Was Molly based on a real character?

The song Molly Malone has become so closely associated with Dublin that many people have speculated about whether it was based on a real person.

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Opinion is divided.

The issue came to the fore in 1988 when civic dignitaries in Dublin proclaimed that a Molly Malone who had died on June 13th 1699 was the woman behind the song.

It promptly commissioned a statue in her honour.

No historical evidence for Molly

However, despite the statue and the folklore that goes with it, there is no real proof that Molly Malone was based on a real woman, let alone a real fishmonger, and many people remained sceptical.

Molly-Malone-Fact-of-fiction Image copyright Ireland Calling

The ‘evidence’ put forward by the Dublin officials was based on church records, but as many sceptics pointed out, Molly is often used in Ireland as a kind of pet name for girls named Mary or Margaret.

The surname Malone is also quite common so it’s hardly surprising to come across a Molly Malone among church records, In fact, there are several Molly Malones to be found scattered through Dublin’s history who could theoretically be the heroine of the song.

Problems with the 1699 Molly Malone

The problem with the 1699 Molly is that there is no known reference to the song before its publication in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1883.

It was also published in London in 1884 by Francis Brothers and Day who describe it as a comic song written James Yorkston – a Scottish songwriter about whom very little is known.

Is Molly Malone really a music hall song?

Given the lack of reference to the song before 1883, some commentators have cast doubt on its authenticity as a genuine folk song.

Siobhan Marie Kilfeather, who wrote Dublin: A Cultural and Literary History, believes the story of there being an historical Molly is nonsense.

She also believes the song may have originated in the music halls of Dublin rather than its cobbled streets or fish markets.

Style of the song seems outside the folk tradition

Kilfeather believes that while the possibility of the song being based on an older folk version can’t be ruled out, “neither melody nor words bear any relationship to the Irish tradition of street ballads”.

It may, of course, be that James Yorkston reworked a folk song which has now fallen out of the oral tradition and been lost but most commentators believe it is more likely that he created it as an original work.

The lyrics are very short by Irish ballad standards

The lyrics to Molly Malone certainly are quite short and understated by Irish ballad standards.

Irish songs tend to throw words around like they’re going out of fashion so a lyric telling someone’s life story in only three verses is quite unusual – especially as the chorus doesn’t really add anything to the narrative.

Real or legendary, Molly Malone lives on

We’ll perhaps never know for certain whether there was a historical Molly but the song remains popular.

Indeed, Molly is not just a song but a tourist attraction in Dublin and has also given her name to numerous tea-rooms, restaurants and bars across the world – especially in America.
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