Molly Malone

The "Historical" Background of Ireland's Most Famous Song

Molly Malone
William Murphy/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Molly Malone may very well be Ireland's most famous song. At the very least, it is certainly Dublin City's unofficial anthem and every resident knows the song, or can at least hum along when they go "Alive, Alive-Oh". 

Some people swear up and down that the catchy the Irish song is based on a real woman who lived in the 17th century. She is real enough because June 13th is now officially recognized as "Molly Malone Day". The day was first celebrated in 1988, thanks to a decree by the then Lord Mayor of Dublin, who unveiled the busty Molly Malone statue that is now a city landmark. 

So who was Molly Malone? And what exactly is her song about?

Molly Malone - The Song

"In Dublin's Fair City" she sells cockles and mussels from a wheelbarrow. The song immortalizing sweet Molly Malone tells the story of a female fishmonger who hawked her wares on the streets of Dublin. In the song, Molly Malone dies young, of an unspecified fever. The lyrics suggest that Molly was beautiful, without ever saying so directly (after all, in a city where girls are so pretty, she was "sweet"). And that is about the entire story according to the lyrics.

Legend has had it for some time that you have to read between the lines and catch upon Dublin's seedier history. Street hawkers were apparently often prostitutes after dark, selling wares in daylight and their bodies at night. So the "fever" might well have been a bout of syphilis. On the other hand, other music lovers maintain that the very reason that Molly Malone was remarkable was simply because she did not pursue the usual second job. Molly Malone was chaste, they claim. This rumor might be a bit of a Victorian and/or Catholic twist in the tale?

But listen to the lyrics and decide for yourself. 

Molly Malone - Lyrics

So, how does the song go again? Here are the Molly Malone lyrics:

In Dublin's fair city,
Where girls are so pretty,
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone,
As she pushed her wheelbarrow
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!"

Alive, alive oh! alive, alive oh!
Crying, "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!"

Now she was a fishmonger,
And sure twas no wonder,
For so were her mother and father before,
And they each wheeled their barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!"


She died of a fever,
And no one could save her, And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.
Now her ghost wheels her barrow,
Through streets broad and narrow,
Crying, "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!"

Chorus (again, and again, which is why everyone in Dublin can sing 'Alive, Alive-oh')

Molly Malone - Herself in History?

So was Molly Malone a real person? Actually, lovers of the song only started assuming that Molly was a real historic figure in the late 20th century. The myth caught on, and she supposedly lived in the 1600s. There is no proof, however, that Molly Malone ever really existed. 

As you can quickly see based on the lack of any details in the Molly Malone lyrics, there is absolutely no shred of historical evidence that the song was ever based on the life of a real woman - let alone in a specific historical context.

What we do know is that there certainly have been many real Molly Malone's over the years. Malone is a common name, and "Molly" is a familiar version of the also very popular names Mary and Margaret. So quite a number of Molly Malones would have lived in Dublin over the centuries. Some may have sold cockles and mussels. They (or others) might also have even walked the streets at night. And (sadly) dying of fever was quite popular until about a hundred years or so ago.

All in all some unfortunate Molly Malone might well have fit the description in the song.

A Historical Decision

There is no concrete evidence about the song's origins that point towards any specific woman but that didn't stop the Dublin Millennium Commission. During the celebrations of 1988 the organization went so far as to further the rumors and endorsed claims that a woman who died on June 13th, 1699, was THE Molly Malone.

Lord Mayor Ben Briscoe thus unveiled the Molly Malone statue in Grafton Street (it is now on Suffolk Street) and proclaimed June 13th to be "Molly Malone Day". Historians might shiver at the lack of evidence and the music-hall-image of the statue, but tourism officials haven't looked back since. The rather busty memorial is one of the most photographed statues in Dublin, possibly because of her ample assets which are on display as she bends over her cart. As a result, Molly Malone souvenirs sell like hot cakes.

Facts From Music History

If Molly Malone died in 1699, why had nobody heard about it until nearly two hundred years later? The song itself only appeared in 1883, published in Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA). A year later it was also published in London and identified as written and composed by James Yorkston of Edinburgh.

The style of the song fits into the music hall genre of the Victorian period, and helps to confirm that it was first written in the late 1800s. Some Molly Malone believers immediately point out that it may be based on folk tradition ... but neither the text nor the music resembles any Irish tradition.

There is, however, a tantalizing mention of "sweet Molly Malone" in a collection of songs called "Apollo's Medley", published around 1790. However, this Molly Malone lived in Howth (at that time far from Dublin's fair city) and the content of the song is quite different too. As mentioned above - Molly Malones were a dime a dozen in Leinster.

Famous Renditions of Molly Malone

Every budding Irish artist seems to have recorded "Molly Malone" at some time - Eurovision winners Johnny Logan and Paul Harrington (a bouncy-castle-version by Jedward has mercifully not (yet) been spotted), rockers U2 and Sinéad O'Connor, and (most beloved of all) folk legends The Dubliners. Some versions go well over the top - and Welsh opera star Bryn Terfel made the Dublin street trader an almost Wagnerian figure.

On Show

The statue of Molly Malone was originally on Grafton Street, just opposite Trinity College, was designed by Jeanne Rynhart and erected during the celebration of the city's first millennium (1988). A low-cut dress and very prominent cleavage catch the eye of locals and visitors alike. The statue now sits on Suffolk Street in front of the tourism office.

In Dublin almost nobody refers to the statue as "Molly Malone", it seems. Instead, nicknames such as "The Tart with the Cart" are popular. Variations on this theme (though less popular ones) include "The Dish with the Fish", "The Trollop with the Scallops" and "The Dolly with the Trolley".

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