Thursday 29 September 2016

The real truth behind Molly Malone song is more cock and bull than cockles and muscles

Review: Scéalta Atha Cliath: Mollly Malone (TG4)

Pat Stacey

Published 25/08/2016 | 08:28

Molly Malone
Molly Malone
Molly Malone statue

“In Dublin’s fair city,

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Where the girls are so pretty,

I never set eyes on sweet

Molly Malone,

Don’t want to cause a ruction,

But she’s a fictional

construction,

Who never, not ever,

Was alive, alive-O!”

There you have it. Hard as it might be for all those American tourists, not to mention quite a few Dubliners, to accept, Molly Malone — fish-monger, daughter of The Liberties, international symbol of Dublin and proud owner of the most impressive cleavage to be found on any piece of public art anywhere in the world — is made-up.

As the first episode of TG4’s excellent new series Scéalta Átha Cliath laid it out, fascinatingly and highly entertainingly, Molly was about as real as Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood, and with even less of a tenuous connection to reality than either of them.

At least those two fictional characters were based, to a greater or lesser degree, on actual people. The great detective was closely

modelled on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mentor and lecturer Dr Joseph Bell, while some English historians believe the legend of the Lincoln green-clad bandit of Sherwood Forest was most likely inspired by the exploits of mediaeval outlaw Roger Godberd.

Molly, on the other hand, appears to have been magicked out of thin air by a songwriter. The imperishable Cockles and Mussels, in which Molly “wheeled in her barrow through streets broad and narrow”, has been covered by innumerable singers and adapted to fit every public event imaginable, from football matches to political rallies.

Fittingly for a demonstration against the destruction of old Dublin, it was belted out in the 1980s by those protesting against the infamous civic offices development on the Viking site at Wood Quay (not that invoking Molly’s name prevented that particular act of state-sponsored vandalism).

One of the few non-historian contributors to Brian Reddin’s splendidly fleet-footed half-hour film, John Sheahan of The Dubliners, said it’s the song audiences all over the world expect the band to close a show with. “It brings everyone in the room together,” he added.

So it’s something of a slap in the face with a wet fish (bought in Fishamble Street, naturally) to discover that a song so closely associated with the city is not an old Dublin ditty handed down from one generation to the next like it was an eldest brother’s overcoat, but the work of an Edinburgh man called James Yorkston. Yorkston wrote what he considered a comic song in the 1880s, possibly spoofing the Irish and their love of sentimental ballads. What’s more, it appears Yorkston’s wasn’t the original version.

An obscure book, dating from 1790 and discovered at the Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales only last year, contains a song called Molly Malone. The melody might be the same but the lyrics, beginning with “By the big hill of Howth”, are very different and tell the risqué story of a drunken man who basically wants to get a woman called Molly Malone into the sack.

“It’s obviously not the fish he’s after,” quipped Robert Nicholson, curator of the Dublin Writers’ Museum, where the book is now kept.

It seems there are numerous songs featuring Molly Malone circulating here and around the world, many similar but no two quite the same. When a Londoner sings Cockles and Mussels, Molly wheels her wheelbarrow “through Wealdstone and Harrow”.

So where did this notion that Molly Malone belongs to Dublin — and might even have been a real fishmonger from Fishamble Street — come from? Where many questionable things come from: the minds of people who work in marketing.

To celebrate the bogus Dublin Millennium in 1988, the search was on for the “real” woman behind the song. Since there was no Molly Malone listed in the relevant census record, it was decided a Mary Malone, who lived in Fishamble Street, would do fine. Thus a legend that was more cock and bull than cockles and mussels was forged.

As one contributor put it: “It’s like saying, ‘You’re Irish, do you know my cousin, he’s called Murphy?’.”

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