“Molly Malone” (also known as “Cockles and Mussels” or “In Dublin’s Fair City”) is a popular song, set in Dublin, Ireland, which has become the unofficial anthem of Dublin City.
The Molly Malone statue in Grafton Street was unveiled by then Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alderman Ben Briscoe during the 1988 Dublin Millennium celebrations, declaring 13 June as Molly Malone Day.
The song tells the fictional tale of a beautiful fishmonger who plied her trade on the streets of Dublin, but who died young, of a fever. In the late 20th century a legend grew up that there was a historical Molly, who lived in the 17th century. She is typically represented as a hawker by day and part-time prostitute by night. In contrast she has also been portrayed as one of the few chaste female street-hawkers of her day. However, there is no evidence that the song is based on a real woman, of the 17th century or at any other time. The name “Molly” originated as a familiar version of the names Mary and Margaret. While many such “Molly” Malones were born in Dublin over the centuries, no evidence connects any of them to the events in the song. Nevertheless, in 1988 the Dublin Millennium Commission endorsed claims concerning a Molly Malone who died on 13 June 1699, and proclaimed 13 June to be “Molly Malone day”.
The song is not recorded earlier than 1883, when it was published in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was also published by “Francis Brothers” and “Day in London” in 1884 as a work written and composed by James Yorkston, of Edinburgh, with music arranged by Edmund Forman. The London edition states that it was reprinted by permission of Kohler and Son of Edinburgh, implying that the first edition was in Scotland, though no copies of it have been located. According to Siobhán Marie Kilfeather the song is from the music hall style of the period, and while one cannot wholly dismiss the possibility that it is “based on an older folk song”, “neither melody nor words bear any relationship to the Irish tradition of street ballads.” She describes the story of the historical Molly as “nonsense”. The song is in a familiar tragi-comic mode popular in this period, probably influenced by earlier songs with a similar theme, such as Percy Montrose’s “My Darling Clementine”, which was written circa 1880.
A copy of Apollo’s Medley, dating to around 1790, published in Doncaster and rediscovered in 2010, contains a song referring to “Sweet Molly Malone” on its page 78 - this ends with the line “Och! I’ll roar and I’ll groan, My sweet Molly Malone, Till I’m bone of your bone, And asleep in your bed.” However, other than this name and the fact that she lives in Howth near Dublin, this song bears no other resemblance to the familiar Molly Malone. The song was later reprinted in a collection entitled The Shamrock: A Collection of Irish Songs (1831) and was published in the The Edinburgh literary journal that year with the title “Molly Malone”.
Frank Harte, one of the great Dublin singers, who also sang this song, used to say: “Never judge a song by the company it keeps!”
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