Convict musician, Jeremiah Byrne was sent to ‘dance’ on the treadmill for disturbing the peace and being absent from his assigned home. Darby Kelly O was one of the tunes he played on his flageolet (similar to a tin whistle) at ‘one of those public nuisances…a two-penny hop-shop on the Rocks”.
Hop-shops were dance halls in a public houses in the underclass area of early Sydney – the Rocks. Dancing was one of the most popular leisure activities at the time – even for convicts. Commissioner Bigge who reported unfavourably on Governor Macquarie’s regime, complained that there were far too many hop shops in the colony.
In another incident, the street musician Robert Williams was charged by constable Orr, with being drunk, and playing the tamborine in Kent-street, at the hour twelve, to the tune of Darby Kelly O, surrounded by a motley group of thieves, prostitutes, sailors, &c. The constable said that the prisoner exercised his musical talent for the purpose of attracting a crowd so they might be robbed. Robert was sent to the stocks for 3 hours.
The earliest reference to this ballad appears in 1811 when it was “sung with great applause by Mr Webb, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.” Words by Thomas Dibdin, music by John Whittaker.
The National Library of Ireland has the earliest version from 1811, with subsequent publications in 1816 and 1820 (all from London). It appears to have remained a very popular song throughout the 19th century.