Tourists’ groping of Irish statue prompts ‘Leave Molly mAlone’ campaign

Throngs of tourists swarm Suffolk Street day after day to glimpse the pride of Dublin that stands outside St. Andrew’s Church: a statue of Molly Malone, the folkloric fishmonger commemorated in the city’s unofficial anthem “Cockles and Mussels.”

Many of them do more than look: In what’s become an odd tradition that tour guides claim brings good luck, visitors frequently grope the statue. The practice is so widespread and long-standing that the chest on the bronze statue has become discolored.

Critics say it’s gone on too long. Ray Yeates, the city arts officer for the Dublin City Council, told The Washington Post that the wear and tear shows “a lack of respect for the statue,” which was installed in 1988. And a Trinity College Dublin student who routinely holds street performances, singing and playing guitar nearby has started a campaign she calls “Leave Molly mAlone” to protect a statue that has become a fixture in Irish culture.

“I just got more and more frustrated with the way Molly Malone — who is a national treasure and a national icon — was being disrespected,” Tilly Cripwell said. “People were making a mockery of her.”

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In his research paper “The Legend of Molly Malone,” Irish historian Sean Murphy said he, like many Dubliners, grew up thinking that the subject of “Cockles and Mussels” was a fictional character from a song set in the 1800s. But as officials in the 1980s prepared to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of an Irish king capturing the city from the Norse Kingdom, there was a push to uncover evidence that she was a real person, Murphy wrote in the paper. In January 1988, officials announced they had found baptism and burial records in the registers of St. John’s Church for a “Mary Mallone” who lived to the age of 36 in the second half of the 17th century.

While true that Molly was a form of the name Mary, those claiming that the Molly Malone of folklore was a historical figure produced no evidence that any of the “Mary Mallones” listed in the St. John’s register, of which there were many, ever went by Molly, according to the paper. And Murphy found no version of the “Cockles and Mussels” song predating 1850 when it appeared in a “gagbook” written by a Victorian-era circus clown. The earliest sheet music documenting the song was published in Boston in 1876 — more than 150 years after the “real” Molly Malone was supposed to have died, he wrote.

The push to make Molly real created “an atmosphere where frothy fantasy could supplant historical truth, and historians and others who objected were dismissed crudely as cranks and party poopers,” Murphy wrote. Some of the “research” conducted to legitimize their claim portrayed Molly not only as “a prosperous trader” who sold shellfish but also someone who “freelanced as a prostitute.”

“Molly’s statue was also clad with an extremely low-cut dress, on the grounds that as ‘women breastfed publicly in Molly’s time,’” Murphy said in his paper, quoting a 1989 Irish Times article.

Real or not, Molly and the song that brought her to life has become entrenched in Dublin culture, Yeates said. “Cockles and Mussels” is sung at bars, concerts, house parties and local football club matches.

“Everybody knows it,” Yeates said. “Dubliners sing it to show pride in their city.”

Cripwell, now 22, didn’t know much about the myth of Molly Malone before she started busking a year-and-a-half ago during her second year at university where she studies Spanish and German. Cripwell chose the sidewalk outside St. Andrew’s because the town square-like area has good acoustics, and the statue of Molly Malone engrossed hordes of tourists, some of whom she’s able to lure with song.

Cripwell quickly noticed that tourists almost inevitably rubbed or groped the statue’s breasts. Some guides even encouraged tourists to do so — “for luck, allegedly,” she said.

Cripwell was not the first to question the tradition. Amid the #MeToo movement, a woman wrote to the Irish Times in 2018 urging people to “stop sexually harassing Molly Malone.” The author told readers of a recent visit to Suffolk Street where she saw crowds straining to get photos with Molly and was shocked to see multiple young men cupping her breasts, laughing and turning to the audience for a reaction.

No one would dare fondle some of Dublin’s other high-profile statues like those depicting James Joyce, Oscar Wilde or Wolfe Tone — all men, the writer added, wondering why Molly Malone’s statue must be subjected to undignified and disrespectful attention.

Few seem to have paid the letter-writer much heed. Six years later, the groping remains a tradition.

“I have a microphone when busking and a bit of a platform,” she said. “I wanted to do something about it.”

Cripwell said she recently worked with two feminist organizations as part of the campaign. A representative from one of them wrote on the ground in chalk “Groping isn’t good luck” and “Leave me Malone.” Someone with the other group held a sign that read “Leave Molly Alone” while Cripwell performed a remix of “Cockles and Mussels” that she wrote for her campaign.

“In Dublin’s fair city, they all say she’s pretty, but they choose to show it by touching her so,” Cripwell sang, later adding, “Now no one can save her from the people who claim her, and I want to scream, ‘Just leave Molly alone!’”

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