Dublin has produced many fine songs but none have become as closely associated with the city as Molly Malone.
Many people know the song better by its opening line, In Dublin’s Fair City. The name Molly Malone’s has also been used all over the world by pubs wanting to promote an Irish image.
Just to make matters even more confusing, the song is also well known in many areas as Cockles and Mussels, the line that keeps repeating in the chorus.
For most people though, it is ‘Molly Malone’ and there are references to songs featuring that name going back more than 200 years.
The song tells the story of Molly’s life as a fishmonger, pushing her wheelbarrow through the streets of Dublin selling her cockles and mussels.
We are told little about her, other than she is pretty and sweet. Sadly, Molly meets a premature end because she dies of a fever, leaving her ghost to keep her memory alive by continuing her work pushing the barrow and crying cockles and mussels.
Despite its close association with Dublin, the song is not thought to be a traditional Irish song. It’s generally attributed to the Scottish songwriter James Yorkston from Edinburgh.
He was named as the composer when the song was published in London in 1884 by Francis Brothers and Day. Whether he conceived the song purely as an original work or whether he simply adapted and claimed the credit for an existing song is unclear but he is now generally accepted as being the composer.
In 2010, Anne Brichto of Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye in England came across a volume called Apollo’s Medley which was published in 1790.
The book cover described it as a collection of songs that were popular “at the Theatre Royal and other places of amusement”.
Brichto was delighted to find that the book contained a song referring to Sweet Molly Malone.
The Molly in this older version was said to come from “by the big hill of Howth”. This would fit in with Molly Malone being a fishmonger as Howth, which lies to the north of Dublin, was a fishing village.
Apart from the name and the location, however, there is little to link the older song with the popular version we know today. Nevertheless, it suggests there were versions of a Molly Malone song with Dublin references long before James Yorkston produced his song.
It may be that Yorkston was simply was taken by the name Molly Malone and thought it would make a good song title. The rest may be entirely his invention. We shall probably never know for certain.
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