Who was Molly Malone? What we know from Irish folklore and songs

Molly Malone is a figure that has become synonymous with Dublin, whether you know her from the Irish folk song “Cockles and Mussels,” her famous statue in the centre of Dublin, or both. Indeed, most information that people know about Molly Malone comes from Irish folklore and Irish songs. 

According to the legend of Molly Malone, she was a fishmonger known to sell cockles and mussels through the streets of Dublin by day, and by night due to poverty she was forced to sell her beauty to strangers to make enough money to get by and survive.

She is the subject of a famous statue in Dublin, but who was Molly Malone really?

Despite Molly Malone being so well known in Ireland and abroad, there is also much about her that still remains a mystery to most. Many wonder if she was actually a real person or just a fictional figure in Irish folklore and songs. 

In this article, we will attempt to answer the question: Who was Molly Malone?

Who was Molly Malone?

The famous Irish folk song “Cockles and Mussels,” also known as “Molly Malone,” from which she became famous, tells her tragic tale. According to legend, Molly Malone lived in 17th-century Dublin and was a woman renowned for her naturally stunning beauty, a beauty that is rumoured to have been the cause of her death.

Molly Malone was said to live a double life as in daylight hours she was just another common citizen who sold her wares up and down the streets of Dublin, but at night she would return to those same streets, this time dressed in more revealing clothing as she was a lady of the night.

When it comes to how she died, there are differing accounts as some say she died of fever due to the terrible conditions she had to live in, whereas others say it was due to a disease that she caught from one of her clients.

Fact or fiction?

A folk song from 1791 mentions a Molly Malone from Howth near Dublin city

There is a lot of debate as to whether or not Molly Malone was a real person who truly did exist. In 1988, a historian made the claim that they had found the real Molly Malone and identified her as a woman who had died in Dublin in 1699. 

Also, the phrase “sweet Molly Malone,” which is used in the “Cockles and Mussels” folksong (for which the earliest recording dates back to 1876), is mentioned earlier elsewhere: in a 1791 copy of “Apollo’s Medley.” It states that Molly was from the seaside village of Howth near Dublin city, which lends support to the theory that she was indeed a real person.

However, aside from her name and residence near Dublin, there’s no hint that this Molly and the fishmonger are one and the same. Of course, as there is no concrete evidence, it has also been widely speculated that Molly Malone may just be a figure of fiction, perhaps inspired by a real person but only real in Irish folklore and songs.

The legacy of Molly Malone

We may never know for sure if she really existed

Molly Malone has become one of Dublin’s strongest emblems, forever linked with it. Besides being immortalized in Irish folklore and songs, Molly Malone also has her own statue that honours her as a working-class hero, and it has since become one of Dublin’s most famous attractions.

The statue of Molly Malone depicts her with a wheelbarrow in hand full of fishing baskets to sell. She has a solemn look on her face and is dressed in 17th-century clothing (a long dress and puffy sleeves), which is cut low to show off her bosom—and may be a hint towards her nighttime profession.

This concludes our attempt to answer the question: Who was Molly Malone? Most likely we will never know for sure whether Molly Malone was real or not, but we do know that she has become an integral part of Dublin and its culture.

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