According to the lyrics of the undeniably catchy tune – also known as ‘Cockles and Mussels’ – Molly was a young and beautiful fishmonger who sold her yield from a cart on the streets of Dublin. The song’s final verse states that after dying of a fever she went on to haunt the city.
Although set in Ireland’s capital and beloved by many of its citizens, the song was originally published in the USA in 1883 and is attributed to the Scottish composer James Yorkston. While it is possible this version could be based on an older Irish folk ballad, cultural academics have argued that the melody and tragicomic lyrics are more akin to the music hall style that was popular in Britain during the Victorian era.
To complicate matters further, in 2010 an earlier mention of Molly Malone was found in an 18th-century book of songs called Apollo’s Medley printed in England in 1790. This more risqué version describes Molly as living in Howth, the north-Dublin fishing village. It recounts the singer’s yearning to share her bed, contributing to widespread speculation that the song’s leading lady worked as both a street vendor and a prostitute.
In spite of her international fame Molly Malone remains something of a mystery. A popular figure in Irish lore, she made the transition to urban legend towards the end of the 20th century, when claims that she was a real person who lived in the 17th century became popularised. After a Mary Malone (the name Molly derives from Mary or Margaret) was discovered to have died in Dublin on June 13th, 1699, the day was joyously named Molly Malone Day by the Dublin Millennium Commission, and in 1988 the statue of her was unveiled.
Created by the Irish sculptor Jeanne Rynhart, it depicts her in traditional but revealing 17th-century dress, hinting at her supposed part-time prostitution and leading her to be colloquially christened ‘the tart with the cart’. Although no definitive proof that she ever lived has been found, the buxom statue has gone on to become one of Dublin’s most recognisable monuments, attracting hordes of tourists daily. Originally erected at the bottom of Grafton Street, in 2014 it was temporarily moved to the adjoining Suffolk Street to make way for the extension of the Luas tram system.