A song about unrequited love, The Rose of Mooncoin is an unusual choice for a Kilkenny anthem. The town is located in the southeast of the county. The river Suir belongs to Waterford, or forms the basis of the Waterford-Kilkenny border, rather than the sister river Nore, which Kilkenny owns without dispute.

The song is not a ballad, and is often scorned as such by ballad singers, but a curio of parlour music. Nor is it as easily sung or joined as Slievenamon or The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee – the songs of its rivals (Tipperary and Cork) in the great three-way Croke Park tussle of the past century, and a third of hurling history.

But, Mooncoin is established and unmoveable as Kilkenny’s anthem, “flow on lovely river,” rather than anything that endows Kilkenny’s longevity and superiority in matters of the ash, or even its ancient history as capital of Ireland.

Hurling connections

The song’s contribution to the evolution of hurling is undisputed. Richard “Droog” Walsh (a singer, the nickname came from a signature ballad he sung) was the most influential hurler of his generation, and Mooncoin’s club peaked at two periods when the county team was changing the way hurling was played nationwide.

Thanks to poet priest James Dollard, it was accorded Knocknagow-like status in the Kickham literary tradition, as Móindearg, the red marsh, or “Moondharrig” in Dollard’s novel and his 1915 compilation of nostalgic and patriotic songs.

Hurling credentials were enhanced further when Mooncoin-native Padraig Puirséil became features editor and GAA correspondent of The Irish Press. Purcell wrote under the pseudonym Moondharrig. He was a close friend of Sean Ó Síocháin, who decided the musical programme on All-Ireland final day with the director of the Artane Boys Band.

In stepped an even more influential Kilkenny man, Martin Walton, through his music shop, song books, radio programme and Glenside recording label. He had the song scored by his friend Seamus Kavanagh (writer of Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe, popularised by Jimmy O’Dea) and recorded by singer Joe Lynch, now famous for his role in Glenroe.

Mooncoin was now established, and as impervious to change of taste or fashion as the river flowing through it.

The back story

There are better and more suitable ballads about Kilkenny. According to Bryan MacMahon, the author Francis McManus – who apparently disliked Rose of Mooncoin – had a great collection. But with the song now in place, it was accorded a back story.

The “Molly” mentioned in the song was apparently Elizabeth Wills, daughter of author and protestant clergyman James Wills, who was shipped away to England to avoid a dalliance with a local Catholic schoolteacher in a scenario reminiscent of the Across the Barricades melodramas, which bedevilled fiction and film about the recent Northern Ireland troubles.

While the back story and the date of composition (1850) are of dubious providence, the schoolteacher was real, the rebel poet from Mooncoin, Watt Murphy, author of the best-known ballad about the Tithe War.

The Tithe War was not confined to one region but it was Kilkenny that became the focus of national outrage. After Catholic emancipation, people were grieved to find they still had to pay 10pc of their income to support the local established church pastor and fund the protestant church-building programme.

The public protests that followed resulted in massacres at Carrickshock, near Ballyhale, and Carrigeen, near Mooncoin. With eight weeks of Carrickshock, eight contemporary ballads and lamentations were being sung and sold in broadsheet form, of which Watt Murphy’s became the best known. Six separate copies were filed in the “outrage papers” at Dublin Castle. Douglas Hyde heard it during a visit to the US in the 1890s. It was still being sung at sessions into the last century.

Watt has recently been accorded a new headstone at Kilkieran graveyard in Mooncoin, the epitaph reads, “Watt Murphy, the rebel poet, sunrise 22nd April 1790, sunset 1858, interred here in Rathkieran graveyard, author of The Rose of Mooncoin.”

The grave is often adorned with a Kilkenny flag left by a passerby.

Flow on gentle river.

The Rose of Mooncoin

Oh how sweet ‘tis to roam by the Suir’s

lovely stream

And to hear the birds coo neath the

morning sunbeams

Where the thrush and the robin their

sweet notes entwine

On the banks of the Suir that flows down

by Mooncoin.

Flow on, lovely river, flow gently along,

By your waters so sweet Sounds the lark’s

merry song,

On your green banks I’ll wander where

first I did join

With you lovely Molly, the Rose of Moo


Oh! Molly, dear molly, it breaks my fond


To know that we two for ever must part

I’ll think of you, Molly, while sun and

moon shine

On the banks of the Suir, that flows down

by Mooncoin.

She has sailed far away o’er the dark

rolling foam

Far away from the hills of her dear Irish


Where the fisherman sports with his

small boat and line

On the Banks of the Suir that flows down

by Mooncoin.

Then here’s to the Suir, with its valleys so


As oft’ times we wandered in the cool

morning air

Where the roses are blooming and lilies


On the banks of the Suir, that flows down

by Mooncoin.

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