Who was Molly Malone? . . . That is a very good question, a question that has had many historians baffled, and continues to be debated by experts in this field for many a decade. Stranger than fiction, an inspiration to many millions of people all over the world, not only for her singing of "Cockles and Mussels" as she plied her fish wares, but for her beauty. Molly Malone and "Cockles and Mussels" cause many an Irish emigrants heart to weep, for that nostalgic magic has wooed the Irish and their descendants back to Ireland since they first began to emigrate, in this particular case, back to Dublin.

Some sources would suggest that Molly Malone [all of 17 years of age] was indeed a historical figure who trod this earth approximately 300 years ago. These same sources ascribe her a father and mother called Patrick and Coleen Malone. Other sources would suggest that she is the illegitimate child of a nobleman and a poor Irish seamstress. She lived in Howth or Dublin [in the tenements in Moore Street] depending on which sources one reads. Yet no records exist as to where she was born or indeed where she resided, only vague mentions of Howth or Dublin. This on its own means nothing, as in this era, it would be months, maybe years before the parents or guardians of a newborn child would get around to registering a birth, if at all. The impact this young woman had on those who knew her, was so great that she was known all over Dublin and it would appear, way beyond the boundaries of Dublin and the Irish shores.

She was like a ray of sunshine, growing up in the poverty and depravity-stricken streets of Dublin, where she became known.

As she pushed her wheelbarrow through the narrow streets of Dublin, her delicate figure with long auburn hair blowing in the wind, her melodious voice singing of  "cockles and mussels" and her skirts swirling around her with the grace of a queen, she plied her trade and was a sight to behold, even in the mean tenement streets of Dublin. Yet this song was published first in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1883 by the Francis brothers. [Molly, by the way, is said to have died in 1699.] The song was published by Day in London in 1884, and composed by James Yorkston in Edinburgh, with yet other versions being copied over the years, not least by our own Irish balladeers – The Dubliners, Sinéad O’Connor, The Celtic Horitzer Folk Band, and others. Some sources suggest that "Cockles and Mussels" is based on a very similar tragic mode of popular music in this era, much like, "Oh my Darling Clementine" in 1880. Sources also suggest that while Molly Malone may or may not have been a historical figure, the song was attributed to her only because it had Dublin in its name.

Other sources would suggest that she may have plied more than her wares of fish by day, however, as daylight fell over the mean streets of Dublin. Many believe she plied another ware . . . herself. This too was common in this era because of the immense poverty in those days where young women were forced to sell their beauty to strangers in order to survive.

Her beauty and her grace, some suggest, won over the heart of a young man called Timothy Pendleton, who cared not one jot for how Molly Malone made her living as he was very much in love with this Dublin colleen. Timothy made a meager living by playing a fiddle as a busker on the streets of Dublin and fell in love with Molly, meeting her every day at the same place where she plied her wares. This source suggests that one day when Molly did not turn up to meet him, he went looking for her.

Racing across all of the narrow streets of Dublin in haste, he knew that something must be amiss when Molly had not turned up to meet him.  Alas, he was too late, as he came upon a crowd of people, standing, weeping and wailing, where a body was lying prostrate on the ground. People were attending to her, tears running down their faces -- there was his Molly. She had died of a fever, the song goes, infected by one of her clients with cholera. A Father Finnegan of nearby Saint Bart’s had been informed, and he, too, was present as he administered the last rites of the Catholic Church to Molly where she lay.

With howling grief and gnashing of teeth, the people of the tenements stood wrapped in each other’s arms; in grief, some attending to her body and others just wailing as they watched the lifeless body of young Molly Malone being carried indoors for the mourning process which lasted three days -- among them stood Timothy Pendleton, in shock and disbelief.

The funeral was attended by many thousands of people, as they came from all over Dublin and way beyond to stand weeping, trying to get a place in the nearby church, pushing and shoving to get closer to her coffin. Public houses were closed for 16 miles around as the people mourned. For weeks after the funeral, Timothy wandered the narrow streets of Dublin, unable to play his fiddle, with a glint of madness in his eyes, haggard and unable to get the sight of Molly’s prostrate body out of his mind. He made a decision, some sources would suggest, to leave Dublin because he was unable to walk around there, knowing that Molly would not be meeting him anymore. He got a job on a merchant ship sailing to Portsmouth, England. He settled there, and became quite a businessman, never playing his fiddle again.

One night, though, the urge came over him to play the fiddle, as he sat on an old wooden barrel on the docks, all alone in the dark night feeling nostalgic and lonely for his Molly Malone. "Cockles and Mussels" just appeared to roll off the fiddle before he had even touched it, and out of his mouth came Molly’s favorite song.

Then low and behold out of the dark night came the shadow of his beautiful Molly Malone . . .  As she appeared before him, he could not believe it! He asked, "Is it you Molly, why have you come back?" She told him that she had heard him play her song, and wanted to tell him how much she loved him, kissing him on the lips, to let him know that it was her. … As he continued to play, she faded away… and the fiddle kept playing and he kept singing:

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, alive-O!

Alive, alive-O! Alive, alive-O!

Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

She was a fish-monger, but sure 'twas no wonder

For so were her father and mother before

And they each wheeled their barrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

Alive, alive-O! Alive, alive-O!

Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

She died of a fever, and no one could save her

And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone

But her ghost wheels her barrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

Alive, alive-O! Alive, alive-O!

Crying cockles and mussels, alive, alive-O!

However, the last word on this particular article must go to Sean Murphy, a noted genealogist-historian-lecturer:

Molly Malone attracted attention in Dublin only because the song was attributed to Dublin. Before the creation of the bizarre legend that Molly Malone was a real person who lived in the seventeenth century, many people were under the impression that she was, in fact, a fishmonger in a Victorian setting, and this is indeed the Molly Malone portrayed on the cover of Walton’s 1920 or 1930s edition of [the sheet music for] ‘Cockles and Mussels,’ set in a silhouette of Nelson’s Column in the background, with a handcart. This nineteenth-century figure would have formed a better basis for a statue of a fishmonger. The Grafton Street sculpture is so false, both in its setting and form, that it might be better if it were removed to save the city further ridicule and replaced by an authentic statue of Molly in nineteenth-century dress, sited perhaps, in the Moore Street area where Molly’s present-day successors, fruit and fish-sellers, now ply their trade. But, sure, what harm is there in a few liberties with the truth, and, isn’t it nice to have an attractive fake when so much of the real heritage of Dublin has been destroyed.

A man it would appear who was not afraid to pull any punches then is this historian! 

So it would appear that although all kinds of inference have been made in connection with the song "Molly Malone," which does not bear any resemblance to the now familiar Molly Malone character that we have all come to know and love, it has not stopped  --  we Irish having claimed her and the song as our own.

Further Info

The Molly Malone statue in Grafton Street was presented to Dublin City by Jury’s Hotel Group to mark the Millennium. It was unveiled by then-Mayor of Dublin Ben Briscoe during the Millennium, with June 13th being declared as Molly Malone Day. The statue was relocated to Suffolk Street on July 18th, 2014, to make way for the Luas track-laying work to be completed.

Since the Molly Malone statue has gone on display it has been groped repeatedly -- enough so that its bronze hue has begun to wear off on the bosom!!

A copy of Apollo’s Medley, dating to around 1790 that was published in Doncaster, in the U.K., was rediscovered in 2010, and this publication contains the song “Sweet Molly Malone,“ on Page 78 -- the last line of the song is  “Och! I’ll roar and I’ll groan, My Sweet Molly Malone, till I’m bone of your bone, and asleep in your bed...

The song was later reprinted in a collection titled "The Shamrock, a Collection of Irish Songs [1831]." Later that year it was published in The Edinburgh literary journal and titled "Molly Malone." 


Views: 2452

Tags: Folklore, Legends, Myths, Romances

Comment by Kristin Ayotte on February 5, 2017 at 10:19am

This is one of my all time favorites stories and songs.  My Mom's maiden name was Malone and she often joked that this was one of her ancestors.

But I must point out that the author should have read the lyrics before writing his excellent piece...in his first paragraph he refers to cockles and "muscles".  A true lover of the song and lover of fresh seafood loves their "mussels".....

Comment by The Wild Geese on February 5, 2017 at 5:43pm
Thanks for alerting us on that, Kelly.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on February 6, 2017 at 6:53am

Kristin Ayotte .. thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on the article .. Our Irish HIstory fascinates me , I suspect I am not the only Ex Pat that feels like this...

I would like to say, that every article I write, I do as much research on that particular subject, to try and give a balanced overall perspective, as I can.... Our Irish History is littered with some facts, some half truths, some innuendo , and assumptions... If I have misspelled the word ' Mussels' .. please accept my apologies 

The truth lies somewhere in there , and the real truth only lies in any documentation that our ancestors may or may not have written .... I do that the song remains one of your favorites , and that you may be one on the ancestors on the Malone family.... Thank you for commenting.... Mary Thorpe  [ My Book' Thats Just How it was'.. is a Tribute to my grand-mother , and Molly Malone is also mentioned in it }  

Click on the link below to view my video 

Youtube: http://youtu.be/oT0oOa0jx28

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on February 17, 2017 at 8:32pm

I had a grand conversation with the lady last time I was in Dublin, still spunky and sassy as ever !   Slainte

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on February 18, 2017 at 7:01am

I visit her very time i go home...... every time I hear Molly Malone, it evokes real raw emotions in me.....!!


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