The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America’s First Labor War, by Mark Bulik, Fordham University Press, 352 pp, ISBN 978-0823262236
Indade I do, sir. Will I ever forget it! A sad day it was in the hard coalfields, sir. When the hour of the hangings arrived for them poor Irish lads, the world suddenly became dark and we had to burn our lamps. It’s Black Thursday it was, sir.
The response of an elderly miner’s widow in Pennsylvania, when asked by folklorist George Korson in the 1930s if she remembered the hanging of the first batch of Molly Maguires in June 1877.
… among the McGeehan clan in County Donegal, the story is still recounted of the family’s gathering around the kitchen table on that day in 1877. Hugh McGeehan had written them of his innocence and asked them to pray for him. And, so the story goes, at the moment when McGeehan was on the gallows, the sky blackened as if by eclipse over the bogs of Glen Fin [sic.].
Wayne G Broehl, professor of business, Dartmouth College, writing in the early 1960s of the Irish connections of Hugh McGeehan, hanged in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, on Black Thursday.
On June 19th, 1880, Condy Breslin died of “miner’s asthma” in Hazleton, a small city atop a high plateau in the “hard coal” (anthracite) region of northeastern Pennsylvania. He was about sixty-five. Carved in the marble gravestone that his twin sons, Neil and Charles, erected in St Gabriel’s Cemetery are the symbols of his trade ‑ a crowbar, a shovel, a pick, and a fishtail drill. Charles, himself a miner in Colorado, came east for the funeral, and he “pondered long over an epitaph such as his father might have chosen”. He came up with these lines:
Forty years I worked with pick and drill,
Down in the mines against my will,
The Coal King’s slave but now it’s passed,
Thanks be to God I am free at last.
The man so well commemorated in stone by his son had been born about 1815 in southwest Donegal, most likely on or near Loughros Point, a windswept spit of land only five miles in length and nowhere more than a mile wide, just outside the two-street town of Ardara. When Breslin had left for the hard-coal fields about 1840, he was already married with a daughter, Annie (1837-92). He worked in Cass Township and Pottsville before moving north to Hazleton, where he was nicknamed “the Pottsville Miner”. Annie Breslin, at about seventeen, married Frank Carbon (1827-c ’85), himself an emigrant from Loughros Point and also a miner. One of their children, Con (1871-1907), worked in the mines into the 1890s, when he achieved regional celebrity as a singer-songwriter, whose compositions eulogised the everyday struggles of his people “and the way they have to work and grunt / for a livin’ underground”.
The last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth were years of great turmoil in industrial America. Recessions, lay-offs and violent confrontations between workers and bosses over wages, working conditions and unionisation scarred communities in the great manufacturing cities and the coal fields that fuelled them. In those years, Con Carbon sang from union platforms, notably when Johnny Mitchell led the United Mine Workers through the Great Coal Strike of March to October 1902. And he sang too in shebeens and saloons, theatres and Hibernian halls. A “wee small lad, no heavier than a breath of air” but possessed of a “sweet tenor voice”, he also published a booklet, Con Carbon’s Own Songster, which he sold for 10 cents from town to town.
They called him the Minstrel of the Mine Patch. A patch was a cluster of shacks on a colliery. The shacks were the property of a coal company, and, in many patches, tools and clothes, food and tobacco were purchased in a company store and money due for goods received on credit was docked from the miners’ pay. In Minstrels of the Mine Patch: Songs and Stories of the Anthracite Region (1938), an extraordinary commitment to print of the last echoes of that world, the folklorist George Korson remarked that while Con Carbon’s songs were sung in every patch in the hard coal fields (Carbon, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Northumberland and Schuylkill counties), he never made any money from his music: “He lived poor, and he died poor. He just loved to bring some joy to his fellow miners.” And the miners loved him back. In a letter to Korson, a priest recalled being upstaged by Carbon:
I was booked to deliver an address at an AOH meeting one night at Plymouth. A committee escorted me to the stage on which were seated many prominent members of the Order, among them being a little old gentleman whose face was handsomely decorated with side whiskers. While conversing with a member of the committee, the little gentleman who was seated on my right, suddenly said, “Begorra, I wonder what’s keeping the talent.” I turned and looked at him with surprise, but said nothing. Suddenly, he cried, “I wish the talent was here.” Again I looked at him with surprise, wondering whether he meant to slight me—me who thought I was the whole thing. Presently, my little friend on the right emitted a roar that would shame the best efforts of a Sioux warrior on the warpath. He threw his hat high in the air, and dancing like a Fiji warrior over a missionary, roared with all the lung power at his command: “Be jabers, the talent has arrived—the talent has arrived!” Every man in the audience was on his feet, whooping with bulging eyes and mouth agape: “Hurrah for Con!” I looked towards the entrance, when lo and behold! I saw Con being carried on the shoulders of two strapping young miners toward the stage. I thought that my little friend on the right would go into convulsions on the wings of enthusiasm. Every lineament of his features seemed to bespeak the esteem in which he held Con. Even his side-whiskers looked as though every hair waved a welcome to the laughing, rollicking, good-natured Con. It took several minutes before the enthusiasm subsided, only to break forth again in cries of “Let us have ‘Me Johnny Mitchell Man’, Con.” When Con stepped to the front of the stage, the applause was simply deafening. It seemed to shake the building from top to bottom. He, and not I, was the feature of the evening. Beside him I felt my own littleness. He certainly was a wonderful character.
Con Carbon did die poor, as Korson wrote, and he also died young, in 1907, at the age of thirty six. He is buried in an unmarked plot in the same cemetery in Hazleton where that quatrain was cut in marble above his grandfather. The Great Strike of 1902 may have been his finest hour. It was an important strike, for the Irish, the Poles and “the Slavs” (a catch-all for Russians, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Serbians, Croatians, and, erroneously, Hungarians), who had been competing for jobs since the 1880s, but overcame their mutual suspicion and resentment. “The coal you dig is not Slavish coal, or Polish coal, or Irish coal,” Mitchell had told them. “It is coal.”
And they had listened. In October, when the miners had been on strike for over six months, and with major cities fretting about winter fuel, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened. He established a commission to investigate conditions in the coalfields and, in his catchphrase, to cut a “square deal”. It was the first time the federal government had involved itself in arbitrating an industrial dispute. In March 1903, after five months of public hearings, the commission announced its findings. The miners did not get all that they had wanted. Most obviously, they failed to get recognition for their union. But they got a 10 per cent wage increase (they had wanted 20 per cent), a 10 per cent reduction in hours, and the right to elect weighing men. And their strike had exposed the imperial arrogance of the Coal Kings. George Baer, the spokesman for the employers, gave something of the game away in his testimony to the commission. “These men don’t suffer,” he blurted; “Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English!”
By then, the first decade of the twentieth century, the Irish of northeastern Pennsylvania were not sending the same percentage of their young men to the mines as they had done in Condy Breslin’s day. Opportunities were opening in the trades and manufacturing, sales and public service in the region’s larger towns and cities, and some young men were leaving to mine for better money “out West”, in Arizona (gold and copper), New Mexico (coal), Colorado (lead and silver), and Montana (copper), and “up North” in Alaska (gold). Condy’s son, Charles, had to come back from Colorado to bury him in 1880, and, in the 1890s, his grandson, Con Carbon, left the mines for a job on a belt-lacer in Wilkes-Barre; he was a clerk in the Sheldon Axle Company when he died in 1907.
In those years too, immigrants from places like Loughros Point were starting to avoid the hard coal fields, finding work instead in the booming oil industry in the west of the state or on the construction sites and factory floors of Allentown, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. New York too drew many of them, as did the industrial cities of the Mid-West, particularly Cleveland and Chicago. And others were pushing west to the new mining centres, and also to San Francisco where, after the 1906 earthquake, strong arms were needed.
Oil and gas would soon become the preferred fuels for industry, transport and home heating, and mechanisation would deplete the numbers employed underground in Pennsylvania. There were nearly a hundred and fifty thousand miners in the anthracite region on the eve of World War I, and today there are fewer than a thousand. The population has shrunk from nearly 1.2 million in 1930 to about eight hundred thousand at present. In the same period, the population of the United States has surged from 123 million to 319 million. Hazleton is now home to about twenty-five thousand people, down from around forty thousand in World War II. Close to the intersection of I-80, the route from New York via Chicago to San Francisco, and I-81, the longest of the north-south interstates, the city is a hub for generally low-paying distribution companies like Michael’s and Amazon. And it is a hub too of the drugs trade, the town blighted by heroin.
Low-paying jobs draw the unskilled from places where opportunities for them are few. Today, approximately 40 per cent of Hazleton’s inhabitants are Latinos (a sudden increase from 4.8 per cent in 2000). An estimated 80 per cent of those are Dominicans, by birth or ancestry, the majority having connections in the hinterland of San José de Ocoa. Some of them are recent immigrants, not all of them legal. In 2006, Hazleton gained national notoriety when Mayor Lou Barletta steered the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” through the city council. His declared purpose was to make people without papers leave town ‑ an odd objective, one would think, in a region experiencing demographic decline. The Act (correctly, an ordinance) slapped a $1,000-per-day fine on any landlord who rented to an illegal immigrant and suspended for five years the business license of any employer who hired one. It also declared English to be the city’s “official language”. Interviewed shortly after the measure passed, the putatively pro-business mayor bizarrely boasted that “some Mexican restaurants say business is off 75 per cent” (Washington Post, August 22nd, 2006).
Barletta’s high-sounding “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” was never going to pass muster with people who had read the US Constitution. In 2007, Judge James M Munley ruled the “Act” unconstitutional, and in 2010 and again in 2013 the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision. But it worked for Barletta, who is now a congressman, pulling near 60 per cent of the vote for the Republican Party, helped, it must be said, by a bit of geography-defying gerrymandering. It most certainly did not work for Hazleton. The “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” that made Barletta’s name may end up costing the city $2.8 million in legal fees. Where does that come from? Policing? Education? It is Stunt and Tax Politics. In Lou Barletta’s world, you do not get what you pay for; you pay for what you got. Hazleton got Barletta, and it will pay dearly. Still, the real irony is that the vast majority of Hazleton’s Latino population are US citizens, second or third generation residents of the New York metropolitan area, from places like Paterson and Washington Heights, looking for more affordable housing and a better quality of life. They are going west, young man; it is what Americans do.
It was the promise of work for the unskilled and a better life that first drew large numbers of Irish people to northeastern Pennsylvania. All told, the hard coal fields were a destination of choice for the poorest of the Irish poor, most especially the people of west Ulster and north Connacht, from the 1820s to the 1910s, that is, from just after Waterloo down to World War I. Indeed, the Irish not only mined the anthracite, but to get the black gold to New York and Philadelphia, they dug canals, including the Morris Canal in 1825-30, and then, in 1830-34, the Delaware and Raritan (an endeavour movingly evoked in Paul Muldoon’s “The Loaf”). They also built embankments, tunnelled and laid track. But more than anything, the Irish dug coal. And so it was that some four or five generations came of age around Glenties and Castlederg, Ballyconnell, Ballinamore, Boyle, and Crossmolina dreaming of places like Summit Hill, Mauch Chunk and Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Tamaqua, Pottsville and Plymouth.
Those names were whispered into the late twentieth century. As a child, in the 1970s, I heard some of them. Put to bed in my grandparents’ house outside Ardara, there were white-matted studio photographs of three handsome young men in big black wooden frames at the foot of the bed. The only other pictures on the walls of that house were the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the colour snap on the moon-phase calendar which Tommy Tom gave out every Christmas to advertise the Greenhouse Bar and Shop. The framed photographs had been shipped home from Pennsylvania and California in the early 1900s. The handsome men were elder brothers of my grandfather, Néillí Sweeney (1900-’86). He, the youngest of the family, never saw one of those brothers, and another he had no recollection of having seen. The brother whom he did not remember seeing was James, who died, aged twenty seven, after an operation on a sarcoma of the neck in the Mercy Hospital, Wilkes-Barre, in 1909. It was the same hospital, run by Irish nuns, where Con Carbon had died two years earlier. After stints in Scotland in his teens and early twenties, James had left for the hard coal fields in 1903, stopping with an uncle in Plymouth and going down the mines. He was married, with an infant daughter, Mary, when he died. His own mother, my great-grandmother, had herself been born in Pennsylvania in the late 1850s. Her father, James Boyle (1820-1904), had emigrated, possibly before the Famine, and either before, during or immediately after the Civil War (1861-65), he had brought the family back to Donegal. There, he had settled them on a few acres of cultivatable ground that rose above a bog. And from there, he watched his own sons and grandsons do what he had done and leave for the mines. He may have encouraged them to leave. A big lump of shiny anthracite was an ornament in the Boyles’ house into the mid-twentieth century.
“Irish peasants” has always been a singularly inappropriate description for those precociously proletarianised Atlantic people. From the late 1700s, their young men did seasonal tours of duty in the tattie fields and navvy camps of Scotland and from the 1820s, in successive generations, they moved back and forth between the potato patch and the mine patch. Some returned to marry. Others came to fetch family members or recruit work parties. And others came just long enough to realise why they had left in the first place. In other words, not all “returned Yanks” stayed. James Cannon was born in 1815 in Inishkeel, which comprises the Catholic parish of Glenties and parts of the parish of Ardara. He was a teenage miner in Summit Hill in 1832. He took out United States citizenship in 1839 and the following year he returned home. There, he married Rosa (Hugh) McAloon in 1841, and in winter 1844-45 he left again for the hard coal fields, taking his wife and two small children with him. They settled in Mauch Chunk, where James mined and Rosa kept west Donegal boarders. Their second son, Michael, born in Ireland in 1844, worked as a labourer (probably around a mine), before he enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War. And when the War was over, he was briefly a schoolteacher before taking the Pennsylvania bar exams, and establishing himself as a Democratic politician.
Such upward mobility was uncommon, and the mine patches were never the melting pots of some American Dream. Different ethnic groups kept very much to themselves, and the Irish had a less than easy relationship with their English and Welsh counterparts. Then, in the last two decades of the century, when the Poles and “the Slavs” started to arrive, the Catholic Church established separate ethnic parishes for the newcomers. In the little coal town of Plymouth, where James Sweeney spent his last six years, the Irish belonged to St Vincent’s parish (est 1872); the Poles and Lithuanians were attached to St Mary’s (est 1885); and “the Slavs” to St Stephen’s (est 1885). Each parish, in time, was to have its own elementary schools, run respectively by the Sisters of Mercy, the Bernardine Sisters, and the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius.
Education was not always a priority for the Irish of the mine patches and the coal towns, or more correctly, it was not always a possibility. For much of the nineteenth century, their young went to work early and with scarcely any schooling. According to Korson, writing just before World War II, “Many an old miner will apologize for his illiteracy with an explanation like, ‘I never had a day’s schooling in my life; I was carried into the mines on my father’s back.’” And those who were not carried out of the mines ended their working lives in the breakers, where the coal was sorted before shipment. “Once a miner, twice a breaker boy” was a saying in the patches. There, in the breaker, the old and the injured found themselves back where they had started, picking slate with eight-year-olds.
Ethnically segregated and the young set to work alongside the elderly, the Irish of northeastern Pennsylvania sustained a robust and vibrant oral culture. Songs about mines and breakers, strikes and blacklegs were set to tunes like The Wearing of the Green and The Rakes of Kildare. Muirsheen Durkin supplied the melody for On Johnny Mitchell’s Train, a song urging support for the United Mine Workers, and I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Everyday was reworked as I’m a Hard Working Miner, You Can See by My Hands:
I work in the mines where the sun never shines
Nor daylight does ever appear;
With me lamp blazing red on the top of my head
And in danger I never know fear.
Just think of the poor man, who works in the mines
With the mules and the rats underground;
Where the smoke is so thick you can cut it with a stick,
And can weigh it on scales by the pound.
Numerous other songs of the old country were adapted to the new, industrial environment:
One evening fair as I walked out, I heard a maid complain,
By her lamentations, I knew she was in pain,
She said, “I ne’er will marry him, so they need not me annoy:
If e’er I wed with any man, it’s my handsome miner boy.”
The setting of stories also shifted. Ghosts appeared in creaking tunnels, and fairies tricked around breakers. Bonfires lit up Mid-Summer’s Night, and fantastically dressed mummers went from door to door at Christmas. Korson mentions “wise-women” who cured ailments in the patches, and the keeners who worked their wake houses:
Irish keeners were known in the hard coal fields as “paid criers” and their counterparts among the Russians were the plakalshchitsa. In both cases, these public wailers were gifted with eloquent tongues, and played skilfully on the emotions of the mourners. They carried on a tradition that in their own countries went back for centuries. It was said they had the power to wring tears from a stone. The story is told of a “paid crier” near Pottsville who at a disreputable miner’s funeral was so fulsome in her eulogy as to cause the widow to turn to her daughter and remark: “Mary, is there another caarpse in the room?”
In the Irish patches, as in the places that their people had left behind, the fiddle was the great instrument in the nineteenth century, and the dances were jigs and reels, highlands and hornpipes. “Dublin Dans”, such as Howerth’s Hibernica, included the larger towns in their circuits. On the morning of a show, these strolling players would enter town, and, as Korson notes, “with jaunting cars hitched to asses, and gentlemen rigged out in colored breeches and buckled shoes, and bagpipes blowing familiar Irish melodies, they brought a touch of old Ireland to the drab mining country”.
That drabness shocked some immigrants, and no historian will better evoke their shock than Kerby A Miller who, in his magnificent Ireland and Irish America: Culture, Class and Transatlantic Migration (2009), quotes a perplexed Mayo-man looking around a patch, and exclaiming “And you mean to tell me … Do you mean to tell me that this is America?” Familiar names and faces might also have caused surprise. Exact numbers have yet to be determined. In 1880, the “foreign-born” accounted for 23 per cent of the anthracite region’s population, and Ireland was the birthplace of 41 per cent of those immigrants.
That figure undercounts the Irish, many of whom had been born in England and Scotland. But, more importantly, as young Irish people had been coming in great numbers since the 1820s and having children, most of the O’——s and Mc——s in the coal fields were by then native-born. Hence, it seems reasonable to assume that around1880 well over thirty per cent of the regional population would have been considered Irish, with particular towns and patches being veritable “Little Irelands”. Thereafter, as the Poles and “the Slavs” (drawn by the Coal Kings’ eagerness to recruit a less militant workforce) started to arrive, and as west Ulster and north Connacht immigrants chased more secure wages, safer work or a warmer sun, the Irish-born proportion of the foreigners declined sharply to twenty-four per cent in 1890 and sixteen per cent in 1900. But having come for so long, Boyles and Breslins, Cannons and Conaghans, Maguires, Molloys, Shovlins and Sweeneys remained ubiquitous.
The preponderance of the immigrants being from west Ulster and north Connacht, Irish was the language of many patches in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, it was spoken into the twentieth century in the Irish sections of larger towns, such as the East End of Wilkes-Barre and Donegal Hill in Hazleton. And here, in the tight grid streets of industrial America, there was not the same shame attached to “the Gaelic” as there was in the dry-stone jigsaw districts of the north and west of Ireland, for the Welsh, the Germans, the Poles and, latterly, “the Slavs” and the Italians had their own languages too. Having a language was a sign that you belonged to a people not a province.
English was undoubtedly the language of power and advancement in America, as it was in Ireland, and those Irish people who had mastered English often mocked greenhorns (Irish and others) who spoke it only haltingly. Con Carbon got laughs from mimicking the English dialect of Irish-speakers as often as that of “the Slavs”, and he had the phwat [what], the phwie [why] and the phan [when] of west Donegal down pat. But it was not done with any disdain for Irish. Indeed, there was a clear affection for a language that was a link to the old country and, with time, to the old times in the new. Dennis Mulhearn was born in Mauch Chunk in 1846. His father, John, born in 1808, had left Donegal in 1835, married Annie Sweeney in Philadelphia in 1843 and moved to Pottsville to work as a miner for the Hackelbernie Coal Company. Dennis, their third son, was successively a slate picker on the breaker at Hackelbernie, a boatman on the Lehigh Canal, and, at seventeen, a drummer boy for the Pennsylvania Cavalry in the Civil War. After the War, he was a brakeman on the Lehigh Valley Railroad before going to work out West, probably navvying or mining. Returning to Pennsylvania in 1883, in his thirties, he opened a general store on West Broadway, Mauch Chunk. In a history of Carbon County published in 1913, Fred Brenckman notes that “An old Irish lady, who was a satisfied customer, designated his establishment as ‘Stohr Unric’ [Stór Ionnraic], the Celtic equivalent of ‘honest store.’ By that name it has since been known …”. Historians will not find a shop in the county that the Mulhearns left, or any other county in Ireland, that prided itself on such a name in the 1880s.
Stohr Unric long ago closed its doors, and today the Irish people of the mines and breakers are remembered through stories of the Molly Maguire troubles that ebbed and flowed from the mid-1850s to the mid-1870s. Those protracted troubles involved resistance to anti-Catholic and anti-Irish discrimination in the nativist rage of the 1850s; opposition to the draft in the Civil War of the early 1860s, when wages were high in the coalfields and poor men didn’t want to fight the rich men’s war; and a determination, from the mid-1860s through the mid-1870s, to maintain wage levels and improve conditions by organising unions. In the last phase, the men described as the Coal Kings on Condy Breslin’s gravestone used the Coal and Iron Police, a state-sanctioned force recruited, paid and run by the coal and railroad companies, to violently break strikes and bust unions. Strikers were evicted, their jobs and houses given to scabs, and “troublemakers” attacked and killed. For their part, the miners, most especially in the War years, engaged in industrial sabotage. Mines were flooded, breakers burned, stores dynamited, and trains derailed. Mine superintendents and foremen, generally of English, Welsh or German extraction, were intimidated and killed, and blacklegs and informers in the Irish community were ruthlessly punished. Much of this activity was claimed or attributed to Molly Maguire. Threatening letters, helpfully illustrated with coffins or bullets, arrived signed “A Son of Molly Maguire”, and, from the mid-1850s, the Coal Kings’ press insisted that this Irish secret society and alcohol were the roots of all evil in the region. The dénouement was a series of show trials that began in 1876 and the hanging of twenty men as Molly Maguires in 1877-79. One of the defence attorneys was Edward Mulhearn, brother of Dennis, the owner of Stohr Unric.
The twenty men hanged as Mollies were once a subject of controversy in northeastern Pennsylvania. They were trueborn Irishmen or a disgrace to the Irish or all you could expect from them. They were innocent men or valiant defenders of labour or “the most noted band of cut-throats of modern times”. Since the 1960s, that controversy has largely abated, and narratives in which the hanged men are cast as organisers of oppressed miners or, much more insistently, innocent victims of a terrible miscarriage of justice have been incorporated into the region’s occasionally desperate attempts to draw tourists. The pretty mountain town of Mauch Chunk was “The Switzerland of America” before that title left on a cheap flight to Colorado. It was renamed Jim Thorpe in the early 1950s when the widow of a famous Native American athlete (with no connection to the state never mind the town) sold his corpse and with it what sporting organizations now call “naming rights”. And so today, in the Town Formerly Known as Mauch Chunk, a place ranked in the top five “Most Beautiful Small Towns in America” in 2012, visitors tour the gaol where seven of the twenty men were hanged as Mollies and then go eat in the Molly Maguire Pub and Steakhouse, which is the bar of the old Hotel Switzerland.
The ghosts of Irish killers, the historian and conservative commentator Philip Jenkins pronounces in a provocative essay, are being summoned up to do for northeastern Pennsylvania what the peace-loving Amish have done for the southeast of the state. And for some, though certainly not all, descendants of Irish, Polish and “Slavic” miners, this public remembering of hard times in the hard coal fields mixes well with the political snake oil peddled by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox News. “We” had it tough, and “we” coped without “handouts”; so can “they”. And, damn it, “we” spoke English.
One can read too much into the marketing of Molly Maguire, of course. Tourism often hangs its hat on a moment of notoriety, and that the East End of London has a surfeit of Jack the Ripper tours, through an area with few original buildings associated with his slayings, tells us that some Cockney wide boys have figured out what Fleet Street hacks learned long ago (that the murder of women sells), but little of the district’s contemporary inhabitants or their attitudes to its past, women and murder. There, much to the annoyance of residents, dozens of tour parties, some fifty to a hundred strong, traipse through Whitechapel every night. Jim Thorpe would welcome that footfall. In a region of eight hundred thousand people, an old prison, a few bars with real (the Hibernian House in Girardville) or invented Molly associations, the laying of wreaths on St Patrick’s Day, and occasional lectures and reenactments by local historical societies scarcely constitute the sort of Irish “Terrorist” Disneyland conjured up by Jenkins in his otherwise useful essay.
Who were the Mollies, and who were the men hanged as Mollies? In Ireland, or to be more precise, in west Ulster and north Connacht, Molly Maguire was a moniker adopted from the mid-1840s by the Ribbon Society, an oath-bound, secret organisation, which, since 1810, had built a lodge network across much of the northern half of the country, physically confronting the Orange Order and articulating Catholic nationalist ambition. And the adoption of the moniker was coincident with a geographic expansion of the society, and a shift in its social composition and the character of its activities, both of which now became more agrarian. For instance, in the early 1840s, when Condy Breslin left Ardara for America, there were Ribbon lodges around the market towns of east Donegal, where it feuded intermittently with the Orange Order, but the authorities were confident that it had no presence whatsoever in the west of the county. West Donegal was predominantly Catholic, and the Ribbon Society’s Orange nemesis had no presence there either. Here, all changed in the winter of 1844-45. The constabulary picked up rumours that Ribbon “delegates” had entered Donegal for the purpose of reorganising the society. By the summer, “Molly Maguire” was appearing on threatening letters not only in the old Ribbon heartlands around Ballyshannon, Ballintra, Donegal Town and Ballybofey, but also in the west of the county, where the authorities had been adamant that there were no lodges. The recipients of threats were land agents and bailiffs, but also larger farmers, who were charging the poor exorbitant prices for potatoes or “land-grabbers”, people who had acquired land from which the previous occupants had been evicted. And over the next few years, as hunger and disease drove families into debt, meal-mongers, land-grabbers, merchants and shopkeepers came to figure more prominently on the target list.
When the moniker Molly Maguire was first heard in Ireland, in 1844-45, the Ribbon Society had already extended its organisation to the hard coal fields. By the early 1830s, there was a St Patrick’s Society in Pottsville, then the capital of coal country, and in 1834, when a new Hibernia Benevolent Institution (commonly referred to as the Hibernian Benevolent Society) was incorporated in Schuylkill County, it absorbed that existing group, if it did not, in fact, grow out of it. Two years later, on foot of a charter from the Ribbon Society in Ireland, the Schuylkill County Hibernians joined with their “brethren” in New York City to form a national Hibernian Society, and in 1838, this semi-secret, but legal, fraternity formally changed its name to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). Some older names, such as the Hibernian Benevolent Society and St Patrick’s Boys, long remained popular in Pennsylvania, but all lodges were branches of the AOH. Significantly, down to 1853, all correspondence between the parent Ribbon Society’s “Board of Erin” in Ireland and its American branches was directed to Schuylkill County. The leadership of American Ribbonism, in other words, was in the coal fields of Pennsylvania, and miners, historically among the most militant industrial workers, were well represented in the base. Here, the name Molly Maguire first caught attention in 1848, and it would be widely heard from the mid-1850s.
One could nuance all this a little, and say that, in Ireland, “the Molly Maguires” constituted an “agrarian tendency” within the Ribbon Society rather than just a moniker in a particular region. But for all intents and purposes, from the mid-1840s, “Molly Maguire” was another name for Ribbonman in north Connacht and west Ulster, and when men from those regions reached Pennsylvania they found that Ribbon lodges were there known as Hibernian lodges, and, in contrast to Ireland, they were legal. In all other respects, however, the Hibernian lodges of the hard coalfields were strikingly similar to the Molly/Ribbon lodges in the northwestern quadrant of Ireland. They met in the backrooms of taverns and saloons, and the tavern- and saloon-keepers were often themselves office-holders in the organisation, that is, the “body-masters” and “committee-men”.
Crucially, however, the lodges were operating in an industrial not an agrarian society, and in a state system characterised by an uncommonly high level of democracy. In 1851, that is, over a decade after Condy Breslin had left for Pennsylvania, the population of the barony of Boylagh (roughly Ardara to Crolly, the greater part of west Donegal) was 21,643 (11,165 female; 10,478 male). Thirty-six men in the barony, which was part of the county constituency, were qualified to vote in parliamentary elections. The most significant local government body in the county (pop 255,000) was the grand jury, which set taxes and awarded contracts for road construction and repair that employed many young men, and which, consequently, had a presence in the lives of the labouring poor. However, it was an appointed agency, and despite some tinkering in the 1880s it was to be dominated by a landed clique until shortly before its replacement by an elected county council in 1898. Hence, from the 1840s and 1850s through to the end of the century, a district’s board of guardians (the committee that ran the poorhouse) was the only body to which a significant number of relatively ordinary householders could elect people. But in Pennsylvania, Condy Breslin could vote shortly after he got off the boat. Immigrants, without taking out citizenship, could vote in township, county, state and federal contests, provided that they were male and taxpayers. Or at least they could vote down to 1874. In that year, on the eve of the great wave of Molly arrests, an amendment to the state constitution stipulated that only those who had been citizens of the United States for a month could cast a ballot in Pennsylvania. Today, conservatives doubtless regard this step away from one of the catch-cries of the Revolution (“no taxation without representation”) as having been a step in the right direction.
Those differences between the old country and the new, as regards state and society, were to have a profound impact on the development of the AOH (aka Ribbon Society) in America, bringing it into labour as well as party politics, and setting it on a collision course with very powerful men. “All the Mollie leaders”, one dry pressman opined during the trials of the late 1870s, “gained their influence from behind a pine board” (Minnesotian Herald, April 6th, 1878). He exaggerated only slightly: the historian Kevin Kenny has helpfully calculated that six of the twenty hanged men kept taverns. It was in such Hibernian-owned taverns that young men took the same oaths as Mollies did in public houses in Ardara, Glenties and Dungloe. In the coal fields, the lodge was, in the first instance, a mutual aid organisation. The “brothers” would get a fellow a job, and, if necessary, they would protect his job, administering rough justice to those who would take it from him or cut his pay. Indeed, the brothers might not just get a man a job, they could actually give it to him, for many Hibernian masters held elected public office or had been appointed to a public job, at township or county level, which gave them patronage power. Pat Hester, hanged as a Molly in 1878, was a school director and tax collector in Mount Carmel township, and he was a supervisor responsible for hiring labourers for road works (a racket that Ribbonmen came to dominate in parts of the north and west of Ireland in the 1850s). Also a supervisor in Mount Carmel was Michael Graham, who, like Hester, was a Hibernian and a bar-owner.
Pat Hester’s gravestone records his place of birth as Ballybraughan, Co Roscommon; it is a variant form of Ballybroghan, a townland outside Tulsk. Born in 1825, he was a Famine emigrant who had arrived in the United States in 1846. He had done well. His wife, Catherine O’Rourke (1832-1906), a Galway woman, was described in the press as “a woman of refinement” and they had three daughters who were schoolteachers (again, he was director of schools). Hester had not fully accommodated himself to respectability, however. Prior to his arrest on a murder charge in 1876, he had done a two-and-a-half-year stretch (1872-75) in Eastern State Penitentiary. The sentence was for inciting a riot in which a priest, who refused to admit the funeral of a Molly Maguire to a graveyard, was assaulted. “Your reverence, will you open the gate?” he had asked. “Say ye aye or nay.” His reverence said “Nay”, Hester opened the gate and his men buried their “brother” (Miner’s Weekly Journal, March 29th, 1878).
Men like Pat Hester did not live in the world of Peter and Jane, or, it being America, Dick and Jane, where all is simple and pretty and moral. In his Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America (2007), a scintillating intertwining of memoir and history, Peter Quinn quotes an interview with the novelist William Kennedy (Ironweed, Roscoe), in which he recalled the Irish machine in Albany, New York, in the mid-1900s, that is, a century after the Hibernians got moving in the hard coal fields: “… the goodness walked hand-in-hand with the evil. But it wasn’t viewed as evil. It was viewed as a way to get on in the world. Objective morality didn’t interest Albany. The Irish didn’t care about it. They understood that they had been deprived and now they were not. Now they were able to get jobs. In the previous era, when the Irish were not in power, they had not been able to get jobs. Their families were starving, and starvation for them was immorality.” Quinn himself argues of Tammany Hall, the New York machine, that “There wasn’t much room for great causes and grand ideas. Romantic Ireland never had much chance in the Hall. Tammany was about practical things: about jobs, bread, influence; about the neighbourhood kid, who needed a lawyer; about the fees paid a subcontractor …”. With slight emendation those comments might be made about the tavern-keepers cum Hibernian leaders cum elected or appointed officials of Pennsylvania, and their ocean-divided “brothers” in west Ulster and north Connacht. “Objective morality”, “grand causes” and “grand ideas” did not interest them; they were about “practical things”.
The notion that “terrorists”, as Jenkins represents the Mollies (but neither the Coal and Iron Police nor the Pinkertons who terrorised the patches), might draw tourists can be traced to the centenary of the troubles in the 1960s and 1970s. Academic and popular historians revisited the period, and the Mollies made it to the silver screen, with Sean Connery and Richard Harris starring in The Molly Maguires (1970), a big-budget production that drew heavily on Arthur H Lewis’s page-turner Lament for the Molly Maguires (1964). Both the director Martin Ritt (The Long Hot Summer, Hud, Hombre, The Great White Hope, The Spy who Came in From the Cold) and the screenwriter Walter Bernstein had been blacklisted by major studios in the Red Scare of the 1950s. They were undoubtedly well-intentioned. Unfortunately, the movie ended up being more remarkable for its costume and location, the old mine patch of Eckley, than a dramatic telling of the story that might connect with a mass audience.
And the story does not want for drama. On June 21st, 1877, in Mauch Chunk, four Irishmen, Jack Donahue, Edward Kelly, Mike Doyle, and Alec Campbell, mounted a scaffold specially constructed in the corridor of Carbon County Prison to hang the four of them at once. The mechanism malfunctioned. Watched by over a hundred spectators, it took them, respectively, six, eleven, thirteen and fifteen minutes to die. They were strangled not hanged. That same day, thirty miles away, in Pottsville, six other men died in pairs in the yard of Schuylkill County Prison. First Jim Boyle and Hugh McGeehan. Then Jim Carroll and Jim Roarty. And, finally Tom Munley and Tom Duffy. Boyle had been holding an oversize red rose, which he had sniffed as he walked to the gallows. And when the trap was sprung, the red rose fell to the ground.
So sensational were the trials that two hundred people, packed into the prison yard, watched that flower fall. And thousands of men, women and children, many of them Irish, had gathered on the city streets and on hilltops overlooking the prison. Some had come to bear witness and others just to catch a glimpse of some act or scene in the Coal Kings’ snuff morality play. In fact, for the week prior to the hangings, crowds had been standing outside a Pottsville undertaker’s shop to gape at six coffins, each bearing a placard: Thomas Duffy, 5’ 6”; Thomas Munley, 5’ 8”; James Carroll, 5’ 10”; Hugh McGeehan, 6’ 0”; James Roarty, 5’ 10”, and James Boyle, 6’ 1”. Above the coffins was a poster: “Through the generosity of Herman Raudenbush Kline, prop. The Wages of Sin is Death (Rom 6:23)”. Jim Boyle was having none of that nonsense. Standing on the scaffold, he had surveyed the spectators, spat and shouted: “I ain’t a bit sorry to die!”
Their ten men dead, the Irish of the patches sang of them. A young miner, Martin Mulhall of Shenandoah, composed ten “hanging ballads”, each set to a different tune. He had them printed as broadsides, and, riding the rods (the trusses under train carriages) from town to town, he hawked them from patch to patch. People cried, the folklorist Korson wrote, when Mulhall sang. The song for twenty-four-year-old Tom Duffy, widely regarded as innocent, paid tribute to him for not betraying others to save himself:
The rope was dropped around his neck, and the warrant to him read,
And in twenty minutes after, brave Duffy he was dead.
God rest his soul; he perished there to friends and country too,
And he kept his secrets to the last, as Irishmen should do.
Pennsylvania’s “Black Thursday” came to be seen as a dark day for American industry, but it was more immediately a tragedy for families rooted in west Donegal. At least four of the ten men hanged that day had emigrated from the district, and at least two were the sons of emigrants from it. Roarty was a native of Meencorwick, above Crolly, high in the mountains of Gweedore; his wife had no English. Carroll had been born in a mine patch in 1837 to people from Gweedore, and his wife was an O’Donnell from Meenacladdy in the same parish. Campbell, who had only come to the States in 1868, was from Dungloe in the neighbouring parish of Templecrone, which with Leitir, to the south, constitutes the Rosses. Duffy, who had been born in Donegal in 1853, was almost certainly from the Rosses too. McGeehan was most likely from Fintown/Ballinamore in the adjacent parish of Inishkeel, probably not Glenfin and definitely not Carrickfin as some historians have suggested. Finally, Jim Boyle’s surname inclines one to think that Inishkeel, Leitir or Templecrone was the parish that his parents had left; he had been born in Pennsylvania about 1852. In short, the old Irish homes of at least six of the ten men hanged that day likely lay within easy walking distance (fifteen miles) of single-street Dungloe, the closest the Rosses had come to developing anything that resembled a town. And such proximity puts the hangings into perspective. When, since the 1790s, had six people from so small a district swung from a scaffold in Ireland on a single day?
On that June day in 1877, the campaign of judicial terror had nearly two and a half years left to run. By the time it was over in late 1879, the full list of the hanged included men with connections in other parts of Ireland. Pat Tully, who had joined the Mollies in Scotland, was born in Drung, Co Cavan in 1830. Tom Munley was from Kilcommon, Co Mayo. Pat Hester, as mentioned, was from Roscommon; at fifty-three he was one of the oldest of the hanged. Edward Kelly, aged twenty-two when he was executed in 1877, was the son of immigrants from Kilkenny. And Jack Kehoe had been born in Wicklow in 1837; he had emigrated with his parents in 1850. Still, the trap had fallen most often under men whose roots were in Ardara and Glenties, the Rosses and Gweedore. At least eleven of the twenty had either been born in west Donegal or they were the sons of people who had emigrated from that district. And at least one of the other nine, Kehoe, had married into a west Donegal family.
Charlie Sharpe was one of the last of the twenty to mount the scaffold. He had been born around 1843 in Cloughboy, Loughros Point, which is almost certainly the townland in which Con Carbon’s father, Frank, was born. Sharpe’s conviction was for complicity in the murder in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, of a mine-owner who had informed on Irishmen evading the draft. By the time of his execution, in January 1879, the role of private security agencies in the prosecution of alleged Mollies, and the flagrant packing of juries were causing disquiet across the United States, and beyond the Irish community. In Sharpe’s case, the impression of gross injustice was compounded by the governor of Pennsylvania having telegraphed a stay of execution, to allow for an appeal. The telegram had arrived at the Western Union office in Mauch Chunk as Sharpe and Jim McDonnell (sometimes McConnell or O’Donnell, and nicknamed “the Hairy Man of Tuscarora”) were being prepared for execution. The operator raced up the snowy streets to the gaol, forced his way through a crowd gathered outside and furiously rang the doorbell. The sheriff said that it must be Sharpe’s wife, who had earlier left the prison distraught, and he ordered the execution to proceed. When he finally allowed the door to be opened, the now widowed Bridget (?) Sharpe tried to claw his face. The prison in uproar, a white-haired elder brother of McDonnell loudly cursed “this Pontius Pilate crew … the hounds of hell”. “It isn’t them as is the murderers”, he said, pointing to the swaying bodies, “but the murderers is about us …” “Yes,” added Sharpe’s cousin, Peter, or brother, John (reports vary); “There hangs as dacent a lad as any. He never thought of doin’ wrong, and there he is, murdered. Curses on them as did it.” A Catholic priest intervened to prevent them attacking the sheriff’s deputy.
Sharpe and “the Hairy Man” (he had shoulder-length hair and a long beard) had been given the customary opportunity to say some “last words”. Sharpe started reading a prepared statement and stopped, saying he did not have time to finish it. After confirming, with the journalist Edward M Boyle, that it would be published, he calmly readied himself for execution. Had he continued reading, the door might have been opened to the man from the Western Union. In this dying declaration, which was carried in newspapers across the United States, Sharpe protested that he was “as innocent as the babe unborn”. He was being hanged, he claimed, as he was an Irishman and a Roman Catholic. And it was said in the patches, and heard in Ardara, that on leaving his cell for the last time, he had pressed his hand on the wall and beseeched the Almighty to leave a sign of his innocence. Today, one highlight of the tour of the old prison in Jim Thorpe is seeing a “handprint” on the wall of that cell. But as is the way with apparitions, this mark has also been claimed for at least two other Mollies ‑ Alec Campbell of Dungloe, hanged in 1877, and Tom Fisher, hanged in 1878.
Fisher, like Charlie Sharpe, was born in the civil parish of Inishkeel, sections of which, as mentioned, are in the Catholic parish of Ardara. He had been brought to the United States as a twelve-year-old in 1849. Described in the press as “a man of considerable intellectual force” who had “impressed himself upon his countrymen as a more than ordinary personage”, Fisher owned the Rising Sun tavern in Summit Hill, and he was a county delegate of the AOH, that is, he represented thousands of Hibernians at state level. He was also a township tax collector, an elected position, and before his arrest he had been tipped in the press to be elected county tax collector. He was a spokesman too for miners: during the Long Strike of 1875, Fisher and a priest had met in Mauch Chunk with Charles Parrish, president of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, to press the workers’ case. Fisher, in other words, was a substantial figure in local politics. At forty-one years of age, he went to the gallows alone, the fourteenth of the twenty to die and the first not dispatched in a multiple hanging. At the scaffold, he made a dying declaration, in which he used the same expression about the babe unborn which Sharpe was to use the following year. And he repeated his alibi. On the night that he was alleged to have killed a man, he had “a few social drinks” with a fellow named Boyle and another named Breslin in Cornelius T (“CT”) McHugh’s saloon in Summit Hill and he then had a few more in the barroom of Jimmy Sweeney’s Hotel. And at no stage that night did he converse, “in English or in Irish”, with a Mulhearn or an O’Donnell or leave Summit Hill for Tamaqua. But for the place-names, Fisher might have been talking of Ardara. West Donegal was to mid-nineteenth-century Summit Hill what San José de Ocoa is to contemporary Hazleton.
James McParlan (1843-1919), a hard-drinking and hard as nails Armagh-man, was directly or indirectly responsible for the conviction and execution of the twenty men hanged as Molly Maguires in 1877-79. An employee of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which had been retained by the coal companies to infiltrate the Mollies, McParlan had arrived in Pennsylvania in late 1873. He had “gallivanted up and down the coalfields,” it was remembered years later, “drinking, dancing, gambling and fighting ‑ simulating the character of the wild dissolute fellow always in pocket, because of the ‘queer money’ [counterfeit] he was passing”. He was soon sworn into the Hibernians, and for over two years, in Irish barrooms and boarding houses, he learned their secrets. And then in 1876 he took the stand in court, and he started to tell all ‑ or rather all that was needed for packed juries to hang the men whom he had fingered.
Or should it be “framed”? McParlan’s precise role in the affair was blurred. As is often the case when police or military penetrate a semi-secret organisation, it is hard for historians to separate the undercover agent from the agent provocateur. However, in this instance, it is clear that powerful men wanted not only to detect murderers (some for offences committed over a decade earlier, which might raise suspicion), but also to undermine Irish miners’ resistance to the Coal Kings, and to punish Hibernian leaders for having the audacity of political ambition. In the gubernatorial election of 1875, some AOH masters had their lodges vote for the Republican candidate rather than the Democrat, whose party was usually favoured by the Irish. The Republican won. And in 1876 the defeated Democrat was the judge at the trials of the tavern-keepers cum AOH masters who had thrown their weight behind his opponent. Again, a number of the hanged men had held elected office or public jobs. Offices like township tax collector, supervisor, school board member and the like may seem petty but they all point to the men’s popularity and perceived ability, and, in some cases, they hint at loftier goals.
Some men hanged as Mollies were involved in labour as well as party politics. On a well-researched blog, Anne Flaherty makes a strong case that historians have underestimated the role of Hibernians in the Workers’ Benevolent Association, the union broken in the Long Strike of 1875, that is, just before the Molly trials began. Among those Hibernians identified by Flaherty as WBA officials are John J Slattery (a postmaster and candidate for associate county judge) and Yellow Jack Donahue, both of whom served as president of the union in Tuscarora; CT McHugh, president of the Summit Hill branch of the WBA; and Mike Lawler, a delegate of the WBA’s Shenandoah district. Lawler was also one of four officials who drafted “articles of arbitration” agreed at a general meeting of the Miners’ and Laborers’ Benevolent Association in 1871, an involvement also noted in the book under review (Bulik, 266). In addition, Flaherty places Hugh McGeehan, a black-listed miner turned bar-owner, at the head of four hundred miners who marched through Tamaqua in 1875, which points to him being a WBA activist, and, as noted above, she flags the involvement of Tom Fisher in negotiations on behalf of miners during the Long Strike. These men were not just ordinary Hibernians. McHugh (Summit Hill), Lawler (Shenandoah), and Donahue (Tuscarora) were body-masters. Slattery too is sometimes reported to have been a body-master; certainly, he was an office-holder. And Fisher, as a county delegate, was higher still in the organisation.
Of those six Hibernians connected by Flaherty to the WBA or, at least, to labour activism during the strike, three were hanged as Mollies within three years of its end, namely McGeehan and Donahue in 1877 and Fisher in 1878. The other three turned state’s evidence. Arrested, on information supplied by McParlan, for involvement in a murder, McHugh turned informer to avoid the rope. He was a busy politico, concerned, in Peter Quinn’s terms, with “practical things”. Besides being an AOH body-master and WBA official, he was a member of the borough school board and the school tax collector. And he was a prominent business man: in addition to his tavern, he was reported, by the New York Herald, to be a “mine boss”, presumably meaning a foreman who hired squads of workers. After the trials, “CT” left the coal fields, and lived under the name Thomas McHugh in New Jersey, where he died in 1919.
Prosecutors’ reliance on compromised men, particularly public men, like McHugh, Slattery and Lawler, to secure the capital conviction of accomplices fed disquiet about the administration of justice in the region. But it was one particular informer, Manus Coll, better known as Kelly the Bum, who really brought proceedings into disrepute. Coll was a street-singer and a barfly, a pickpocket and a low-life thug. He had held an old woman face down on a red-hot stove and bitten off a fellow’s ear in a brawl. And, by his own admission, he was a Molly and a murderer. Born in Donegal in 1842, he had arrived in the hard coal fields in 1865. He was said to be an authority on “Gaelic literature and music” and to be able to recite the Latin Mass verbatim, leading to speculation that he had been a seminarian. However, he was also said to have been illiterate, which, if true, means he was never a candidate for the priesthood. And whatever he had been in his teens in Ireland, he was a nasty piece of work in his thirties in America. “I would squeal on Jesus Christ himself to get out of here,” he had told a cellmate, when himself awaiting trial for murder. Informing saved his neck. He never stood trial for murder (to which he confessed), and he slipped out of the country after he had helped to hang several men who had been his friends. Reporting on a trial in which the Bum was the chief prosecution witness, a journalist opined that everybody in court thought him “the most despicable creature on the face of God’s fair earth”.
It was the Bum’s evidence that hanged Charlie Sharpe, and it also hanged Pat Hester. When drinking his way around the coal fields, McParlan observed that Hester’s wife and daughters clearly loathed the Bum, who hung around their bar, but they “treated him with a certain deference, plainly born of fear. There was no reasonable explanation of their manner, except that Coll knew of some crime committed by Hester, and so held him and his family in his power.” It was a hunch that enabled the Coal and Iron Police to get him to inform. After McParlan’s cover had been blown, they asked the Bum what he had told him about a murder in 1868. He had told him nothing, only hinting that he knew something, but he told all now.
Other Mollies who turned informer included twenty-year-old Frank McHugh, the son of a Mahanoy City hotelier, and a diminutive war hero, Jimmy “Powder Keg” Kerrigan, whose own wife called him “a dirty little rat” from the witness box. And, again, there was Mike Lawler, the saloon-keeper, AOH master and WBA official in Shenandoah. Nicknamed Muff, from breeding mufflers, game-cocks, he was lampooned in the patches as Muff the Squealer:
When Muff Lawler was in jail, right bad did he feel,
He thought divil the rooster would he ever heel,
“Be jabers,” says Lawler, “I think I will squeal.”
“Yes, do,” says the Judge to Muff Lawler.
It was down in the office those lawyers did meet,
“Come in, Mr Lawler”; they gave him a seat.
“Give us the whole history and don’t us deceive.”
“Be jabers, I will,” says Muff Lawler …
Lawler’s Irish roots were probably in south Leinster, far from the Molly heartlands in west Ulster and north Connacht, and he had fewer connections in the Irish communities around Shenandoah than the men he betrayed. But many other “squealers” had left the same poverty-bitten districts in the northwest of Ireland as those men whom their evidence sent to the gaol-house or the gallows. In 1961, an American professor, Wayne G Broehl of Dartmouth College, arrived in Dublin to research the Irish background of the Molly Maguires for a book he was writing. He published a letter in the Derry Journal, soliciting information on the hanged men, and he contacted Seamus Delargy of the Irish Folklore Commission. Delargy put him in contact with Seán Ó hEachaidh, a full-time folklore collector for the Commission in Donegal. Ó hEachaidh worked his network of old-timers, turning up some rich anecdotes about the doings of the Mollies in the west of the county in the 1840s and 1850s, but getting little information on what happened in Pennsylvania in the 1860s and 1870s. Except, that is, in Ardara. There, Ó hEachaidh had contacted Paddy McGill, a friend and schoolmaster with a keen interest in history and archaeology, whose own father had emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1882 but returned. Wee Paddy, so-called to distinguish him from Big Paddy McGill, another schoolmaster in the same parish, met with Broehl when he came down from Dublin. He agreed to get the visitor additional information on Charlie Sharpe, about whom he had heard stories “hundreds of times” in his youth, including the old yarn about the handprint. His efforts were not altogether successful. A few weeks later, he wrote in exasperation to Ó hEachaidh:
B’as Pointe Luachrois cinnte Charlie Sharpe. Is iomaidh uair a chuala mé na seandaoine ag caint air. Nuair a chuaigh m’athair go Pennsylvania i 1882, bhí sé i mbéal gach duine agus chonaic sé an príosún ina raibh siad sular crochadh iad. Ní bhfuair mé eolas ar bith de aon chineál ó bhí an t-ollamh úd as Méiriceá agam. Chaith mé rith tráthnóna Dhomhnaigh ar an Chloch Bhuí (Pointe Luachrois) i measc a chuid daoine muinteartha agus ní raibh faic na fríde agam ar a shon ‑ cuid acu nach gcuala iomrá riamh air. Níl sé ach fiche bliain ó fuair sean-Yankee bás ‑ Dan Dhónaill Bhig ‑ a chaith a shaol ar an dreabhlás fá Mauch Chunck, agus bhí mion-eolas aige fán chás go léir. Deireadh sé i gcónaí nach raibh Sharpe ciontach, ná mórán eile acu ach oiread.
(Charlie Sharpe was most definitely from Loughros Point. I often heard the old people talking of him. When my father went to Pennsylvania in 1882, he was a major topic of conversation and he saw the prison where [the Molly Maguires] were held before they were hanged. I got no information of any kind since that American professor was here with me. I spent all Sunday evening in Cloughboy among [Charlie Sharpe’s] relatives and I had nothing to show for it. Some of them never heard of him. It is not twenty years since an old Yankee, Dan Dhónaill Bhig (who spent his life drinking around Mauch Chunk) died, and he had detailed knowledge of the whole case. He always used to say that Sharpe wasn’t guilty, nor many of the others either.)
Master McGill signed off, promising Ó hEachaidh that he would spend another evening down the Point. And he added a postscript: Tommy Mulhearn, of Crannogbois, had told him that “the informer Mulhearn” (Charlie Mulhearn) was also from Loughros Point. Again, it is a small place, five miles long, and nowhere more than a mile wide. And Charlie Mulhearn’s evidence had helped to hang four men, including Tom Fisher, a native of either Ardara or Glenties, most probably the former, and Alec Campbell of Dungloe. There is a possibility too that at least one other hanged man, Peter McHugh, who was discovered trying to tunnel out of gaol before the date fixed for his execution, was from the same parish. Certainly, he was from Donegal, and his surname is particularly common in the parish of Ardara. Not known are the Irish roots of two American-born informers, the Mahanoy City hotelier’s son Frank McHugh, and the Summit Hill bar-owner, CT McHugh.
Published in 1964, Broehl’s book can be faulted for taking at face value the evidence of the detective and the informers. Still, it was groundbreaking in its connection of workers’ resistance in industrial America to those workers’ cultural and political backgrounds in rural Europe. It was an effort at Atlantic history. And in Irish history, it was notable for its use (even if limited) of oral sources, not least materials collected by the likes of Ó hEachaidh. There had been histories of the Mollies before Broehl’s, including Anthony Bimba’s The Molly Maguires (1932), which followed the Socialist leader Eugene Debs in hailing the hanged men as “the first martyrs of the class struggle in the United States”, and J Walter Coleman’s The Molly Maguire Riots (1936), which is more measured in its assessment, but sympathetic to the miners and marked by a healthy scepticism about the reliability of much of the evidence given against the men who were hanged.
Impressive scholarly books have appeared since Broehl’s, notably Grace Palladino’s Another Civil War: Labor, Capital, and the State in the Anthracite Regions of Pennsylvania, 1840–68 (1990), a succinct and sophisticated study of workers’ activism in Schuylkill County in the years up to and including the Civil War, and Kevin Kenny’s major monograph, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (1998), which did more than any previous work to probe the Irish origins of the Mollies (and it did so prior to the digitisation of the US census and other records which makes that probing easier) and which located the whole affair in labour history and migration studies, to which broad fields it remains a significant contribution. The Mollies also feature in Korson’s classic Minstrels of the Mine Patch, and The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise, and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields (1985), by Donald Miller and Richard Sharpless. The former is a truly remarkable recreation of the nineteenth century patches from oral sources and the latter a finely crafted social history. In those two books, the people of Paddy’s Land, Dutch Hollow, Little Italy, Hunky Hill and Polack Street come alive. Here, you taste the coal dust. And in Face of Decline (2005), by Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht, and When the Mines Closed (1998), by Dublin and George Harvan, you hear the black lung wheeze of a dying way of life.
Mark Bulik’s The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America’s First Labor War (2015) is a work of considerable scholarship, which carefully unpicks the tightly braided strands of ethnic, labour and party politics in the mid-nineteenth-century coal fields, especially the West Branch section of Schuylkill County. Drawing on extensive research, he illuminates the competition between the Irish and other immigrant groups, and, most interestingly, the regional, class and generational tensions within the Irish community itself. For instance, Kilkenny people, who came professing prior experience of hard-coal mining, did not get along with the “Far Downs” (northerners) and “Connacht men”, and they were less inclined to resist the draft. Hibernianism is Bulik’s central concern, however, and, from the emergence of the neo-Ribbon organisation in Pottsville in the 1830s, he shows the lodges to have been multi-functional bodies, active in local politics and labour organisation. Schuylkill County’s leading Hibernians were the preferred representatives of Irish miners during a strike in 1842 and, in that decade, those same men were also Democratic party activists, some of whom were elected to public office. Bulik provides a most engaging account of the violent secession, in 1848, of the heavily Irish northern section of Branch Township to form the new Cass Township (named after a Democratic politician), and of the opportunities which secession created for bar-owning immigrants, who were “swiftly elected to positions like constable, auditor and school board member”. The Irish were gerrymandering themselves: the Irish population of the new township in 1850 has been estimated at 65 per cent, and in 1852 the Democrats secured 66 per cent of the votes cast in Cass.
In the decade after the Great Famine, when there was an influx of Irish immigrants, high unemployment in the patches and a need for a response to nativist aggression, Bulik discerns “rougher”, more northern and western elements, gaining control of Hibernian societies; it was in these years that the name Molly Maguire (although noted in the region in the late 1840s) started to grab attention. Bulik sees the Union Benevolent Society (UBS), a shadowy labour organisation that used selective strikes (and violence and intimidation) to wrest concessions for workers during the Civil War, as an “outgrowth” of the Hibernian Benevolent Society, the name then preferred by Hibernians in the hard coal fields. Here, he makes a strong case, given the available evidence, that those violent wartime labour disputes in the West Branch were the political baptism of several Hibernians who figured prominently in the Molly Maguire trials, among them the informer Muff Lawler and the hanged Pat Hester and Pat Tully, all three of whom later moved over Broad Mountain into “the middle coalfields”, which were the scene of some key incidents in the last wave of trouble in the 1870s.
In contrast to the wartime Union Benevolent Society, the next effort at unionisation, in the late 1860s and early to mid-1870s, was not an “outgrowth” of Hibernianism, Bulik argues, but an alternative to it. In the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, established in 1868, he sees young men “turning their back on the Molly Maguires and the peasant mind-set and lifestyle that produced them”:
… the WBA opened new cultural horizons for young second generation Irish Americans, whose perspectives were no longer limited, by the dark, lowering clouds of Irish history. Their language was English, not Irish. Their music was the regimen of a band, not a freewheeling fiddle. Their hero was not a mythical Irishwoman, but a very real neighbor, John Welsh, a Civil War veteran who had taken a leading role in the union, which saw as one of its prime responsibilities the elevation of the miners’ intellectual life.
In this section, he contends that the migration of militants out of the West Branch to the booming middle and northern fields and the eastern tip of the lower coal fields ‑ places like Coaldale and Summit Hill, Wilkes-Barre, Girardville, Mahanoy City and Big Mine Run ‑ allowed the emergence of a “union for mine workers of all nationalities that was firmly dedicated to the redress of grievances through collective bargaining, not coffin notices and gunfire”. In place of the barroom, there was now a WBA-associated literary society, where members might “improve” themselves through reading, recitation and debate. Having been settled earlier than the northern fields, he argues, the West Branch workforce had “matured and assimilated”, and its Irish miners had come to learn that “something more than Ribbon muscle was needed‑ namely, a multiethnic centralised union powerful enough to confront the operators at the negotiating table and in the legislature”. In contrast, the patches north of Broad Mountain had been getting a “fresh infusion” of Irish-speaking immigrants from west Ulster and north Connacht. There, in the northern coalfields, he argues, “the community’s experience in labor relations was as shallow as the new mine shafts”.
All of this makes for an intriguing argument, and it would be an easier argument for a reader to follow if a decent map had been included in this otherwise well-produced book. A small detail of an 1866 map is of little help in trying to follow the social and political shifts that Bulik delineates. Although there is doubtless something to Bulik’s argument, one wonders if he does not draw too sharp a dichotomy between the “Ribbon-influenced local labor committees of the Civil War” and the “modern type of labor union that the WBA constituted in 1868-69”, that is, four years later, and, more especially, between the “matured and assimilated” people south of Broad Mountain and those wild men north of it. Again, if Flaherty is correct, the AOH and WBA had many of the same men in their middle management. Indeed, Bulik himself shows another prominent Hibernian, Thomas Mohan (who had roots in the Ribbon territory of Fermanagh), as secretary of Schuylkill County WBA, in 1874, and there must have been considerable dual membership among ordinary miners. Moreover, many miners in the northern fields had, like Condy Breslin, migrated out of the southern towns and patches, and it is not clear that the WBA was any less entrenched in Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre and Summit Hill than in Pottsville. Perhaps it is best to conceive some Irish miners of the late 1860s and early 1870s as trying a new organisational form and strategy to improve their lot, when they got involved in organising the WBA, while being prepared, in a late twentieth century Irish phrase, to “go back to what we know best” if the new approach did not deliver. And if people from northern and western counties in Ireland were drawn to the northern coal fields in significantly greater numbers than the southern ones in the decades after the Famine, as Bulik intimates, then they were arriving with knowledge of an organisation which, if its methods were rough, had proven itself capable of delivering “practical things”. From the mid-1840s through the mid-1850s, in particular, Molly Maguire had convinced agents and bailiffs to reconsider evicting tenants and impressed on forestallers the wisdom of releasing food onto market; “she” had encouraged meal-mongers to reduce their prices and discouraged land-grabbers from taking land to which others were considered more entitled. And, while not with the same ease as in America, Molly had continued to get men work, not least through the lodge masters’ success in securing road-contracts from the grand jury. It was not that people were locked into a “tradition” of mindless violence; the lodges sometimes delivered, and sometimes there was no alternative to their methods.
Violence was not only “peasant” or pre-modern. There were no “Marquis of Queensbury rules” in early industrial America. A readiness to resort to violence and intimidation, against the violent and intimidatory Coal and Iron Police, is not proof of being wedded to a “peasant mind-set”, or somehow lacking class consciousness. Communists fought fascists on the streets of European cities. Nor indeed was the Irish language an obstacle to achieving class consciousness, not least as most immigrants were by then bilingual. If the epitaph that Charles Breslin composed for his father, Condy, in 1880 was “such as his father might have chosen”, then the bilingual immigrant, whose first language was Irish, understood himself to be “the Coal King’s slave” working underground “against my will”. That is a fair enough start when it comes to class consciousness in the northern coalfields, and the quatrain is one which the WBA-associated literary society may have appreciated. Conversely, the entire region was riven by ethnic rivalries. Twenty-five years after the collapse of the WBA, the signature song of Condy Breslin’s grandson, Con Carbon, when he performed on United Mine Workers’ platforms, in both northern and southern coalfields, was Me Johnny Mitchell Man, applauding the “the Slavs” for standing with the union in the strikes of 1900 and 1902:
Now you know Joe Silovatsky ‑
Dat man my brudder.
Last night him come fer my shanty:
“John I’m come un tell you fer,
I’m tell you fer tomorra
Evenink dark night;
Lotsa miners all, beg un schmall,
Gonna have a shtrike.
Dunt be schabby fella, John,
Dat’s am tell you right.”
I’m say, “No sir, Joe, Come out on shtrike,
Me Johnny Mitchell Man.”
Vell, I dunt ’fraid fer nottink,
Dat’s me nevair schare,
Comin’ shtrike tomorra night?
Dat’s de bizness, I dunt care.
Righta here I’m tella you,
Me no schabby fella,
Me good union citizen,
Me Johnny Mitchell Man.
Johnny Mitchell used to turn to Carbon and say, “Give us a song, Con.” And that is what Con would sing. It is the humour of a different time, and, notwithstanding the song’s “muliti-ethnic” class politics (“dat man my brudder”), its condescension should caution against gauging class consciousness by the policies and pronouncements of a union leadership, particularly in the 1860s and 1870s in a place where crippling ethnic rivalries were to persist into the mid-twentieth century. In the city of Hazleton, the “Micks” of Donegal Hill and the “Dagos” of Nannygoat Hill battered the daylights out of each other at hops and balls, until their energy was finally funnelled into Catholic Youth Organisation basketball. There, on the maple court, the great rivalry was between the city’s Irish and Italian parishes. “So much for all that ‘Brothers and Sisters in Christ’ stuff,” reflected John Quigley, mayor of Hazleton in 1988-95, in a vigorous Op Ed piece in 1999, remembering the debilitating effect of ethnic rivalries in his youth, as he observed the first shoots of anti-Latino sentiment. In fairness to Bulik, he pulls back from the sharp dichotomy he initially draws, but for this reader the characterisation of Irish-speaking immigrants as tradition-mired peasants, their horizons limited by “by the dark, lowering clouds of Irish history”, remains problematic. After all, the likes of Condy Breslin were prepared to try the ideas and modes of action advocated by the WBA, and, again, Hugh McGeehan, the blacklisted miner, Hibernian, (non-drinking) tavern-keeper and convicted murderer hanged in 1877, had led four hundred striking miners through Tamaqua in 1875. That Molly Maguire was a union man.
Ultimately, as the WBA collapsed in 1875, there was a resurgence in “Molly” violence, but by then the Pinkertons had been hired by Franklin B Gowen, the most powerful of the Coal Kings, and Jim McKenna (the identity assumed by McParlan) had been “treating” people in Hibernian barrooms for the best part of two years. Bulik clearly inclines to the view, pressed by Broehl, Kenny and Ritt and Bernstein’s film, that the detective was an agent provocateur, at the very least “an agent of change”. Within months of his arrival in the coal fields, longstanding Hibernian leaders who, Bulik argues, had “kept the lid on violence” were removed from key positions, and replaced by harder men. It was a process in which McParlan played a role, and one which, whether intended by him or not, contributed to a more aggressive approach. In this regard, Bulik approvingly quotes a ballad eulogising McGeehan in which McParlan is represented as having caused trouble:
He came among these people, in a very quiet time,
He was the foremost plotter of that atrocious crime,
He should be tried for murder, condemned he ought to be,
And along with his poor victims, die on the gallows tree.
Students of the events that led to McParlan’s “victims” dying on the gallows tree disagree on a number of issues. One of the more distracting disputes turns on the notion that there were no Molly Maguires, that is, that Molly was just a “myth”, a phantom raised by the Coal Kings to do down opposition. That argument is reminiscent of one made about the Ribbon Society in Ireland. In the 1980s, the historian AC Murray argued, on a very narrow reading of very limited evidence from Westmeath, that the Ribbon Society was a “myth”: “… the terms Ribbonism, Ribbonman and Ribbon Society were labels affixed by the police and magistrates to crimes which they could not solve, criminals they could not catch, and gangs they could not break up. The phenomenon of Ribbonism, as defined by the authorities, was an illusion created by their failure to maintain law and order in the countryside.” One problem with that argument is that some men, not all of whom were informers, confessed to being Ribbonmen. For instance, in 1857-58, over two dozen west Donegal men admitted in open court to being members of the Ribbon Society, for which the name Molly Maguires was used interchangeably, as part of a plea deal. (Among them, incidentally, was Edward Kennedy, who was schoolmaster in Crannogbois, Loughros Point, in the early 1850s; it is the school which served Cloughboy, where Charlie Sharpe was born around 1843.) Similarly, those who would argue that Molly was a “myth” in Pennsylvania must contend not only with informers’ statements, but also with the affidavits and statements of condemned men, notably Cavan-man Pat Tully, who, after his sentencing, admitted to having joined the Mollies in Scotland and rejoined in Pennsylvania, and, in large measure, he corroborated the testimony of the Bum. Proponents of the myth argument must also deal, inter alia, with the oral material, collected in mining communities, in which the existence of the Mollies was accepted. Songs applauding the Mollies, sung by those who knew that of which they sang, were not the products of a plot. Of course, the larger argument that the Coal Kings used “Molly Maguire” as a stick to beat their opponents need not be thrown out. Likewise, the argument that the trials were unfair is compelling. In any event, on the view of McParlan as something other than a Donnie Brasco (good cop) figure, there is now a strengthening consensus, and Mark Bulik’s book is an important contribution to it.
One doubts today’s Pinkertons will take note of that consensus. But it is not so long since they would have. The Pinkerton Detective Agency, which was acquired by Securitas in 2003, maintained a long interest in the case that made its name. In the late 1960s, when Martin Ritt was working on his movie, their lawyers wrote to Paramount demanding to see the screenplay before it went into production. Ritt “held his nose” and handed over the script. The lawyers were “pleased that the script did not contain any material which would be objectionable to our client”, but, concerned that “the photography follow the screenplay in all respects”, demanded to see the final cut before its release. Under pressure from the studio, Ritt exhausted his store of expletives, which was said to be extensive, and arranged for a special screening for the Pinkertons’ lawyers. They approved the movie. Only the naive will echo the befuddled Mayoman’s reaction to the drabness of coal country: “And you mean to tell me … Do you mean to tell me that this is America?”
If The Sons of Molly Maguire is essentially a political history of forty years of ethnic, party and labour activism in the West Branch section of the anthracite region, Bulik follows Korson, Broehl, Kenny and Miller and Sharpless into the cultural world of the Irish people who wrought there. Here, the great novelty of the book is his connecting of the modi operandi of Irish “secret societies” with mummers’ plays, that is, the sketches performed by fantastically attired men who, in different parts of Ireland, went from house to house at Christmas, St Stephen’s Day and New Year, St Brigid’s Day, May Day, Mid-Summer’s Night and Halloween. Bulik is insightful and suggestive in discussing the plays, the meaning of straw costumes, white shirts, and men masquerading as women. The possibility of real as opposed to symbolic violence aside, the party of armed men, sometimes led by “Molly Maguire”, who arrived at night at the home of an opponent clearly do bear comparison with those fantastically costumed parties, often involving cross-dressing men, who came mumming. On one level, as he argues, the mummers and the Mollies were reinforcing communal norms and expectations. And yet the hard man dressed as a widow conveyed menace never conjured by “Here comes [sic] I Jack Straw, / such a man you never saw”. Bursting into a dark house in the dead of night, “Molly Maguire” upturned all social and sexual hierarchies. “Her” very appearance cried havoc.
Historians have long been aware of the points of contact between the rituals of groups such as mummers and those of more overtly political “secret societies”. And so too were contemporary commentators. Writing in the Dublin University Magazine in 1850, William Wilde (1815-76), in a passage quoted by Bulik, used those connections to downplay, not very convincingly, the political sophistication of Roscommon Ribbonmen:
It really was a sort of melodramatic exhibition. Those who wore cut paper round their hat, as wren-boys, when they grew up to be young men decorated themselves with ribbons and white shirts to act as May-boys and, as Mummers, painted their faces white and went through the Christmas pantomime with old rusty swords. These were the mechanists, stage-managers, wardrobe-keepers, dressers, scene-shifters and “property” manufacturers of the Roscommon Ribbonmen. There was a frolic and a spirit of free enterprise and adventure in meeting with an old gun or a yeoman’s rusty halbert, of a November night, and marching, by moonlight, to the sound of the fiddle or bagpipes, though what end was to be obtained thereby, the great majority of them neither knew nor cared.
However, Bulik’s discussion of mumming’s relationship to popular political activity is the most wide-ranging to date, for either Ireland or America. It should encourage others to look again at both the symbolic aspects of Ribbonism and the social and political function of mumming. Certainly, Bulik has helped me to understand why at 11.00 pm on March 2nd, 1852, when a party of forty armed men wearing shirts over their clothes, and led by a man in a blue frock or cloak, with a muffler about his ears, marched through Doohary, a hamlet in the mountains north of Glenties, a man named John Molloy, standing in his doorway, should have asked, “Are you mummers?” Molloy received no answer. The men whom he took for mummers were about to pay an unannounced midnight visit to water bailiffs in remote Lough Barra. There, bursting into a number of houses, they confiscated weapons and ammunition. They spoke only one word in one of the houses, and it was a word that the man who heard it, could or would not repeat. It was five days before the constabulary picked up a rumour of what had happened.
In a book distinguished by carefully considered arguments, there are some flashes of hyperbole. When Bulik writes that “In Schuylkill county, company houses, company stores, company police, and company spies created a state as totalitarian as any this nation has known”, one cannot but think of the slave plantations and Jim Crow laws down South and the Indian reservations out west. But those flashes are few, and Bulik resists (much better than I could ever manage) the seductive melodrama that has suffused accounts of the Mollies since newsprint first described the condemned men’s last meals and their quips to undertakers, their partings with their wives and children, and their bodies twitching on the gallows. And he also avoids letting the history of the Mollies become a detective’s story, that is, retelling Jim McParlan’s accounts of his own derring-do. Throughout, he writes crisply, with sympathy for the daily struggles of the working people of the mid-nineteenth-century coalfields. His most engaging book is back-lit by a poignant memoir of his great-uncle, Pat Lynch (b 1896), who used to sing about the Phoenix Park Colliery:
There’s “Snipey” Dormer, the breaker boss,
A snip of a man, they say;
He wants you to work as hard as a mule,
For ninety cents a day.
Lynch, Bulik observes, knew all about conditions in that colliery. He worked there himself in the early twentieth century, and before that, in December 1896, his older brother, Pete, had died in it, aged thirteen, when he had slipped and fallen on the breaker. He was impaled on a stalagmite of ice. Pat Lynch would have been seven months at the time. “They tell me,” he said in 1958, “I was the last one he touched before going to work.”
One wishes that Bulik had devoted greater attention to that generation, that is, to the literal sons (and grandsons) of Molly Maguire, the men who saw employment in the mines crest and collapse in the twentieth century. His tantalisingly short sketch of the career of the union boss John Morris (1926-2002) might have been extended to become an epilogue. Morris’s grandfather, also John, whose people were emigrants from Mayo, did seven years for involvement in a Molly Maguire conspiracy to murder. According to some accounts, after his release, half-blind, in the 1880s, he got himself elected a judge. The grandson and namesake of that convicted Molly moved into Philadelphia in the 1940s, where for over forty years he was the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 115. In a period when the ethical standards of some labour leaders and big city Democratic politicos were not far above those of Wall Street, the FBI learned from wiretaps on the Mafia that Morris was incorruptible. The Mob, one assumes, would know. “Mr Clean” took a keen interest in his ancestral homeland. His Teamsters drove trucks bearing signs that read “Remember the Irish Hunger Strikers” and “United Ireland” in Philadelphia’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and in 1992, he stymied the ambition of Charles Dougherty, a congressional candidate who dared to call the Provies a “terrorist organization”. Towards the end of his career, he got himself into a spot of bother for allegedly inciting an assault by Teamsters on a couple protesting against Bill Clinton in 1998, and then again the following year when he was found to be stockpiling weapons to prevent the takeover of his local by James P Hoffa, Jr, the general president of the Teamsters. Time magazine was close to the mark when it dubbed him “The Last of the Molly Maguires”.
The Sons of Molly Maguire is a milestone study of the Irish in the hard coal fields, and it should be a signpost too for other researchers. Geographers, prepared to do a bit of work on surnames, could use US census records, which have now been digitised, to map with great precision the changing distribution of various ethnic groups (and not simply the “native” and “foreign-born”) in the five counties of the anthracite region. Indeed, using surnames, the changing distribution of people from different parts of Ireland might be more clearly delineated, and those shifts and changes should deepen understanding of the patterns of social and political unrest discerned by Bulik. More particularly, Bulik’s discussion of mumming should focus attention on the cultural history of the region. In the Archives of the National University of Ireland Galway, Dr Deirdre Ní Chonghaile has discovered a vast collection of songs, mainly in Irish, transcribed from men and women in the mine patches from the 1880s down to the 1920s. This hitherto ignored and still to be indexed collection, comprising over a thousand songs, includes basic biographical details (place of birth, residence and so on) of singers from Derry and Donegal, Monaghan and Mayo, and all places in between. An interdisciplinary research project on these singers and their songs might constitute a portal through which issues of migration and proletarianisation in early industrial America can be explored. Given the number of women among the singers, such a project might allow a significant gender dimension to be incorporated into the history of the hard coal fields. As stands, a female figure (Molly Maguire) looms large in the history of northeastern Pennsylvania, but we know more about cross-dressing Irishmen (mummers) in the region than we do about its women.
After irony, there comes a paradox. The great strength of The Sons of Molly Maguire is its illumination of Irish cultural and political forms that persisted in Pennsylvania, but the traffic was not necessarily only one way. Again, the Ribbon Society had no presence in west Donegal before the mid-1840s, only establishing itself around Ardara, Glenties and Dungloe from winter 1844-45, by which stage the Ancient Order of Hibernians was well-organised in the patches. In those years, before the establishment of the Fenians in 1858, few emigrants are likely to have returned as self-conscious agents of sedition. But even in the 1840s, people did return and all who returned came home with firsthand experience of a society with an extraordinary level of political participation, that is, a broad male franchise for federal (presidential and congressional), state, county, city and township elections, and, more particularly, a place where politicians courted tavern-keepers, contractors and other influential figures in the Irish community. For all returned emigrants, but particularly those who had done well in America, re-entry into a colonial society ‑ where, other than the new boards of guardians, there was not even a pretence that petty policy bore any relationship to majority will ‑ would have been a cold experience. That experience was made colder still by the ubiquity of the constabulary and the authorities’ regular restriction of civil liberties when faced with civil unrest.
Of course, Condy Breslin and the Coal Kings’ other “slaves” had no illusions about the hard coal fields being a land of liberty. Bulik quotes a Pennsylvania state senator, Jacob Krebs, comparing the coal companies to “Irish absentee landlords”. Krebs made that comparison in the 1830s, when the anthracite industry was in its infancy. And half a century later, in 1886, Bulik finds the same comparison made by the social reformer Henry George:
Like other things in Pennsylvania, the Coal and Iron Police are suggestive of Ireland to any one who has seen that unfortunate country while landlordism was yet in strength. Their functions on the coal estates are a combination of those performed for the Irish landlords by the “rent warner,” the “process-server,” the “emergency man,” and the Royal Irish Constabulary. They are the spies, informers, collectors, writ-servers, and guards of their employers, licensed always to carry arms and make arrests. Measured by the miner’s standard they get an easy living and high pay, and there is no inherent improbability in what the miners say—that the officiousness of these policemen is the cause of much of the trouble between employers and employed, since it is the natural disposition of every such body of men to furnish reasons for their own existence.
But democratisation was much further advanced in the United States than in that bit of the United Kingdom that was Ireland. As Bulik himself shows, the Irish early glimpsed the potential for electoral politics to improve their lot in the coal fields, and, again, they were getting their men elected from the 1840s, and getting the system to deliver “practical things”.
A hypothesis suggests itself: the very society that rejuvenated itself in Ireland in the mid-1840s (a decade after Ribbonmen had come out of the backrooms and into the light, as Hibernians, in Pennsylvania) and that extended itself into virgin territory, like west Donegal, may itself have been an American parcel. In other words, if the Molly Maguires of northeastern Pennsylvania have been conventionally understood to have imported Irish organisational forms and modes of action, it is still possible to regard the Ribbonmen who reorganised in Ireland from the mid-1840s and who, from the mid-1850s, became something of a Tammany Hall in waiting, as having been shaped by the sister organisation on the far side of the Atlantic.
Here, at the intersection of return migration, the rise of Hibernianism in America and the emergence of the Molly Maguires in west Donegal, one family stands out. In 1857, Denis Holland, a Belfast-based journalist, toured north and west Donegal, investigating the landlord and state response to a Molly-initiated campaign against Scottish and English sheep-farmers who had leased mountain pasture formerly grazed by smallholders’ stock. John Doherty, parish priest of Gweedore and an associate of known Ribbon leaders, brought him out to Meenacladdy. There, they chatted with one of the “wretched peasants”, a man named “Mihil” (Mícheál), who had a wife and “three or four” children to support. “This man when describing the misery of himself and his fellows, amid the desolation of the mountain waste,” Holland wrote, “uttered some exclamations in Irish that sounded like oaths.” Affecting to have thought “that nothing like an imprecation ever escaped the lips of these simple peasants”, the journalist remarked on the man swearing to the priest. Doherty smiled, and said, “I am afraid Mihil learned to curse a little in America”.
“Mihil” was Mícheál Airt Ó Domhnaill (Michael, son of Art O’Donnell), and, as Dónall P Ó Baoill established thirty years ago in a fine study, he was no “wretched peasant”. He had left Meenacladdy for America in 1844, and he had been doing “tolerably well”. However, he told Holland, “the immorality and infidelity they had seen around them—and the spectacle of many ignorant and neglected Irish falling away, amid the temptations of vice, from religion and virtue—had frightened him and his poor wife; and they resolved to make every sacrifice and hurry back to Ireland, with all its miseries again, ‘for fear the childre [sic] would lose the religion’.” Arriving home in 1852-53, he again had taken a holding in Meenacladdy, where he now opened a public house, that is, the trade which he had pursued in America, and, as evident from Holland’s comments, he spoke his mind.
The wider family was political too. In the 1870s, in Wiggan’s Patch, Pennsylvania, Mícheál Airt’s nephews were Hibernians, and they were central figures in the Molly Maguire troubles, being suspected of involvement in the assassination of mine officials. Indeed, their brother-in-law was Jack Kehoe, dubbed “the King of the Mollies” by the press, who was hanged in 1878 for the murder in 1862 of a mine foreman. But before that, in the early hours of December 10th, 1875, one of Mícheál Airt’s nephews, Charles O’Donnell, and a niece, Ellen, were shot and killed in Wiggan’s Patch, when a party of armed men, understood to have been working for the coal company, raided their house. It was thought the raiders were looking for Mícheál Airt’s own son, Pádaí (aka Pat) O’Donnell (1835-83), a reputed hitman, whose arrival in town a few days earlier had caught the attention of McParlan and the Pinkertons. But Pádaí had already skipped town. Eight years later, in 1883, the man that disappeared into a dark December night in the hard coal fields came to international attention when, on a ship off the coast of Africa, he identified, shot and killed James Carey, an informer whose evidence had just hanged five men for the sensational assassination of the chief secretary and undersecretary in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Carey had been given an alias by government, and was being relocated to Australia, when O’Donnell struck. Convicted of murder, he was hanged at Newgate. It was over a generation since his father, home from the mine patches, had looked around Meenacladdy, thought about state and society, and raged against the injustice of it all.
The troubles that occasioned Denis Holland’s visit to Gweedore and encounter with Mícheál Airt were sensational. Near two thousand sheep belonging to Scottish and English graziers were reported stolen from December 1856 to January 1861, and widely publicised allegations that fines levied on the community to compensate the sheep-men and pay for additional police had reduced the district to “destitution” occasioned an international relief effort and an investigation by a parliamentary select committee. But the entire affair was clouded by fraud and exaggeration. The sheep-men submitted inflated returns of animals stolen, and community leaders, at least initially, exaggerated the privations suffered by the people of Gweedore. More importantly, those troubles were something of an aftershock. The wave of Molly violence that began in west Donegal during the Famine had crested by the mid-1850s. Now, things were settling down, as the practical men who dominated the lodges saw opportunities, opened by the Famine, coming into view. Moderates restrained militants, and emigration (much of it to Pennsylvania) drew off the discontented. Attacks on persons and property subsided. The Ribbon masters, many of whom were publicans, got substantial crumbs, in the form of road contracts, from the grand jury table, and they were involved in the illicit poitín trade. Some dabbled in electoral politics, throwing their weight behind candidates in poor law union elections, and others got appointed to petty public offices, like rate collector. But compared to America, there were few such openings.
Every now and again, Ribbonmen did step out of the shadows to administer a bit of rough justice. Notably, in 1878, the long anticipated and, many thought, long overdue assassination of the third earl of Leitrim was the work of a Ribbonman (Michael Heraghty) and two Fenians (Neil Sheils and Michael McIlwee) from Fanad. And the old networks may have provided some matériel and savoir faire during the land agitation of the 1880s in Gweedore and Cloughaneely. But the society had been marching towards respectability since the mid-1850s, eventually rebranding as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, that is, taking a name first heard in America. In the early 1900s, AOH lodges became the de facto branch network of the Irish Parliamentary Party. They were important now to the merchants and farmers to whom the Local Government Act of 1898 offered the prospect of seats on the county council. Not all priests approved of the AOH, but in districts where it had a clerical seal of approval, it seemed part confraternity and part political machine. The Hibs’ rhetoric, like that of Mícheál Airt in 1857, was of “faith and fatherland”, their banners depicted saints and priests, and they marched on St Patrick’s Day and Assumption Day. Remembering his upbringing in south Derry, Seamus Heaney caught something of the tone in “Station Island”, which Bulik quotes:
“The angry role was never my vocation”,
I said. “I come from County Derry,
where the last marching bands of Ribbonmen
on Patrick’s Day still played their ‘Hymn to Mary’.
Obedient strains like theirs tuned me first
and not that harp of unforgiving iron
the Fenians strung …”
By Heaney’s youth, in the 1940s and 1950s, the crowds at Hibernian marches had been a long time thinning. Even in the nineteenth century, there had always been people who preferred the harp of unforgiving iron to Hymn to Mary. And with the Ribbonmen becoming ever more “obedient” from the 1850s, republicans quietly gained strength. In the hard coal fields too, Clan na Gael, which offered an Ireland-focused alternative to the local politicking of the Hibernian tavern-keepers, and a republican alternative to their faith and fatherland rhetoric, became a considerable force in the 1870s and 1880s. Still, the Clan’s leaders were not uninterested in party and labour politics. Terrence Powderly was the Clan’s treasurer in the region. He was mayor of Scranton (1878-84) and the national head (1879-93) of the Knights of Labor, the organisation that rose from the ashes of the WBA. Appointed US Commissioner General of Immigration by President McKinley, he held that post for five years (1897-02) and he was later Chief Information Officer for the US Bureau of Immigration (1907-21).
In Ireland, rumblings against the cronyism and social conservatism of the Party-Hib axis grew louder in the first decade of the twentieth century. James MacFadden, the “patriot priest of Gweedore” in the 1880s, was an enthusiastic Hibernian in Glenties in the early 1900s. In 1902, over “600 rate-payers of the mountain districts” gathered in the town to protest against a water scheme that would serve only the most advantaged section of the parish (and MacFadden’s ornate flush toilet, now a museum piece and worth seeing), but for which people in outlying districts would pay increased rates. (Was it Ireland’s first protest against water charges?) Hugh MacDevitt, a local merchant, Party-man, and justice of the peace, tried to mollify the protesters by mentioning their priest’s “revered name”. The crowd “groaned”. Little over a decade later, in the tectonic shift that followed the 1916 Rising, large numbers abandoned the lodges and their half-a-loaf of Home Rule for republican separatism. In west Donegal, disputes over access to halls and marching bands’ instruments punctuated the years between the Rising and the Tan War. Heads were cracked over whether people would march to God Save Ireland or Hymn to Mary, and as early as December 1918 Anthony Herron of Lacklea died from a gunshot wound inflicted in a fracas between Republicans and Hibernians after an election rally in Glenties. The Civil War proper saw the Hibs side with the Free State, and in 1923, republicans had no compunction about torching the family home of Archbishop (later Cardinal) Patrick O’Donnell at Kilraine, outside Glenties, when he failed to prevent the execution of three IRA men in Drumboe. O’Donnell’s elderly brother, Dan, removed from the house by the IRA before they set the place ablaze, died a few months later, allegedly from the effects of exposure.
Friction between the conservative Hibs and left-leaning republicans continued to spark through the 1920s, flaring in the 1930s, when the AOH became indistinguishable from the Blueshirts, a group labelled “imitation Nazis” in an old ballad celebrating Gweedore IRA men trouncing their rivals in a much ballyhooed encounter in Cloughaneely. In that decade, collectors from the Irish Folklore Commission were calling at houses across west Donegal and, in the glow of Tilley lamps and turf fires, recording songs and stories. It was part of a national effort, unprecedented in ambition, to document the oral culture of what was perceived to be a traditional agrarian society on the eve of its demise. Old men now chortled over what their fathers and grandfathers had done in the mid-nineteenth century. So too did some younger men. In 1936 Johnny Timoney of Mín an tSamhaidh, an isolated mountain townland in the hills above Lough Finn, told the IFC collector Liam Mac Meanman of hearing from his father how a man named Kennedy from near Narin, in the parish of Ardara, had informed on a poitín-maker named Porter resulting in a hefty fine and the destruction of a still. Porter was a Protestant, but he employed Catholics to work the still and to distribute the poitín, and they had lost their jobs. Kennedy used to cart goods to Derry market, and once when he was carrying a load of butter out Bealach na gCreach, the lonely mountain road from Glenties to Ballybofey, the Mollies came on him. They killed his horse, smashed his cart, and carried off his botannaí (“butts”: firkins, wooden containers) of butter. “Tá mé ag fágáilt”, finished Timoney, “gur h-itheadh mórán don im a bhí ann an-chómgharach thart fá na dorsacha againn.” (I make out that much of the butter was eaten very close to our doors.)
But another, more ambivalent, note was often struck, namely, that the Mollies somehow “went bad” or went too far or that violence became an end in itself. Séamas Mac Amhlaoidh (b 1879) was one of the old people interviewed by Seán Ó hEachaidh in winter 1961 when he was trying to dredge up material for Wayne G Broehl. Born in Mín an Lineacháin in the mountains north of Glenties, Mac Amhlaoidh made a striking analogy between the Mollies’ activities in Donegal and internecine bloodletting that year in the Congo: “… the good and bad was in this society. They didn’t want anybody to be taking advantage of the poor by overcharging. Even some of the shopkeepers were afraid of them and they daren’t charge a penny over the market price … For all these reasons, at the start a whole lot of people had a certain amount of respect for them. In the end they became cruel and they did things like what is going on in Africa today …”
The ambivalence in this instance may have owed something to the collector and his respondent being politically conservative and not approving of “men of violence”. But there was a wider ambivalence, and its roots lie in the mid-1850s, when hard men became somewhat more respectable, and restrained more militant figures, that is, to a time when a leadership decided that what had been done was not to be disavowed but ideally not to be done again. Ambivalence is ever the end of outrage.
An ambivalent note was struck too in the Irish communities of the hard coal fields. The vast majority of the Irish there were poor working people in the 1870s, and long after. But even before the Civil War, Irish shopkeepers, tradesmen and tavern-keepers had been getting their sons to college and into the professions. Some of these people had no truck with the shanty Irish of the patches. Some, indeed, like Edward Mulhearn, the Mauch Chunk lawyer who defended the Mollies, followed the party of Lincoln. The Church, meanwhile, condemned the Mollies (and the AOH), and the AOH stood down its lodges in Carbon, Columbia, Northumberland, and Schuylkill counties, but not, for some reason, Luzerne, in the northern coalfields. Thereafter, Hibernian apologists sought to write the Mollies out of their history. And down the years, among those people who did remember them, there has been a tendency to insist on the innocence of some hanged men. Dan Dhónaill Bhig, the “sean-Yankee” who retired to Ardara in the early twentieth century after years ar an drabhlás around Mauch Chunk, may well have been right when he told Master McGill that Charlie Sharpe was “not guilty, nor many of the others too”. But one wonders if that insistence on innocence, as distinct from the unfair nature of the trials or the Coal Kings’ determination to break all opposition, belies a difficulty with accepting that decent people sometimes find it necessary to do terrible things.
Interestingly, Martin Ritt attributed the poor box office receipts of his flawed masterpiece to audiences being unable to decide whether Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery) or Jim McParlan (Richard Harris) was the hero. “They should have understood,” he said, “that Kehoe, who was a murderer, was the hero of the film.” Blaming the audience (or Harris, for having more warmth than Connery) is a bit like cursing the darkness. In another interview, the director came close to acknowledging that he had failed to appreciate the extent to which attitudes to snitching had changed:
I wanted to show that the villain in the film was the informer, a man who wormed his way into the graces of his fellow workers and then turned them in. To me that is a villainous act. And in the American tradition, an informer is a villainous person, although those ethics have been somewhat undermined by the hysteria of the communist scare.
And he might have added too, that, in 1970, Middle America was in no mood for understanding a figure like Kehoe, who was at odds with the establishment, let alone accepting him as a hero; it was not interested in what Bobby Kennedy, in 1967, called the “rationale of protest and dissent”. The rioting in the ghettoes after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, and then later that year, at the Democratic Convention in Chicago; the bombings of the Weather Underground, and protests against the Vietnam War had jolted the suburbs. The “New Deal Coalition”, an uneasy alliance of southern whites, northern industrial workers and minorities, had kept a Democrat in the White House for all but eight years since 1932. Now, it was crumbling. White Southerners had been moving from cotton and tobacco farming into the booming new Sun Belt industries, some of which, like aeronautics, were central to the “military-industrial complex” about which Eisenhower, the one Republican president of the mid-twentieth century, warned in his farewell address in 1961. They were defecting from the Democrats, and so too were many people in the declining industrial regions in the North, not least northeastern Pennsylvania. Nixon was first elected in 1968, and he was returned in 1972. In the first of those elections, he lost four (Lackawanna, Luzerne, Carbon and Northampton) of the five coal counties (he won Schuylkill); in the second, he won all five and every other county in the state bar Philadelphia.
In the end, it must be said that not all in Pennsylvania were ambivalent about the Mollies. The songs and stories collected by George Korson in the 1920s and 1930s are testimony to the memory of “them poor Irish lads” having stayed green among men and women who had been in their teens and twenties in 1877-79. And John Morris, the Teamster boss in Philadelphia, would have fully understood why Johnny Timoney, in the hills above Lough Finn, was proud of what his people did to an informer and his horse and cart in the far-off long ago. To borrow the title of Mark Bulik’s impressive book, he would have recognised in him another Son of Molly Maguire.
Photograph on home page depicts Bridget Doherty, b.1847 Belcruit, County Donegal, m. Patrick Duffy, Leitir, d.1932 Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Here she is seen enjoying a pipe on her veranda; reproduced courtesy of Mary Beth Regan.
Breandán Mac Suibhne teaches in Centenary College, New Jersey.
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