Molly Malone – Lady in Red
For someone who trod this Earth for so brief a period, the youngest daughter of two fishmongers named Patrick and Colleen Malone had a far greater impact on those who knew her, and many who did not, than almost anyone else who had ever lived in the seedy waterfront neighborhoods of Dublin during the early part of the 19th century. In fact, so great was the outpouring of grief at the funeral of young Molly Malone, struck down by a fever as she blossomed into full womanhood, that the pubs for sixteen miles in every direction were obliged to stay open around the clock for three days following the sad event.
Indeed, the reason for this unprecedented communal agony was summed up neatly by the epitaph engraved on the simple stone that graced her final resting place. To wit:
Here Beneath This Cold, Hard Stone,
Lies Lovely, Lifeless Molly Malone.
Cruelly Snatched From This Vale of Tears,
At The Tender Age of Seventeen Years.
To See Her Was To Love Her…
To see her was to love her indeed. From the time she was a little girl holding on to her mother’s skirts as the two of them made their daily rounds through the streets of Dublin, everyone knew that Molly Malone would grow up to be among the most beautiful flowers of all Ireland. And none were disappointed. In fact, such was young Molly’s beauty that when she was old enough to push her own barrow through the cobbled streets, she was like a ray of sunshine bringing hope and gladness into the dingy lives and sad hearts of all who saw her. None were unaffected by her grace, her delicate auburn-haired beauty, her happy disposition, or by the liquid sunshine of her voice as she sang out, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!”
Of those affected by Molly’s charms, however, none was more so than a young man by the name of Timothy Pendleton. The illegitimate son of an English nobleman and a poor Irish seamstress, young Timothy made a meager living as an itinerant street musician who entertained passersby for whatever they would throw in his open fiddle case. Every day, Timothy would situate himself on a corner where he knew Molly would pass on her appointed rounds.
And every day as he heard her approach, he would change from whatever jig he was playing to the most beautiful violin sonata he knew. No words ever passed between them. But the depth of his feeling was plain to Molly by the lovely music he seemed to be playing just for her, and by the courtly little bow he made in her direction as she passed close by. If the truth were known, she felt something of the same passion for this shy young man with the sad, dark eyes and the violin.
One day, the appointed time came and Molly didn’t appear. Timothy remained on his corner until well after sunset, but there was no Molly to be seen. When she didn’t appear the following day, he began to worry. In all the time he had played on this corner, she had never failed him. And, as he had no way of knowing whether she had simply changed her route, or something terrible had happened to her, his worry soon turned to dread.
It was on the third day of Molly’s absence that word began to spread through the streets of Dublin. Molly had been suddenly taken with a raging fever, and was even then being administered the last rites by Father Finnegan of Saint Bart’s. When the news reached Timothy’s ears, he packed up his fiddle and raced across Dublin to be near her in her hour of need. But alas, he was too late. Even before he found the poor waterfront neighborhood where she had lived, Molly’s lifeless body was being prepared for the wake. The wailing had begun.
For weeks after the funeral, Timothy wandered the streets, unable to play his violin, and unable to put the vision of Molly from his mind. He could eat little, and slept even less. He began to look haggard and unkempt, his long hair became an uncombed wilderness, and a glint of madness shone from dark-circled eyes. Everywhere he went, he could hear Molly’s voice plaintively crying out, “Cockles and mussels, alive alive, oh!” And every day he saw her form, disappearing into an early morning fog, or just rounding a corner in the distance. It soon became apparent, even to him, that he must leave Dublin or surely die of this madness. And, so, with little more than the clothes on his back, his violin and the few pounds he had saved, young Timothy found passage on a merchant schooner and set sail for the distant shores of America.
It so happened that the ship upon which Timothy sailed was bound for the New England seaport of the town of Portsmouth. Here he disembarked, and soon found employment on the docks, unloading ships and helping out in a ship’s chandlery. In a vain attempt to bury his homesickness for Dublin along with his memory of Molly, he threw himself into his work with the energy of ten men. He lived alone in a single room, saved his money, and was never seen in the gaming and ale houses frequented by the other young unmarried men of his day. Nor was he ever seen in the company of a woman.
Thus, within a few short years, Timothy had established himself as a man of some importance in the bustling seaport town. He became a successful merchant with a thriving import export business. He invested in one of the great clipper ships being built on the Piscataqua Yards. He built a fine brick home on the corner of Penhallow and State Streets, where he lived alone with a man-servant and two dogs. He became, in short order, the most sought after yet elusive bachelors in Portsmouth. But in all the years since leaving Dublin, he had never once picked up his violin.
One winter’s night, as he sat warming himself by the fire with the one after dinner brandy he allowed himself, he remembered Molly. He could see the way she looked at him as she passed with her barrow of fish; and could hear the sweet strains of the music as he played for her. He allowed himself a second brandy, and then a third; and the longer he sat staring into the fire, the more he felt an undeniable urge to pick up the violin and play.
And so he did. Miraculously, the violin had survived the ocean crossing and ensuing years without injury. Its sound was as sweet and true as an Irish sunrise, and his fingers were as sure on the bow and strings as the day he put it down. But it was the song he played that really surprised him – a melody he had never heard; a simple, happy tune with words that came from he knew not where, played and sung as though someone else were doing the playing and singing. He played that night until his fingers burned and his heart broke with the memory of his youth on the streets of Dublin. He played until he could play no more. And as he slowly, gently laid the violin back in its dusty case, he thought he heard a noise behind him.
“Timothy.” He froze. It was the voice of a young woman.
“Timothy,” the voice said again. “Please don’t be afraid.”
He turned. And there, in the center of the room, the fire light dancing in her auburn hair, looking as young and lovely as the day she died, stood the figure of Molly Malone.
“S…s…surely, it’s the brandy,” he stammered when his voice returned. “This can’t be…I must be…this is all a dream…”
“No, Timothy,” she smiled and took a step closer to him. “This is no dream, and I’m no vision. It is I, Molly Malone.”
“But…but why? He asked. “Why have you come?”
The figure moved another step closer. “It was the music,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you to play your violin for me…the way you did in Dublin.”
With that, she took a final step toward him, put her hands on either side of his face, and as though to prove she were no mere apparition, kissed him full on the mouth. Before he could recover from the shock of her warm lips on his, she stepped back and smiled. “Now, pick up that violin,” she said, a twinkle in her Irish eyes. “I feel like dancing!”
As you might have surmised, gentle reader, the tune Timothy played on the night of Molly’s visit turned out to be none other than “The Ballad of Molly Malone”’ or, as it is more commonly known among school children and lovers of Irish lore on both sides of the Atlantic, “Cockles and Mussels.”
As for Timothy? We know that he lived a long and happy life in the brick house on Penhallow and State, never married, and was considered an eccentric old fool by most of his contemporaries. After all, a man who spent every evening and night of his life all alone in a big, empty house, must be a little bit mad. And never mind the stories you might have heard about fiddle music and silhouettes of dancing figures coming from the front parlor of the Old Pendleton house late at night.
You might have even heard snatches of music, or caught a fleeting glimpse of a dancing figure yourself. Pay no mind. It’s just your imagination…or, perhaps you’ve had one too many brandies yourself.