Like every other detail of her alleged life, it is a mystery how Molly Malone ended up as Dublin’s folk anthem. The song’s links to the city are tenuous. Dicey Riley, as unsteady of foot as the city is for much of its history, served as a more popular song subject until Pete St John, the author of Fields of Athenry eventually eclipsed Molly in 1977 with an anthem that caught the imagination, The Rare Ould Times.

The Artane Boys Band preferred Twenty Men from Dublin Town, an Arthur Griffith marching song from 1912 when Kevin Heffernan led Dublin teams to Croke Park in the 1950s.

Molly Malone’s nearest approach to legitimacy was when it was sung at Lansdowne Road during Ireland’s triple crown triumphs in 1982 and 1985, rare cheers in what was a 55-year recession for Irish rugby.

By then the song was wed to the city in popular culture around the world, a standard for TEFL and children’s language classes, recorded by Pete Seeger, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and others.

Chapelizod folk singer Frank Harte claimed genuine folk roots for the song when he demonstrated a public house bawled version with a different tune and intentional (we think) slide off key at public performances.

He was making the point that street criers and ballad singers faced similar difficulties in olden times, they had to drown out the considerable background noise of marketplace or public house, and a rousing “alive-oh” was common to both crafts.

This may have been wishful thinking on Harte’s part. When you investigate her Dublin credentials, the story of Molly Malone gets very fishy indeed.

Molly’s credentials

The song is a drawing room invention, first noted in Boston in 1876 and published in London in 1884, with a declaration that it was written and composed by James Yorkston of Edinburgh.

James may have borrowed a fashionable “alive-oh” chorus, like that which enlivened an 1876 composition, Cockles and Mussels, by first generation Irishman James Geoghegan. It may be relevant that Edmund Forman, responsible for Yorkston’s musical arrangement, worked with both composers.

The melodramatic narrative and ivory-tinkling tune fitted so easily into the music hall tradition, it is unlikely the authors had any other audience in mind. It never broached the ballad tradition, despite’s Ronnie Drew’s best efforts at rehabilitation.

As with the chorus, the seductive rhyming scheme between “city” and “pretty” preceded the song. Pat Corney’s account from 1826 opens with, “now it’s show me that city where the girls are so pretty” and ends, “crying oysters, and cockles, and mussels for sale.”

There are many Molly Malones in the ballad tradition with different words and, presumably, melody. One lived in Howth, still home to a few fishmongers today. To add to the creative mix, Molly Malone was a well-fancied racehorse just before the ballad was committed to print for the first time.

A bronzed tribute

The story of Molly’s statue merits a song in itself. Unveiled on Grafton Street in 1988, as part of Dublin’s fake millennium celebrations, it promptly was honoured, in accordance with public art protocols of the 1980s, with a nickname: ‘tart with the cart’. It was relocated in 2014 to make way for the journey of the Luas through streets broad and narrow and is now on Suffolk Street.

Molly’s statue, breasts shiny from tourists’ touch, is nowadays the starting point for walking tours, one of which was recently spontaneously addressed with a welcome to Dublin by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

A perceived (imagined) biography was announced at a press conference, citing surviving church records to show that a Mary Malone was ‘baptised in 1663 and buried in 1699’, without evidence this was either the same person or the Molly Malone of the song. The records came from the demolished St John’s Church of Ireland churchyard on (appropriately) Fishamble Street. Molly became protestant because Catholic records from the same period did not survive.

It was all a fake, but it started the

rejuvenation of a jaded city and put Molly on the tourism map. No Instagram story from Dublin is complete without her nowadays.

Nobody is sure what happened to the other initiative of 1988, the declaration that 13 June would henceforth be known as Molly Malone Day, commemorating the supposed anniversary of her death. Unlucky for some.

Read more

The Rose of Moocoin: an inconveniently located anthem

Balladeer: The Tipperary anthem ‘Slievenamon’ is a classic ballad