So the Song Says: Real Irish Folk Heroes
Molly Malone is the darling of Dublin. She is immortalized in the songs, “Molly Malone” and its variant, “Cockles and Mussels.” Dubliners even put up a statue in her memory. So who is she? What great deeds did she do? Was she a rebel who fought and died for Ireland’s freedom? A nurse who aided and comforted the sick and wounded? No. Molly was a seventeenth century street vendor who sold seafood for a living. Yup. That’s what she did. Why then is she so loved by Dubliners (and the Irish in general)? Perhaps because they can relate to her: a regular Dubliner who lived in humdrum reality, working hard to scrape together a living. The fact that she died young likely helped make her a beloved figure. There’s something romantic about tragically dying young. Her ghost, they say, still walks the Dublin streets.
The Truth about Molly
Ms. Malone is concretely present in Dublin. In 1988, a statue of her was erected on Grafton Street, a posh shopping district. It had to be moved in 2014 to make way for the new tram line but Molly simply relocated to Suffolk Street, across from the Tourist Information Board office. If you’re ever in Dublin, you can check out her statue. A visit would be particularly appropriate on June 13th as it has been officially declared Molly Malone Day. The date was chosen because it is believed to be her death anniversary. According to historical records, someone named Mary Malone died on June 13, 1699 in Dublin. She died from a fever. This documentary evidence of Molly’s existence (“Molly” is a common Irish nickname for “Mary”) was discovered in the late twentieth century, but the songs have been around at least since the eighteenth century. Because Mary, Molly, and Malone are far from uncommon names in Ireland, some people have questioned how likely it is that the Molly of the song and the Mary of the document are the same person. In fact, many insist that the Molly of the song is a completely fictional character.
I think asking whether Molly Malone actually existed or not is the wrong question. For me, as a writer and folklorist, the question is why have Dubliners so embraced Molly? Why does she continue to live in their hearts and memories?
Irish folk songs are filled with Molly Malones, characters who are relatable, inspiring, and heroic. Or who, at least, seem heroic. Folktales always change and grow in the telling, and they continue to be told because they fill some need. Thus, the hero of a folktale may be quite different from the historical person on whom the character’s based—if that person ever really existed.
Ned of the Hill
Éamonn Ó Riann (Edmund O’Ryan) is celebrated in the song “Ned of the Hill.” Unlike poor Molly, Éamonn was born into wealth. He was an Irish aristocrat who lived in County Wicklow in the late seventeenth century, during Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland. Cromwell’s invasion was particularly vicious and bloody. In addition to massacring the Irish, he grabbed Irish land and tried to herd the natives onto a reservation in the northwestern part of the island, specifically to the ancient province of Connacht.
Whether aristocrat or peasant, many Irish were displaced, and Cromwell’s assault on them has continued to live in their collective memory. Éamonn Ó Riann, on the other hand, is the hero of this folk story. According to the song, his lands were confiscated by Cromwell but he didn’t become a hero simply because he was wronged. In the story, Ó Riann stands up for a poor old woman. A British tax collector comes to take her cow—her only substantial possession—from her. Éamonn intervenes. A confrontation ensues and, ultimately, Ó Riann shoots the tax collector. He then has to flee and live as an outlaw. In short, he becomes the Irish Robin Hood.
Is the story of Éamonn Ó Riann’s life true? Sadly, there is no documentary evidence that he actually existed, however, that doesn’t prove he didn’t. Anyone who has tried to do genealogical research using Irish records knows that finding a person in the historical documents can be extremely challenging. Birth, marriage, and deaths records often were kept in churches and many churches were burned down or otherwise destroyed. Still, as with Molly Malone, I think whether or not Ó Riann ever lived is irrelevant. He represents all those Irish who had their lands taken from them, all those who were displaced, and those who suffered injustice at English hands. He also symbolizes the Irish spirit which, despite oppression, refuses to be defeated or discarded.
Real Life Heroes
Roddy McCorley and James Connolly definitely existed. McCorley was born in the nineteenth century in County Antrim. He was hanged for treason on February 28, 1800. James Connolly was born on June 5, 1868 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He died on May 12, 1916 in Dublin, Ireland. Charged with treason like McCorley, Connolly was shot to death. As I wrote in last week’s post, Ireland’s history includes 800 years of invasion, oppression, and uprisings. All of which resulted in a long history of suffering and death.
Both McCorley and Connolly have been remembered and celebrated for giving their lives fighting for Irish freedom and independence. McCorley took part in the Rising of 1798. Connolly was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 which some people believe led to the War for Independence and the establishment of the Republic of Ireland.
Whether these men were heroes or criminals depends on your point of view. In the Irish songs which are named for them, these men are heroic martyrs. In fact, both songs hint at sainthood. The Roddy McCorley of song bravely leads his men “into the fray” although, according to history, it’s unclear whether he actually took part in the rebellion, let alone led it. The records do show, however, that he was charged with treason and hanged on Toom Bridge in Antrim in 1800. According to the song, he ascends the scaffold serenely. He is young, handsome, and romantic. His “golden ringlets” cling to the rope around his neck. His blue eyes are “glad and bright” as he faces his death.
Connolly was executed sitting in a chair. This is historical fact. He had been wounded in the foot during the Easter Rising. The song portrays him as peaceful and almost messianic. Like Jesus, he is a man of deep pain who goes silently, gently to the slaughter and dies with grace.
The song’s narrator is a member of the firing squad tasked with executing Connolly. The experience affects him greatly. Connolly is brought from the hospital in a chair. The narrator observes that the prisoner is “all shot through,” yet he has a smile “that would far more quickly call a man to prayer.” As he looks on Connolly with sad admiration, the narrator reflects that he’s heard the rebel was “kindly,” “a lover of the poor,” and “different from the rest.” The men are ordered to shoot, the narrator raises his gun and is unnerved to the point of shaking as Connolly sits smiling at his executioners. The narrator ends by saying, “And I was picked to kill a man like that.” He declares that, if he had to do it again, he couldn’t. He will ever more be haunted by that experience.
Grainne, Queen of the Sea
Gráinne Ní Máille (Grace O’Malley) is an unusual folk hero and a historical woman who lived in the sixteenth century. She was born into a rich and powerful family in the southern part of Ireland. As a young girl, she joined her father in the family business: piracy and trade with Spain and France. She had an adventurous life. At the age of fifteen, she married the son of the chieftain of the O’Flaherty clan. When she was twenty-three, her husband died. She took ownership of his castle and ships. Then her father died and she inherited his “trading” business. Later in life (she lived into her seventies), she even had an audience with Queen Elizabeth I. After her death, Grainne became a legend and, in the twentieth century, a symbol of inspiration for Irish nationalists.
The song, “Óró, Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile,” is said to be about her. In truth, the song is an Irish traditional about welcoming a bride home after her honeymoon. In the early twentieth century, though, Patrick Pearse, another of the leaders of the Easter Rising, rewrote the lyrics to make “Óró, Sé Do Bheatha ‘Bhaile” about Grainne (and the nationalist cause). The revised lyrics are filled with symbolism. Grainne is welcomed home, not to a house, but to her homeland of Ireland. When she arrives, she finds her land “in the possession of thieves.” But she is ready to respond. She has brought a thousand soldiers with her. They are not French or Spanish, “but only Gaels.” The song’s narrator expresses confidence that Grainne will “rout” and “disperse” “the foreigners” from the land. The time of her arrival in Ireland is particularly significant. She lands just as “summer is coming.” On the Celtic calendar, Beltane begins the summer. Beltane heralds the return of the light. The cold dark of winter is over. Summer is a time of growth and the final sowing. August, the height of summer to western minds, is, for the Celts, Lughnasa, the beginning of the harvest. It is a time of cutting down, ripping out, and reaping rewards.
Folk songs can be more than nostalgic cultural memories. They can be vehicles for shaping beliefs, inspiring passion, planting the seeds of change, and calling listeners to take action.
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Slan go foil!
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