Molly Malone: A Dublin Legend

The ballad Molly Malone (or Cockles and Mussels) is popular both with the Irish people and tourists as an easy, memorable song that is associated strongly with Dublin city. However, despite the song's great fame, little is known about its musical origins, or the veracity behind the story it tells. The composer of the lyrics and music is not known and it is uncertain when the song originated, or even what period it is meant to depict.

Indeed, the only definite information that exists comes from the lyrics themselves, which tell us that Molly was an attractive young woman from a fishmonger background and that she too sold seafood, by wheeling a barrow through the streets of Dublin. She died of a fever - and now her ghost haunts the streets of Dublin.

Listen to James Barry's rendition of the song.

Cockles and Mussels is regarded as being traditionally Irish yet its origins are not established. The song is also often grouped with Irish ballads yet its tones have a music hall resonance. This association, coupled with the fact, according to Sean Murphy, that the earliest, identified printed music dates to the late nineteenth century, could lead us to believe that in fact the song is a Victorian composition. There is also no evidence to prove that an Irish person was the composer or that the song originated in Ireland.

Molly Malone as a person came under scrutiny in 1998 when the year was chosen to officially celebrate the millennium of the founding of Dublin. As part of the marking of the year, sculptor, Jean Rynhart was commissioned to create a statue of Molly, which still stands near Trinity College, and the end of Grafton Street. Jean styled Molly as a scantily clad seventeenth century barrow trader and alluded to Molly's other trade, that of prostitution. When the statue was unveiled, this interpretation of what Molly had been was criticised and questioned.

Controversy was also unleashed by the official presentation of the birth and death records of a Mary Malone by Canon Patrick Carmody to the then Lord Mayor, Carmencita Hederman, at a reception in St. Andrews Church in Suffolk St. in January 1998. These records showed that this person, the daughter of a Robert Malone, had been baptised and buried at the now demolished St. John's church on Fishamble Street. Confusion seems to have arisen between the press conference venue of St. Andrew's on Suffolk St. and with St. John's on Fishamble Street. Scorn was heaped upon this mix-up, as according to Rynhart, the site of the situating of the statue on the join between Grafton and Suffolk St. was decided upon partly due to its supposed proximity of Molly's baptismal site. It was also considered to be unlikely that such a Mary (Molly is a derivative of Mary) was same Molly Malone of the song, as it is such a common name.

Such vagaries do cause argument, but they can also heighten the sense of legend, as it is a feature of myth to have a strong sense of popular identification with a subject and haziness about its exact details. Apart from details of the legend and song there is also controversy over whether or not Molly Malone ever existed at all or if she was purely fictional. The ghost element of the song's ending should also point us toward deeming The Molly Malone Tale to be rather of the nature of an urban myth. Legends have layers and the debacle of 1988 has settled somewhat into being part of the Molly Malone tale. The once unpopular statue is now quite affectionately know in Dublinese as "The Tart with the Cart", and it was even replicated as an ice statue to celebrate the opening of the Dublin City Council sponsored Dublin on Ice show for 2003.


The Legend of Molly Malone, Sean Murphy, Divelina Publications, 1992.

The Irish Times, 23rd January 1988.

The Irish Times, 30th September 1989.


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