There is a mystery about the background of Moll Anthony and who her family was. A pair of tombstones may be the answer to the puzzle, in Co. Kildare. The Death Register of the Eastern Health Board only dates as far back as 1868 - not far enough to settle the matter regarding one of Leinster's most famous healers of the 19th century, Moll Anthony.
Most practitioners in the art of curing confined their cures to the ailments of humans but 'the rale old Moll of the Red Hills' was able to cure animals also. She did not even have to travel to the location of the sick animals they were cured the moment the farmer consulted her.
Moll did not live at the Red Hills but at the Hill of Grange between Milltown and Rathangan, a likely place for her to live as some believed she was in league with the fairies and the rise she lived on, The Hill of Allen and Donadea's Green Hill lie in a straight line. The line is a fairy path and if a traveler crossed a stile along it at the stroke of midnight it was believed that he would remain rooted to the spot for a month with one foot planted on either side of the stile.
One of the stories of the origins of Moll Anthony tells how a boy once met a funeral and as was the custom in times past, he turned to walk some of the way behind the coffin. He even helped to carry it. When the funeral came back to the boy's own gate the pall-bearers left down the coffin.
The boy ran in to tell his mother and when they both came back out the coffin was still there but the mourners had disappeared. They unscrewed the lid and a lovely young girl of about twelve years of age stepped from within. She did not know who she was or where she was from. The family adopted her and she lived happily with them, taking the mother's name Mary. When she and the boy James grew up they married.
One day, the young wife asked James to bring her with him to the fair in Castledermot. He was delighted to have her as company and so the two set off. James had two cows to sell. They were fine animals and in no time at all a farmer from Carlow bought them and gave James a good price. As was the custom, the buyer and seller went to the bar to drink a luck-penny cup.
Mary joined them and the farmer's wife who was already waiting in the bar after her morning's shopping. When Mary entered, the farmer's wife stared quizzically at her. After a couple of drinks, the Carlow farmer told James that Mary looked like the image of his own daughter, who had died many years before.
The farmer's wife said that she had thought the same thing the moment she saw her. James asked what date their daughter had died and it was the same date as when Mary had first stepped from that coffin. The old farmer's wife stared at Mary again and asked her to pull down the sleeve of her dress. Then Mary said 'It's alright mother I still have the strawberry mark on my arm' an answer which stunned them all.
Those who believed Moll Anthony was in league with the fairies said that she was that girl who the fairies brought back from the dead.
But what about the mysterious Milltown tombstones? Some people claim that Moll Anthony's father was called Anthony Dunne and that she was named after his first name to distinguish her from other women also named Mary who lived in the area. Lord Walter Fitzgerald claimed that Moll Anthony's name was Mary Leeson, that she died in 1878 and that her cure passed on to a James Leeson her son. This man lived in a comfortable slated house on the Hill of the Grange on the site of Moll's former mud-walled house. Local people accept that James had the cure and the house which still clings to the side of Grange Hill was his. Through the ivy on one of the Milltown stones can be read this inscription:
Erected by Catherine Leeson of Grange Hill in memory of her dearly beloved husband, James Leeson who departed this life 27 April 1894. Aged 64 years.
The stone beside it reads:
Erected by Mary Leeson of Punchesgrange in memory of her mother, Eliza Cronley who departed this life 11 of December. 1851 aged 20 years. Also the above named Mary Leeson who died 28 Nov. 1878 aged 71 years.
Mary Leeson born in 1807 could not have had a mother died in 1851 aged 20. Eliza Cronley could be her mother if she died aged 90 and a close study reveals that the stone has been altered in some way to make the 9 appear like a 2.
Was Sir Walter Fitzgerald right when he said that Moll Anthony's father was Anthony Dunne? Was it propriety that deterred him from mentioning an unmarried mother, because a child born out of wedlock at the turn of the nineteenth century got little in the way of kindness - not even her own name when grown up and married?
The evidence available seems to present conclusive proof that Mary Leeson was the lady known as Moll Anthony. Kildare folklore links her curing powers with the fairy folk who lived in the heart of the Hill of Allen. This was the headquarters of the ancient Fianna; it was also the first place visited by Oisín on his return from Tír na nÓg. The Hill of Allen, the Red Hills and the bleak Hill of Grange - old people tell strange tales of the supernatural by firesides in and around all three areas and in most of them Moll Anthony figures, a mortal among, if not definitely of, the Sidhe.