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The Tart With The Cart

Stories of Ireland

Story by Korinn Braden
Strange and down-right insulting title, you may be thinking. This is the story of sweet Molly Malone. Remember, however, the Irish sense of humor.


My best friend, Mary Kathleen Kelly (I know, go figure) and myself were getting a whirl-wind tour of Dublin in 1990. Our friend, a local, asked if we’d like to see the Tart with the Cart. I figured he was speaking of an old girlfriend. We walked, a great way to see the city, to the corner of Grafton and Suffolk streets. There stood a statue of a woman, breasts prominent, with a cart. Being younger, we giggled. That’s when he started singing the song known world over. ’Alive, alive, oh…’

The statue commemorates the legend of Molly Malone, the fishmonger. But I was left to wonder, why the legend and not the individual?

The plan to erect a monument to Molly Malone was conceived in 1988. Sculpture Jeanne Rynhart was commissioned to create the piece. Research was required to properly represent Dublin’s tragic figure.

Cockles (small clams), mussels and fish were sold on the streets and quays of Dublin. Some say Molly, like her fishmonger parents, sold their goods in late 17th century Dublin. Legend says she died in 1699. The song says Molly died of a fever. Typhoid, especially in a sea-side town, was not uncommon in the time. Molly is also said to have traded her goods in some unsavory parts of town, known for drinking and cavorting. It is speculated that Molly had many “wares” to sell, including herself. Again, supporting the idea that she died of a fever, perhaps venereal related. The name Molly is a derivative of Mary. However, no church records, either through the Roman Catholic church or Church of Ireland, prove conclusively of her existence.

But really, who was she? Did she ever exist? One may not be surprised that the song is not shown to exist before 1850, discounting the theory that it is a older, more traditional song.

Further research shows the song, ‘Cockles and Mussels’, was first published in Cambridge, MA. in 1883, without an author being attributed. The second publication, in 1884 London, listed the composer and writer as James Yorkston.

Regardless, Dublin celebrates June 13th as the International Molly Malone Day. ’Cockles and Mussels’ is Dublin’s unofficial anthem and known by many. So when you next hear the song, raise your pint to sweet Molly Malone, of legend and lore.

Again, many thanks to on-line sources, including:
Murphy, Sean