy (New York) 1884
* Pearson (Manchester)
* Haly (Cork)
* J. F. Nugent & Co (Dublin) (between 1850 and 1899)

Textual Variants

The song exists under the titles:

* "Polly Vaughan"
* "Polly Vaughn"
* "Molly Bawn"
* "Molly Ban"
* "Molly Bond"
* "Molly Vaughan"
* "Molly Van"
* "Polly Von"
* "The Shooting of His Dear"
* "As Jimmie Went A-Hunting"
* "The Fowler"
* "An Cailin Bán" (instrumental version)
* "Fair Haired Molly" (instrumental version)

Non-English variants

The Irish tune "An Cailin Ban" appears to have evolved separately from the English tune, and appears to be earlier.

ongs that refer to PAGENAME



According to "The Fiddlers companion" website, the title "Molly Bawn" is an Anglicised corruption of the Gaelic "Mailí Bhán," or Fair Mary (Fairhaired Mary, White Haired Mary). The symbol of a bird to represent a departing spirit from a dead body is common in art, particularly in scenes of the death of Christ.

The idea of a the spirit of a dead person returning to speak to the living, is quite common in ballads. Examples include "The Unquiet Grave" and "Murder at the Red Barn".

The idea that a woman might transform herself into a swan is widely known from Tchaikovsky's ballet "Swan Lake". Again, death at the hands of a hunter is part of the story.


The name Bawn appears to be quite common in Irish literature. The Colleen Bawn is a melodramatic play by Dion Boucicault. "Molly Bawn,: A comedy drama in four acts" (1920) is by Marie Doran.There is also a song by Samuel Lover in the one-act opera "Il Paddy Whack in Italia" (1841) called "Molly Bawm". Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote a novel called Molly Bawn (1878). None of these stories concern women being shot in mistake for a swan.

Samuel Lover wrote tunes as well as novels and dramas. Ciaran Tourish recorded "Molly Bawn's Reel" but it is not connected with the song. This website: [https://listserv.heanet.ie/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0402&L=irtrad-l&P=25327 Reel] suggests that Samuel Lover composed the tune.

In Canada there is company doing Whale and Puffin tours, called "Molly Bawn". There is a poem called "Polly Vaughn" in Les Barker's book "Alexander Greyhound Bell" It is presumably as parody of the song, as that is the sort of thing Les Barker does.



There is a very picturesque rock in Kilarney called "Colleen Bawn". As far as is known, it has no relationship with the song.
* [http://www.stamps-auction.com/ireland-1905-old-postcard-colleen-bawn-rock-killarney-for-sale-10885 Postcard]
* [http://www.lehman.edu/lehman/irishamericanstudies/Landscapes.html Landscape]

Television and Movie References

There is a film made in 1916, called "Molly Bawn". It is set in Ireland in 1850. However it is not related to the song.


The earlest known version of the tune for the Irish version of the song, is earlier than the earliest printing of the words. Edward Bunting's "General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland" appeared in 1796. He printed the Irish tune three times in his manuscripts, each time noting it was traditionally the first to by learned by beginning harpers. If this in turn really is derived from O’Carolan’s composition “Fairhaired Mary” then it must date back to 1738 or before.

Under the Irish title "An Cailin Ban" it is first mentioned in 1839 (The fair girl) as a tune rather than a song. The tune appears in "The Concertina and How to Play It" (1905) by Paul de Ville (as "Molly Bawn"), again implying it suitable for beginners to the instrument. This would suggest that the words were not married up with the Irish tune until sometime between 1840 and 1905.

The English tune is known from the time of Baring-Gould (c 1890).


As there are three distinct ways of performing the song/tune this section has been divided up.

Section 1 - Performed as a folk song

Musical variants

Edward Madden wote the words, and M. J. Fred Helf wrote the music to a song called "Colleen Bawn" in 1906. The second verse is as follows:

:Colleen Bawn when I am gone I wonder will you miss me, :DOn't be afraid some other maid Will fall in love and kiss me, :For if they do I'll think of you A waiting here and sighing, :I'll drop my gun and start to run, And home a flying.

The business about dropping his gun almost suggests the earlier ballad, but is otherwise unrelated. The song is about a soldier who longs to return to his Irish sweetheart.

In Canada a song called "Molly Bawn" has been captured by song-collector MacEdward Leach. [http://www.mun.ca/folklore/leach/songs/NFLD1/1-10.htm MacEdward Leach] . It has the line:

:Oh, Molly Bawn, why leave me pining, All lonely, waiting here for you?

but makes no mention of any shooting. It is probably unrelated.

Other songs with the same tune

The air "Molly ban so Fair" (1905, Stanford/Petrie collection), is probably unrelated.

According to "The Fiddlers companion" website, there is a variant similar to O’Carolan’s composition “Fairhaired Mary.” (See [http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/MOLL_MOM.htm Fiddlers companion] )

ee also

* List of Irish ballads



Further reading

* Karpeles, Maud. ed., "Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs". (1974)
* Lomax, Alan, ed. "The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language". (1960)

External links

Broadsheet sources are given here:
* [http://pc08.chethams.org.uk/axon_ballads/036.htm Broadsheet - Axon Ballads]
* [http://bodley24.bodley.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/acwwweng/ballads/image.pl?ref=Harding+B+17(197b)&id=07520.gif&seq=1&size=0 Harding broadsheet]
* [https://listserv.heanet.ie/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0402&L=irtrad-l&P=25327 IRTRAD]
* [http://bodley24.bodley.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/acwwweng/regsrch.pl?recnums=780:934:5944:36588:38462&index=1&db=ballads Bodley ballads]

The ballad is discussed here:
* [http://www.ferrum.edu/applit/bibs/tales/PollyVaughn.htm History]
* [http://cjtm.icaap.org/content/14/v14art3.html Irish origins of Molly Bawn]
* [http://www.csufresno.edu/folklore/ballads/LO36.html Columbia State University]
* [http://www.contemplator.com/scotland/pollyv.html Polly Vaughn]

The Irish tune is discussed here:
* [http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/MOLL_MOM.htm Fiddlers companion]
* [http://www.irishtune.info/tune/590/ Irishtune 590]
* [http://www.irishtune.info/tune/2963/ Irishtune 2963]

The lyrics are given here:
* [http://www.folkinfo.org/songs/displaysong.php?songid=50 Folkinfo]
* [http://oook.info/musics/ddtexts.html Anne Briggs version]
* [http://www.kinglaoghaire.com/site/forums/topic_172.html Lyrics]
* [http://www.chethams.org.uk/axon_ballads/036.htm My Own Molly Bawn]
* [http://www.bluegrasslyrics.com/bluegrass_song.cfm-recordID=sp1027.htm Lyrics by Dillards]
* [http://folkstream.com/reviews/waters/waters.html Molly Bawn Lavery in Australia]
* [http://www.informatik.uni-hamburg.de/~zierke/lloyd/songs/pollyvaughan.html Lyrics]
* [http://www.rowethmusic.com.au/betweenthelines/issuethree.html Australian versions]

There is an mp3 version sung by Eula Maxfield Garrott, recorded in 1952 here:
* [http://www.lyon.edu/wolfcollection/songs/garrottmolly1232.html listen]

Bob Dylan's version:
* [http://www.bjorner.com/DSN13265%20-%201992%20Bromberg%20Sessions%20LETTER.pdf Dylan]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Polly et moi — Données clés Titre original Along Came Polly Réalisation John Hamburg Scénario John Hamburg Acteurs principaux Ben Stiller Jennifer Aniston Philip Seymour Hoffman Debra Messing Hank A …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Polly Jean Harvey — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Harvey. PJ Harvey …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Vince Vaughn — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Vaughn. Vince Vaughn …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Индекс народных песен Роуда — (англ. Roud Folk Song Index)  база данных из 300 000 ссылок на более чем 21 600 песен, которые были собраны в устной традиции на английском языке на всех континентах, где язык имеет распространение. Труд по систематизации был проделан… …   Википедия

  • Roud Folk Song Index — The Roud Folk Song Index is a database of 300,000 references to over 21,600 songs that have been collected from oral tradition in the English language from all over the world. It is a combination of the Broadside Index (printed sources before… …   Wikipedia

  • In the Wind — Infobox Album Name = In the Wind Type = studio Longtype = Artist = Peter, Paul Mary Released = 1963 Recorded = Genre = Length = 37:22 Label = Warner Bros. Producer = Albert Grossman Reviews = *Allmusic Rating|3|5… …   Wikipedia

  • Roberts and Barrand — Also known as John Roberts and Tony Barrand Origin Cornell University Genres Traditional folk music Years active 1969 …   Wikipedia

  • P.J. Harvey — Polly Jean Harvey Pour les articles homonymes, voir Harvey. PJ Harvey …   Wikipédia en Français

  • P. J. Harvey — Polly Jean Harvey Pour les articles homonymes, voir Harvey. PJ Harvey …   Wikipédia en Français

  • P J Harvey — Polly Jean Harvey Pour les articles homonymes, voir Harvey. PJ Harvey …   Wikipédia en Français

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.