Molly Malone

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

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

Molly Malone - everybody knows the song and can at least hum along when they go "Alive, Alive-Oh". Maybe Ireland's most famous song, certainly Dublin City's unofficial hymn. And, as some will tell you, based on fact. So much so that June 13th is officially "Molly Malone Day". At least since 1988 and by decree of the then Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Molly Malone - The Song

"In Dublin's Fair City" she sells cockles and mussels from a wheelbarrow.

Sweet Molly Malone ... her song relates the story of a fishmonger who traded on the streets of Dublin. Dying young, of an unspecified fever. By allusion she is beautiful (after all, in a city where girls are so pretty, she was "sweet"). Not much of a story here, you might say. And you are right.

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 street walkers 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, it is rumored that Molly Malone was remarkable because she did not pursue the usual second job ... and was chaste. A somehow Victorian and/or Catholic twist in the tale?

Only during the second half of the 20th century did people actually start assuming that Molly Malone was an actual historical character.

Living in the 17th century, or so.

Molly Malone - the 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!"

Chorus:
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!"

Chorus

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 (ad nauseam at times)

Molly Malone - Herself in History?

If you started to cough slightly embarrassed here ... you are right to do so. 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.

Malone is a common name, granted, 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 sold sex. And 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

However, no concrete evidence points towards any specific woman. Horatio Caine would have closed the file ... but not the Dublin Millennium Commission. During the celebrations of 1988 this august body 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 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 cleavage-heavy memorial is one of the most photographed statues in Dublin. And 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.

As the style of the song fits into the music hall genre of the Victorian period, this points towards a fairly modern origin. Apologists 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. So, there is ... no, there isn't: 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 ten a penny in Leinster.

On Record

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, folk legends Dubliners. Some versions go well over the top ... Welsh opera star Bryn Terfel made the Dublin street trader an almost Wagnerian figure.

On Show

The statue of Molly Malone in 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 breasts catch the eye. Cue climbing young (and not so young) men ...

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".