She held these grimy days in disfavour, knowing that it was no use waking at such an early hour to sell fish, as most Dubliners were still in their beds. She desired nothing more but to have the pleasure of not having to push this old wain around, it getting stuck at every turn. She should have got married to the old fellow all those years ago when she was but a child. Had she done that, she would now be situated at the beautiful Rosshill estate, maybe playing with the children she had always wanted, or perhaps reading those books she once saw when her mother took her to the big library in Grantham when they went to pay a visit to Molly’s eldest aunt.
Unfortunately, all that sweet Molly was, was a six-and-twenty-year-old spinster whose arms hurt so badly she could now hardly write letters to her folks in Howth – oh, how she missed them! Molly thought, Oh, I would much rather spend rainy days like today with my ma and pa, we could do so much! I would much rather sell fish back home!
But Miss Malone was now living near Thomas Street in Dublin, where she and Miss Elizabeth Browne (who, by-the-by, was to be wed to John Bermingham of Kellbrack this coming spring) shared an apartment in the attic, barely big enough for the two of them.
This was poor Molly’s sorrowful existence; knowing whatever future she may have will be nowhere near as agreeable as her childhood in the village of Howth. And how saddened I am to say her premonitions were correct.
“Ay, Molly! Got any of them flounders today?”
She looked over her bare left shoulder (her dress was worn-out, constantly slipping down to her collarbones), then her right, locating the voice calling her name. (Which had not been given to her by her parents, mind you – her name was Mary, but since the people of Dublin, where she had now been living for seven years, did not bother remembering it, she could not be bothered correcting them.) Finally noticing a man of ample proportions and about fifty years of age, she recognised one Mr O’Callaghan – it could have been no one else, you see, as Mr O’Callaghan was one of those folks the entire town knew. His nose had long ago acquired a deep tint of red that spread across the apples of his cheeks from spending his nights at the local pubs. Miss Malone turned her cart and wheeled it a few steps back.
“They’re not in season,” she snarked, not too enthusiastic to again be wasting her time conversing with Mr O’Callaghan, who continued his scrutinising, ignoring Molly’s answer to his previous inquiry.
“You smell of fish, Mollers.”
“Well, I do sell fish for a living, don’t I?”
He chuckled, bending over her cart and picking up a foul-smelling bass.
“Them cats are still following you, I see?” he said, pointing with the dead fish at the clowder of dirty, raggedy strays.
Again ignoring his clumsy attempts at small talk, she took the bass out of his hands. “You buying any fish? I got places to be and have no time to chit-chat, especially with you, Mr O’Callaghan.”
“I don’t need no fish, Miss Malone,” grinned Mr O’Callaghan. “I know you go ’round Eustace Street this time ’a day, and I was decided on waiting until you came by Ó Dubhghaill’s, but I really do need to ask you one thing, Mollers.”
She gave him a puzzled look.
“Was it you, by any chance,” continued the man, “whom I saw sneaking in one of the alleyways of Montgomery Street yesterday night?”
“Think what you will,” sighed Molly after pausing a little and carefully considering her answer. She disliked Mr O’Callaghan’s asking her about Montgomery Street, for it was an inexcusable shame to be in any way connected to it, it being located in a particular area of Dublin. Those days, the district had come to be known as Monto, and although not many people dared to pass its streets, rumours told of gatherings of depraved women exchanging their holy bodies for a few pennies, luring drunken men into disease-infested rooms. Molly, although entirely aware of these rumours, decided against quarrelling with Mr O’Callaghan, as she had better start making sales. She tried pushing the cart around Mr O’Callaghan’s wide frame, which seemed to be gravely larger each time Miss Malone was graced by his presence. The townspeople were saying Mr O’Callaghan had long been suffering from corpulence due to his excessive love of wine drinking. He had a habit of calling these same people asses and cretins – needless to say, he wasn’t much of a scholar.
“Don’t fret, dear Molly. I know exactly what to think of you,” he smirked, walking up the street still looking at her. Miss Malone could have sworn she heard him call her a whore under his breath, and regretted not having told him to wind his neck in. But having more important matters to tend to, she wheeled her wain in the opposite direction, shouting, “Cockles! Mussels! Alive, alive-o!”
There were few people out at this time of day, although Molly couldn’t comprehend exactly why. No one but the town drunk, Mr Yorkstone, could be seen wandering Dublin’s streets. His shoes were looking rather shabby, as the pitiable old man took all his earnings to Flanigan’s each week, spending it all on cheap liquor. One thing he did know, however, was how to sing. And sing he did, every time he locked eyes with Miss Malone. He did not know her and she did not know him, but his love was pure and often expressed in song:
In Dublin’s fair city
Where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheeled her wheelbarrow
Through the streets broad and narrow
Crying “cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”
Alive, alive, oh
Alive, alive, oh
Crying “cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”
Hours passed and day was turning to night, but Miss Malone didn’t sell much fish. Seeing how much slower business was than usual, she felt bad for Mr Tom O’Donnell, her tranter – she reckoned poor Tommy must have got up at three o’clock that morning to deliver the fresh fish to Dublin all the way from Howth. She paused here, longing for her home, knowing she might never see it again. Sad thing was, she never would.
Molly dragged her cart back home, dropping the fish in a nearby pile of trash. Upon entering the apartment, she was surprised to find Miss Browne scrubbing the floors with an eagerness she had never seen her do anything with. Immediately she desired to know the purpose of her doing.
“I’ve forgotten to tell you, haven’t I? Oh, you know what I’m like! Anywho, my brother Peter has written to let me know he is coming to visit to-morrow! I was decided on paying him a visit later this autumn, but with all the wedding preparations I entirely forgot about arranging a meeting. Now I am committing myself to get this place in its utmost clean shape!”
“You silly girl,” laughed Molly and helped Elizabeth on her feet.
“Oh! Speaking of my relations, how is your brother doing, Molly?”
Miss Malone did not answer this simple question. Instead, she began rubbing her eyes and claimed tiredness, explaining how she wasn’t feeling well. In actuality, Miss Malone was trying to avoid being asked about her brother back in Howth; she hadn’t seen him in years, and last she heard, he wasn’t doing well – admittedly, he was in worse condition each day.
“Will you be going out to-night as well?” asked Molly’s friend, quickly changing the subject of conversation, recalling that inquiring after her brother’s health was unsought for, as it nearly always brought Miss Malone’s spirits down.
“Yes, and this time, Lizzy – this time – it will be my last time. This night’s client is offering me an amount of fifty pounds – yes, you heard correctly – an amount of fifty pounds to do the job. I don’t think I will ever have to sell fish again, Lizzy! I will move back to my folks’ to help my brother. And I will visit you and Mr Bermingham often! Oh, Lizzy, I am so glad.”
The two friends reflected on the fortune smiling upon Molly’s fate, having eaten the last bit of their dinner. It was off to bed for Elizabeth and time for Miss Malone to head out.
Mr O’Callaghan was correct, Molly thought as the hour of the meeting drew nearer. She was indeed heading to Montgomery Street, where Mr O’Callaghan, and possibly many others, had seen her the previous night. She had been sure her visits to Monto had passed unnoticed; in fear of being recognised, Molly had put on a dark woollen cloak, which Elizabeth’s mother had gifted her a year prior, before heading out the door.
“They mustn’t recognise me,” she muttered under her breath while walking through a narrow passage underneath an archway. She felt the harsh wind blowing directly into her face; in fear of losing the bonnet serving as a disguise, she held onto it tightly, preventing it from being blown away. Hardly could she see the path before her, as the dark clouds rolled across the sky, hiding the full moon and its light – it was sheer luck Miss Malone could walk the way to Monto with her eyes closed, having been there on numerous occasions. It wasn’t in her favour to make these trips in a weather so dismal, but to-night was different – she felt shivers all over her body which were not caused by the frigid wind – she imagined it was nervousness.
Arriving at the usual meeting spot, Malone leaned on the brick wall and hesitantly looked around. She was rather anxiously awaiting the arrival of a stranger whom she’d never met and had only communicated with through letters. It could not have been more than ten minutes later that she saw a figure walking up to her.
“Are you the miss of name Kavanagh?” asked the stranger.
Although you and I both know, dear reader, what Molly’s real name was, there was a good reason why she nodded at the question – you see, an alias was dreadfully needed when one decided on extending their repertoire in shady streets like these, and it was no different for our dear Miss Malone – pardon, Miss Kavanagh. She could not take a risk lest her services should be exposed. Miss Malone was very careful come these matters, as practicing abortion was to be charged with witchcraft and the woman was to be burned at the stake, exactly like that Dame Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny’s servant Petronilla had been more than three-hundred years ago.
“I am Letitia Vernon, wife of Reverend Edward Vernon, who is never to know of our meeting. Should he find out, he is certain to abandon and ostracise me, and I will not succumb to living on the streets once again.”
A bit of a hostile approach, thought Molly Malone, debating whether meeting the woman standing in front of her was ever a smart idea.
“Well? Let’s get on with it!”
Rushed by the nervousness of Mrs Vernon, Molly hurried upstairs, showing the woman into the room where she had taken all of her previous clients. Monto was the perfect place to help these women who fell with a child at unfortunate times, without any of them being recognised, as no one but the prostitutes (who, for the most part, kept to themselves) and their clients dared to pass this part of Dublin at night.
Now, as to not upset the reader, the procedure Molly was already accustomed to along with its gory details will not be described in this account, it not being for the faint of heart.
Once finished, she advised Mrs Vernon to rest for an hour or two in order not to feel sickness on her way back – she would keep her company should the missus decide on staying. Mrs Vernon accepted, and encouraged Miss Kavanagh (as only she knew her) to kindly take the basket she had brought with herself. In it, Molly would find the promised sum of money, and some food and wine to thank her for her honourable deed.
Once the advised two hours passed and Mrs Vernon took off into the night, Malone took with her the gifts, excited to share the treats with her dear friend Elizabeth.
Trouble struck once Lizzy returned home a few hours later to find her flatmate lying in bed, sweating. Molly, assuring her it was a mere cold she had caught wandering the streets late at night, asked her to bring her some chamomile tea and leave her be, as to prevent catching something herself. Elizabeth did as Molly asked and spent the rest of her evening embroidering a handkerchief she was to give her soon-to-be husband. Making the last few stitches at half past one in the morning, she blew out the candle and headed to bed after checking up on Molly. Seeing her friend sleeping soundly, she calmly crawled into her own bed and soon fell asleep.
What Molly and Elizabeth didn’t know, though, was the full story behind Mrs Vernon’s having an abortion. You see, her story was that of going from rags to riches, and it was her marriage to Mr Vernon that had brought her out of poverty. Should you think she was willing to forfeit her assets by giving birth to a son, you would be gravely mistaken – by staying childless, she ensured herself to inherit all her husband’s fortune. So, as to not risk Molly telling her husband about the abortion, before packing the wine, Mrs Vernon enriched it with arsenic (poudre de succession, the French call it) used by her servants to kill rats.
Miss Malone was only a month short of her birth day when she passed.
“I never thought her much of a looker.”
“I wouldn’t know about that, Mr O’Callaghan,” replied Mr MacColgan, pausing a little. “One thing I do know is that she always did have the freshest fish in all of Dublin. And she always was very kind, I suppose.”
Laughing, Mr O’Callaghan thought to himself of when he last saw Molly Malone. He didn’t care about her, not at all. But there was an inexplainable emptiness inside of him, and it dawned on him in that instant.
“Get me another pint, Rowan,” he exclaimed.
A few days after hearing of Molly’s death, Lizzy tried drowning her sorrows of losing Molly with the same bottle of wine that had doomed her unfortunate friend. Miss Elizabeth was only lucky the first time around when drinking the arsenic, and it was only seven months before her wedding day when she passed. Her fiancé arranged a burial near her hometown up north, a long way from where Malone was buried.
To calm the reader’s probable anger, it fits to say that despite Mrs Vernon’s endeavours, she gave birth to a daughter only two years following Miss Malone’s death. Not long after, Mr Vernon celebrated the birth of his first son, John Vernon, while also having to mourn the death of Mrs Vernon, who died in childbirth. Two decades later, John ended up inheriting a fortune after his father’s demise. He decided to give half his inheritance to his sister Catherine, not being particularly interested in money – and yet they claim the apple does not fall far from the tree…
Weeks passed, so did months, and the folks at old fair Dublin slowly forgot about the cheeky fishmonger that had strolled through their city not so long ago. Not even a poorly crafted tombstone with an inscription was ever made to keep the memory of the young woman alive. However, this was not unforeseen; our wretched yet beloved Molly Malone, although known by many, was a friend to few. And such was her fate to be forgotten like many before her.
Not everyone did forget about sweet Molly, though. Mr Yorkstone remembered her, and so did her brother moments before he passed; how could they forget?
For many centuries since, if the weary traveller walking through the city of Dublin takes notice and listens carefully, he or she can hear woeful tunes still being sung about Miss Malone:
She died of a fever
And no one could save her
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone
Originally published in Issue XIX in December 2019.