Molly Malone

Molly Malone Suffolk Street, Dublin, Ireland
Molly Malone
Suffolk Street, Dublin, Ireland

Molly Malone
Suffolk Street, Dublin, Ireland

There are two big things that come up in any discussion of Molly Malone. One is the song. And the other is the history. The song first appeared in America, where it was published back in 1883 and attributed to a songwriter called James Yorskton. Its lyrics tell the story of Molly, a beautiful Dublin fishmonger who sells her wears from a cart, or barrow, and attracts custom with a call of ‘Cockels, mussels, alive, alive-o!’ Sadly, Molly catches a fever and dies. But she still wheels her cart around the city. And she still calls out, ‘Alive, alive-o!’ Even though she’s dead. From the time of its publication, the song became linked to Dublin. Only for the fact that Dublin is mentioned in the song. It might just as easily have been New York, or London. In 2010, researchers unearthed an earlier song, also about a woman called Molly Malone. It was discovered in a book of rhymes and songs published in Doncaster in the 18th century, and is somewhat bawdier than Yorskton’s song. ‘I’ll roar and I’ll groan, my sweet Molly Malone,’ goes the song (and here’s the rude bit) Till I’m bone of your bone and asleep in your bed.’ There’s no way of telling if James Yorkston knew this other Molly song. Or even if the song is about the same Molly. A Molly could be a Margaret or a Mary, and Malone isn’t an uncommon surname, after all. And that brings us to the second of the two big things that come up in any discussion of Molly Malone. Despite the fact it was not written in Dublin, James Yorkston’s song has come to be a sort of unofficial anthem for the city. So, when Dublin celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of is founding in 1988, the occasion was marked by the unveiling of this famous statue of Molly, which at the time was at the bottom of Grafton Street. And of course, there are Irish pubs the world over named after the tragic and ghostly fishmonger. But did she ever exist? Did a woman called Molly Malone live and work in Dublin, sell mollusks, and die before her time of a fever? Or was she just a name picked at random to fit a rather glum and gloomy ballad? It seems there was a Mary Malone baptized at St Andrew’s Church on Suffolk Street, close to wear the statue new stands, on 27 July 1663. The same person was also buried at St Andrew’s 36 years later, on 13 June 1699. A short life, a life cut short, like that of the Molly Malone in the song. But nothing else is known of the Mary Malone who was born in 1663. And while it’s possible she pushed her cart through the streets of Dublin crying ‘Alive, alive-o!’, it’s also possible she did not. Molly Malone is an enigma. A mystery. There are those who believe that, if she ever existed, Molly may have moonlighted as a prostitute. Extra income on top of her mollusk sales. But only because the song says she dies of a fever…a fever that could have been sexually transmitted, but could just as easily have been not. And the earlier, 18th century song about a woman called Molly Malone certainly talks about her in a highly sexualized way. In Dublin however, Molly is known with some affection as the Tart with the Cart. But only, perhaps, because tart rhymes with cart, and the people of Dublin are fond of nicknaming their public monuments. Molly, Mary, Margaret. Fishmonger, prostitute. Does it matter? Molly Malone is the stuff of urban legend. And as such, she is whoever you want her to be. And it’s that ability to inhabit people’s imaginations that has kept Dublin’s Molly Malone well and truly alive, alive-o.

The song’s lyrics in full –
In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheeled her wheelbarrow through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussels alive a-live O!

A-live a-live O! A-live a-live O!
Crying cockles and mussels alive a-live O!

She was a fishmonger and sure it was no wonder
For so were her father and mother before
And they both wheeled their barrows through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussels alive a-live O!

A-live a-live O! A-live a-live O!
Crying cockles and mussels alive a-live O!

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 a-live O!

A-live a-live O! A-live a-live O!
Crying cockles and mussels alive a-live O!
A-live a-live O! A-live a-live O!
Crying cockles and mussels alive a-live O!

Alex Written by:

There are stories all around us.

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