Who was Molly Malone?

Every major city on Earth has something akin to an unofficial anthem. Be it of folk origin or more modern in its sensibilities, an old city hums with a particularly musical energy. A popular song set in Dublin, Ireland, “Molly Malone” (also known as “Cockles and Mussels”) has over time become such an anthem for that fair city. 

The song tells of a fishwife who works on the streets of Dublin and dies young of a fever. Sometime in the late 20th century, a legend started brewing that the song was based on a real person who lived in the 17th century. From that point forward, the hunt for the historical Molly Malone was on! But, try as Dubliners might, no Molly Malone born during that time period can be connected with the events portrayed in the song. Not to be deterred by lack of evidence, the Dublin Millennium Commission decided in 1988 that one Mary Malone (who died on 13 June 1699) was as close as they could get to finding the real Molly Malone. Every year since then, the 13th of June has been celebrated in Dublin as “Molly Malone Day”.

In trying to trace the name of this fishmonger to other tunes from the period, folk music scholars have had a bit more luck. There is some amount of crossover between the plot of the Molly Malone song and that of several other songs, and these songs feature her name as well. A character named Molly Malone makes an appearance in “Widow Malone” (published as early as 1809) and is referred to as “Mary Malone” as well as “sweet mistress Malone”. 

There were also American songs which referred to Molly Malone, though music historians are fairly certain this is not the same fisherwoman as that of Dublin fame. “Meet Me Miss Molly Malone” began to see widespread publication as early as 1840, and The song “Pat Corney’s Account of Himself” of 1826 features lyrics of similar thematic content to Molly Malone: a phrase which proclaims “Now it’s show me that city where the girls are so pretty” “Crying oysters, and cockles, and Mussels for sale.” The phrase “alive, alive O” which forms the refrain of Molly Malone was a common phrase heard among the workers of fish markets during the 18th and 19th centuries. Hollering this phrase was the fastest way to let prospective customers know the freshness of goods such as oysters, mussels, fish and eel.

Molly Malone cannot be accurately traced on paper to any source recorded before 1876, having been published that year in a section of a book entitled “Songs from English and German Universities” in Boston, Massachusetts. It was republished by Francis Brothers and Day in London in 1884 and credits James Yorkston, of Edinburgh, as writer and composer (with music arranged by Edmund Forman. While this London edition states that the contents were reprinted by permission of Kohler and Son of Edinburgh, a Scottish publication house, copies of this first edition have never been recovered in Scotland.

The fascinating mystery of Molly Malone’s origins gets more bizarre when one considers the opinion of Irish music experts (who have compared its style and form with that of other Irish traditional street ballads). Siobhán Marie Kilfeather asserts that “while the song is from the music hall style of the period, and while one cannot wholly dismiss the possibility that it is based on an older folk song, neither melody nor words bear any relationship to the Irish tradition of street ballads.” Although she dismisses the thought of a historical Molly having existed as nonsense, she nonetheless must concede that the song is structured in a tragicomic mode made popular during the 19th century. Another song from the period which utilizes this mode is Percy Montrose’s “Oh My Darling, Clementine”, written around 1880. 

A statue made in the approximate likeness of Molly Malone was unveiled on Grafton Street to celebrate the first Molly Malone Day by the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ben Briscoe, during the 1988 Dublin Millennium celebrations. The statue saw a relocation in July of 2014, when she was moved to Suffolk Street, in front of the Tourist Information Office. The statue itself was originally commissioned by Jurys Hotel Group and designed by Jeanne Rynhart. The charming sculpture is referred to by Dubliners (somewhat crudely) as “The Tart with the Cart” or “The Trollop With The Scallop(s)”.

While it seems doubtful that she was ever anything more than a fictitious character in a catchy folk song, Molly Malone is immortalized in Dublin’s unofficial anthem and holds a statue as well as an entire day to her name. We living folk would be grateful to receive treatment half so grand as that.

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