Jeanne Rynhart and Molly Malone


Sir, – I read with sadness of the death of the sculptor Jeanne Rynhart (Obituary, June 20th).

She is probably best-known to Dubliners for her much loved (and much-rubbed) statue of the character Molly Malone, now situated at the corner of Andrew Street and Suffolk Street.

This piece attracted its share of controversy.

I recall it being derided – on aesthetic grounds – by the soi-disant artistic set. I always believed that this was because the statue was “about” her subject and not about herself, something that could not be said for other modern pieces of statuary around Dublin, for example the insult to Thomas Davis on Dame Street.

A more interesting source of controversy consisted of the pseudo-history concocted for the figure of Molly Malone. We were informed that she was probably a Protestant, and possibly a part-time prostitute, and a probable birth record was discovered in the records of Christ Church Cathedral, placing her in the 17th century. I don’t think that Rynhart had any hand in this; it was rather the fevered imaginings of the boys and girls of the Dublin Millennium Commission’s marketing department.

The truth is more mundane. The song was not written about any real character. It was written, for the music hall, by the Scot James Yorkston, and published in Boston in 1876. Its comic handling of tragedy was a staple of that scene at the time.

As written, it bore no trace of Irish traditional song, in its lyrics or melody, but that changed when the late Dublin singer Frank Harte approached it. He sang it at a slower pace, and tweaked the tune in simple but extraordinary ways. Most significantly, he changed the direction of the melody on the words “cockles” and “mussels” from a rising cadence to a falling one, from a third followed by a fifth, to a fifth followed by a third, drawing out the words in the manner of a street hawker. This stroke of musical genius transforms the song from a music-hall trifle to something that sounds like a traditional street-cry.

So, whenever I pass Molly Malone in the street, I am reminded of two Irish artists, each of whom enriched my life. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 12.