Mulchinock, John (1781?–1863), merchant and benefactor, was the son of Nicholas and Christiana Mulchinock, and was baptised into the Church of Ireland in Tralee, Co. Kerry, on 2 March 1781. Nothing is known for certain of his early life but, as a young man, he may have been at sea and later was a partner with a Mr Pembroke in a flourishing drapery shop in Tralee. He eventually owned over 800 acres of land. Mulchinock was apparently a convert to Roman catholicism, and it is said that one of the Pembroke family who died young was his nephew, who on his deathbed requested that legacies he was leaving to Mulchinock should be used to help found a convent for the Sisters of Mercy. In 1854, £1,000 and 22 acres of land just outside the town of Tralee were given to the Sisters of Mercy.
When additional funds provided by Mrs Mary Ann Coppinger of Kerry and Dublin proved inadequate, Mulchinock generously provided for the completion of the construction of a very impressive complex of buildings for the nuns, designed in Gothic-revival style by the distinguished catholic architect James Joseph McCarthy (qv), and costing Mulchinock more than £20,000. Mulchinock laid the foundation stone on 29 May 1855, and the buildings were completed three years later. The Sisters of Mercy quickly established a 'House of Mercy', an orphanage, a school for poor girls and an industrial school. In 1858 Mulchinock built a school to be run by the Christian Brothers to educate hundreds of poor boys, and also solely financed the building of a penitentiary for 'fallen women', run by the nuns. He gave generously to other charities, including a dispensary and a hall for the Young Men's Society. His donation of £100 towards building a new church in Tralee in 1861 was double that of anyone else. He was by far the largest contributor to the Tralee Relief Fund in 1846, and supported all initiatives to improve the lot of Irish catholics, including the Catholic Association's campaign for catholic emancipation in the 1820s and the efforts by Daniel O'Connell (qv) from the 1830s to bring about repeal of the act of union. When he died on 2 October 1863 in Tralee, he was mourned as the town's most significant benefactor, and was buried in the chapel of the Mercy convent that he had built in the townland of Balloonagh. Mulchinock was unmarried, and his estate was inherited by Edward Mulchinock, the elder of his two nephews, who were the surviving sons of Michael Mulchinock and his wife Margaret (née McCann; d. 1853), the daughter of a Tralee attorney.
The younger nephew, the poet William Pembroke Mulchinock (1820–64), was probably born in Tralee and was baptised a catholic on 5 March 1820. Expected to work in the family business, he was much more interested in politics and in poetry. He appears to have been a friend of Maurice Leyne (qv), an exact contemporary in Tralee; both supported the Young Ireland movement in the 1840s, and the Nation newspaper published their poems. It is unclear if Mulchinock was involved in the failed Young Ireland rebellion in 1848, but he left Ireland immediately afterwards with his wife and a baby daughter born in April 1848. In 1847 he had married Alice Keogh from Ballinasloe, Co. Galway; they later had a son.
The family lived for several years in New York, where Mulchinock struggled to support them by working as a sub-editor on newspapers, and by writing verses, many of which were published in literary journals. In 1851 his collected poems appeared, and were generally well reviewed; their refined diction, sentimentality and often vapid subject matter appealed to contemporaries (though not to the poet Henry W. Longfellow, despite Mulchinock's dedication of his poetical volume to the American author). Mulchinock is said to have become first literary editor of the Irish Advocate, founded in 1850 in New York, with Patrick James Smyth (qv), another Young Irelander, as political editor.
Despite (or even perhaps because of) numerous poems to or about 'Alice of Ballinasloe', the marriage appears to have failed, and Mulchinock returned alone to Tralee. His wife, as 'Madame Mulchinock', was for a time a fashionable milliner on New York's Broadway, but by the 1870s, as a widow, she was keeping a boarding house in the East Village, New York. In 1861 William Mulchinock was one of the founders of the Kerry Star, the first catholic-run newspaper in Kerry. He died of fever in Ashe Street, Tralee, on 18 October 1864, aged just 44.
William Mulchinock's posthumous celebrity derives from his putative authorship of one of the most famous parlour songs of the Victorian era, 'The Rose of Tralee'. Though the poem was known from at least 1846, it did not feature in his 1851 collection. Mulchinock could nonetheless have written it; the diction and style are appropriate for him, and not all of his many poems, scattered widely in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, were included in the volume. Long after his death, his granddaughter is said to have claimed (perhaps significantly, in an interview with the Irish tourism authority) that he was indeed the author, and it is conceivable that he wrote it and that it was then plagiarised. However, there is no doubt that an Englishman, Edward Mordaunt Spencer, published the verses in his 1846 volume, The heir of Abbotsville, with the annotation that they had been set to music by another Englishman, Stephen Glover, and published as a song sheet in London by a Soho Square company.
These inconvenient bibliographic details have not in any way impeded a local mythology of tradition and stories about the song, which by the mid-twentieth century had proliferated to obscure the real life story of Mulchinock. Indeed, the development of his celebrity over a hundred years would make an interesting study of the force of inauthentic tradition in the service of local pride and eventually as a motif in the development of a 'Rose of Tralee' industry. Newspapers and books record seemingly myriad stories about the song's origins: it appears to record a doomed love story between a rich young man and a beautiful servant girl. This is the basis of the myth that has grown up around Mulchinock, with variations including a difference in their religions, her unmarried pregnancy and death in childbirth, her marriage to another, her death from tuberculosis, his exile by his tyrannical family, his eventual blindness, his despairing madness, his last years as a repentant drunkard and their burial beside each other. One story alleges that Mulchinock, heartbroken, dug her grave himself. Some claim that his younger brother John, who died young, was actually the author; a verse mentioning exile in India, which is not in Spencer's original, is explained by hypothesising that Mulchinock was a war correspondent on the North-West Frontier. Alternatively, his departure for America (despite the fact that he went with his wife and child), is said to have been prompted by a family conspiracy to get him away from the hypothetical servant girl, 'Mary O'Connor'; he is supposed to have been warned that he was suspected of killing someone in the 1848 rebellion. There are locally at least three spring wells claiming to be the original 'crystal fountain', and plaques and sculptures in Tralee 'commemorate' the song's dramatis personae.
Popular worldwide in past generations, 'The Rose of Tralee' was recorded many times and today forms the basis for a tourism initiative developed in 1959 by Tralee business people to rebrand the town's existing festival. Almost 2,000 women from Ireland and the Irish diaspora have since then competed for the title of the Rose of Tralee in a festival that is a mainstay of regional tourism and an annual institution of Irish broadcasting.