Molly Malone: All we know about the Dublin icon comes from a song

The famous character of Molly Malone could have been inspired by a real girl from Dublin or Edinburgh.

The mysterious life of Molly Malone led the people of Dublin to inflating her legend up to the stage when she is believed to have been a tart. As a result, visitors to Dublin do not miss out on an opportunity to fondle her breast for “luck”.

The inaccurate Molly Malone statue, also known as The Tart with the Cart, is today found at the junction of Grafton Street and Suffolk Street. Some still believe she was a real person. However, it is most likely she was only a character from the 19th century.

The popularity of Molly Malone has even gone beyond Ireland. Not only is she featured in songs, the most famous of which is Cockles and Mussels from the 19th century, but several Irish restaurants and pubs are named after her around the world, including Prague, Madrid, NYC, and Stockholm.

Besides, the mentioned song became an unofficial anthem of Dublin. And it is the song that gives us, as the only reliable evidence, an idea of who Molly Malone could have been.

“Facts” made Molly Malone a real person

Throughout the years, the fictional character of Molly Malone got wrapped up in the number of stories. For example, a rumour began to spread a few decades ago that Molly Malone was buried in St John’s Graveyard near Fishamble Street in Dublin.  St John’s Church was a Church of Ireland building, which got demolished at the end of the 19th century.

The Cockles and Mussels song mentions a fever as the cause of Molly Malone’s death. Experts suggested this fever could have been typhoid after she consumed infected seafood, Anne Hardy writes in her 2003 article published in the History Workshop Journal.

In 1988, when Dublin commemorated its millennium and the capture of the city by Maol Sechnaill II in 989, it was declared baptism and burial records of the actual Molly Malone had been found in the registers of St John’s Church, The Irish Times wrote in January 1988.

The evidence in question talked of Mary Malone born in July 1663 and died in June 1699. However, other Mary Malone entries were also discovered within Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic registers. Yet, there is no proof the provided evidence is linked to the famous Molly Malone. Besides, a denomination of the character is unknown.

Fishmonger Molly portrayed as a tart

The Dublin statue dedicated to Molly Malone was sculpted by Jeanne Rynhart in the late eighties. While she got inspired by the previously existing legends, new fantasy elements to it were also added.

Molly Malone is portrayed as a woman wearing low-cut dress typically worn in the 17th century. One of newer claims describe her as a daytime fishmonger, moving around between the Liberties and Grafton Street with her wheelbarrow, and a nighttime hooker, who had clients from Trinity College, famous for its debauchery back then. The song, however, mentions she was only a fishmonger.

It is fair to say, right in this place, that the author of the earliest version of Cockles and Mussels, which mentions Molly Malone, remains unknown. It was published in the US city of Boston in 1876, but the song is believed to have been imported from Europe.

Another version comes from London and was written and composed in 1884 by Edinburgh-born composer James Yorkston and Edmund Forman. Regardless of authorship, it is obvious the character appeared for the first time in the 19th not the 17th century. Moreover, at least two versions confirm Molly Malone was rather a usual character, not a real person.

Had Yorkston once met any Molly Malone, probably in Edinburgh, the encounter could have taken place no sooner than in the 19th century when he wrote this piece. Around this time, many Irish immigrants lived in Edinburgh; the capital of Scotland hides a Dublin Street and one neighbourhood was known as Little Ireland in the past, Alan Lugton writes in The Making of Hibernian.

What should Molly look like?   

While today’s statue pictures Molly Malone as a prostitute with a cart, a more consistent picture of hers appears in the Waltons Irish Songbook Vol. 1. She wears a nineteenth-century dress and pulls a wheelbarrow, not a hand cart, ahead of her. In the background, today a non-existing Nelson’s Pillar can also be observed.

Sean J. Murphy, who wrote a piece on Molly Malone in 2013 therefore suggests the statue should have been erected in O’Connell Street, where Nelson’s Pillar used to stand, or in the Moore Street area, where fruit and fish sellers do their business today.

Yet, the statue’s current location does not have to be a bad one. In 2020, a new food hall should open in St Andrew’s Church near Suffolk Street.


Peter Dlhopolec
Peter Dlhopolec

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