The third tune in our set of Irish reels has a less certain history than the other two. Molly Bán (or Molly Bawn) has been widely recorded but doesn’t seem to feature in collections earlier than the 1880s.
However, it shares a title (meaning Fair Molly or Fair Mary) with a ballad (in which a hunter mistakes his lover for a swan and accidentally shoots her) that was widely sung in the 19th Century in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Canada. Some history here, including reference to the publishing of the melody in the 18th Century before the ballad was written an published by Jamieson in 1806. There is a suggestion that it was overlooked by the main ballad collectors, although it doesn’t seem very clear to me why that was.
Jennifer J O’Connor has also explored The Irish Origins and Variations of the Ballad “Molly Brown” for the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music (1986). There was a book by the same name written in the 19th Cantury by Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford and apparently the origin of the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
Regarding the reel, I haven’t seen a reference connecting it to the ballad melody. Maybe it would be worth exploring further. More on the reel at the Fiddlers Companion and over at TuneArchive. Irishtune.info has a list of recordings with some short samples too.
The tune has been recorded in various keys and I was surprised to find a version I had submitted to a discussion group in the 90s showed up in a search. I had forgotten about it, but “Young” John Naughton’s is a fine Clare version of the tune with a tonal centre on A. Ours is in a modal E, with a minor feel to it and although we aren’t doing this for a week or so, a recording and music is now up, with some suggested harmonies.
There’s a particularly fine recording on Youtube by the great Paddy Carty (The Flow himself) with Conor Tully and Frank Hogan.
Finally, I came across these striking illustrations of the ballad by Owen Gent.