Who was Molly Malone – and why are people grabbing her boobs?
A famous statue in Dublin set off my curiosity
Last week I traveled to Ireland to run a communication workshop for a company’s annual retreat.
After the retreat finished, I had a morning to explore Dublin, a city I first visited as a college student 20+ years ago.
After visiting Trinity College, I found myself passing the city’s famous statue of Molly Malone.
The name ‘Molly Malone’ instantly makes me think of pubs, as I’ve seen Molly Malone pubs from New Zealand and Australia to the US and Europe.
But Molly Malone is also the subject of a popular Irish folk song.
As you can see above, the statue in Dublin shows Molly holding a wheelbarrow covered with baskets.
But as I stood there looking at Molly, I was struck by the expression on her face.
She looks sad. Vacant. There’s no warmth in her face.
Then I watched as groups of men approached the statue and posed for photos with Molly – while they aggressively grabbed her breasts.
So who was Molly Malone – and why are people grabbing her boobs?!
I was curious…
In Dublin’s fair city
Where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone.
That’s how the song Molly Malone (also known as Cockles and Mussels) begins.
It’s a song that dates back to the 1800s, and has been covered by a range of popular Irish musicians, including U2, Sinead O’Connor, and the Dubliners.
The song tells us the story of Molly, who pushes her wheelbarrow through the narrow streets of Dublin selling cockles and mussels.
Then she gets a fever – and (SPOILER ALERT) dies.
“And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone.”
According to legend, Molly lived in 17th century Dublin and sold cockles and mussels in the streets of Dublin by day.
But because she was poor, at night she returned to those same streets to sell her body.
Some suggest the fever she died of was due to the terrible conditions she had to live in. Others say it was from a disease she caught from one of her evening clients.
Visit Dublin’s website claims Molly is a ‘semi-historial, semi-legendary figure’ who worked as a fishmonger and a ‘working girl’ and died in one of the Cholera outbreaks.
So why the confusion?
Well, there are different versions of the Molly Malone story – and song.
The ‘Cockles and Mussels’ version was first published in the US in 1883. It was based on an older Irish folk ballad, and attributed to Scottish composer James Yorkston.
But a book called Apollo’s Medley, printed in 1790, features another version of Molly Malone that is a bit more risqué.
It contains the line:
“Och! I'll roar and I'll groan, my sweet Molly Malone, til I'm bone of your bone and asleep in your bed.”
So was Molly Malone a real person?
Some historians claim there are Molly Malones from 17th century Irish records, but with no evidence connecting them to the Molly Malone of legend.
In 1988, a historian made the claim that a woman named ‘Mary Malone’ had died in Dublin on 13 June 1699, and that Molly could have been her nickname.
That was enough for the Dublin Millennium Commission to proclaim 13 June ‘Molly Malone Day’, when they unveiled Irish sculptor Jeanne Rynhart’s statue of Molly Malone in Dublin’s busy Grafton Street.
Rynhart’s statue depicts Molly in traditional – but revealing – 17th century dress, perhaps hinting at her supposed evening employment.
The buxom statue was colloquially christened, ‘The Tart with the Cart.’
She’s also been referred to as ‘The Trollop with the Scallop,’ ‘The Dish with the Fish,’ ‘The Dolly with the Trolley,’ and ‘The Flirt in the Skirt.’
So why are people grabbing her boobs?
At some point, someone (a tour guide perhaps) said that ‘touching’ Molly’s breasts was good luck, so it’s not unusual to see tourists capture photos of themselves grabbing Molly’s breasts.
Look at how discoloured her breasts are – that shows you how much they’ve been rubbed.
But look at her face – this is not a happy woman asking to be groped.
It’s a poor woman trying to survive.
I don’t know when the tradition of groping Molly began (accounts differ) but it was a very odd thing to see on a Wednesday morning in 2022.
(Seriously, why would anyone want to motorboat a statue? Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks this is weird).
So Molly Malone may or may not have been a real fishmonger in 17th century Dublin, but if you’re visiting Dublin, you can find the Molly Malone statue on Suffolk Street, where it was relocated in 2014.
Go ahead and take a picture – but please, keep your hands to yourself.
You can hear a version of Molly Malone song here:
BONUS: In 2018, as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Marie Keating Foundation had a lump added to the breast on Molly’s statue.
Though people were still being handsy with Molly, they sadly didn’t notice the lump – but hopefully the campaign reminded people of the importance of breast examinations.
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How Can I Help?
I’ll keep saying it: Communication matters.
Well, a Tory Member of Parliament has seen her reputation take a hit after referring to UK cities Birmingham and Blackpool as ‘godawful.’
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Yes it is very weird! Very interesting