The Molly Maguires

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Like many other people, I first became aware of the Molly Maguires after seeing the film about their lives and times, made in 1970 and shown in Omagh about a year or so later. It was an expensive production, very well done and it is highly unlikely that it would be made these days.

The film recreated the events in and around the coal mines of Pennsylvania in the 1870s and the battles between the miners and the coal bosses.


Many of the miners had fled Ireland, during and after the Great Famine of the 1840s. This was the era in which American capitalism was coming into its own, the age of the Robber Barons who were amassing fortunes, by fair means or foul, in such commodities as steel, railways and coal. They had little respect for men whose labour created their vast riches.

There was no toleration of collective bargaining and wages were a pittance. There was quite a lot of child labour, the children being employed to sort and grade the lumps of coal that had been extracted from the seams. Methane gas collected in pockets below ground, the miners called it ‘firedamp’ and there were frequent explosions when the gases became exposed to a naked flame. The tunnels were lit by flaming torches and the miners’ helmets had candles attached. Miners were frequently hit or run over by trucks in the mines. It has been calculated that ten people were killed each week in the Pennsylvania coal fields in the 1870s and scores more injured.

Attempts by the miners to organise to secure better pay and working conditions were met by the companies employing vigilante gangs to intimidate, harass and rough up miners’ leaders. They did not stop short of murder. It was hardly surprising that the miners responded in kind and one of the best known and most demonised of these groups was the Molly Maguires.

Nineteenth century Ireland, as with eighteenth century Ireland contained many clandestine, oath-bound groups which were a feature of agrarian agitation in response to the way in which land was let, or sublet, as well as extortionist practices by landlords. The groups had names such as Ribbonmen, Whiteboys, Defenders, Peep O’Day Boys and Hearts of Steel. Some of them were avowedly sectarian and this particularly applied to the North. Another of these groups was the Molly Maguires, who were active in Tyrone, Donegal and Cavan. In the Famine period, a Tyrone landlord is said to have received a note warning him that, “The children of Molly Maguire are watching you.” The Mollies reportedly wore women’s frocks over their clothes, presumably as a way to recognise one another in the dark.

The first recorded usage of the term in the United States was in 1857. They operated as a sub-group of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a body founded in the cities of the North-East to advance the interests of Irish immigrants in the New World. The ‘Hibs’ were a legal, legitimate and respected group, led by the emerging middle-class and with links to the Democrat Party. The relationship between the Hibs and the Mollies was a tangled one. The Mollies would have had access to Hibernian clubrooms and other amenities. I can recall a great cheer going up in the County Cinema when the Pinkerton detective was sworn into the Mollies and told that he was now a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

There was a serious economic recession in the States in the 1870s and tensions escalated in the mines of Pennsylvania. A coal magnate and railway tycoon, Franklin Gowen, of Ulster Scots stock called in the private detective agency run by Allan Pinkerton. The agency had failed an attempt to assassinate President Lincoln in Baltimore in 1861 and had pursued Jesse and Frank James in the West. The agency operated across state and boundary lines and was not bound by Federal or territorial red tape. In October 1872, the Pinkerton agency sent in an operative, James McParlan, later McParland, who infiltrated the Molly Maguires under the name of James McKenna. McParlan was content to let Molly Maguires assaults and murders go ahead, so that he could compile a dossier to be used as evidence in subsequent prosecutions. He was born in Co Armagh.

McParlan targeted, in particular, one John Kehoe, a Wicklow-born immigrant, a former miner who had worked his way up to being a tavern-keeper in the coal town of Girdville and had attained to the position of High Constable of the city.


His wife was an O’Donnell from Gweedore. Kehoe had broken his back in the mines and was sympathetic to the aims, if not the methods of the Mollies. Because of his high profile, Kehoe was branded as a ringleader. He was convicted, in highly dubious circumstances of the killing of a mine foreman in 1862 and hanged at Pottsville in December 1878. Twelve members had been hanged on the ‘Day of the Rope’ in June 1877. Eight others were subsequently hanged, most of them on McParlan’s evidence. All of them were Irishmen. McParlan rose in the ranks of the Pinkerton agency, becoming the manager of the agency’s Western division, based in Denver. He died in 1919, at the age of 75. Franklin Gowen shot himself dead in 1881.

The 1970 film cost eleven million dollars and earned a mere two million at the box-office. Sean Connery played Kehoe, Richard Harris played McParlan. Non-Irish audiences found the accents of the two main protagonists difficult to follow. The distinguished cinematographer James Wong Howe insisted on filming the mine scenes by nothing more than the light provided by the lamps, torches and candles of the mines. A dark atmosphere for a dark story, but too much for the mass movie market to take.

Around the time the film was released The Dubliners recorded a song called ‘Make Way for the Molly Maguires’, written, I believe by Phil Coulter. The ballad had no connection with the movie. “Down the mine no sunlight shines/Those pits they’re black as hell/In modes style they do their time/It’s Paddy’s prison cell.”

‘The Day of the Rope’ put an end to the Molly Maguires. Their memory lives on in various labour and AOH cirlces in Pennsylvania and other American cities and their history is a reminder of what went on in the US when working men attempted to organise. Those tried on Pinkerton evidence before judges and juries sympathetic to the coal bosses, were hanged after a trial at which, one commentator observed, “Supplied only the courtroom and the gallows.”

 Heard in court

In evidence the court heard that the defendant was being charged with fraudulent practice. He had become cognisant with the alarm being expressed about the incidence of obesity in modern society and had marketed a substance, in tablet form, which purported to reduce weight. On analysis the tablets proved to be simply nothing more than sugar pills, which he had promoted with a slick advertising campaign. “This man” said the presiding judge, “Has been living off the fat of the land.”


A Ku Klux Klan flag has been put up by loyalists in Belfast. Some years ago an American journalist trying to explain the situation here for his readers back home, writing that the Orange Order was something akin to the Ku Klux Klan. Back in the States, the Klan sued his paper for libel.

Muslim footballers in the World Cup were exempted from the fasting regulations for the season of Ramadan. The old Derry Catechism had it that those excused the Lenten fast were, “Old people, labourers, women with child and persons of a languishing constitution.”

The BBC and RTE have reported that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is the first French head of state to be held in custody. So much for their acquaintance of Louis XVIII, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Radio Ulster had a report last week about the shortage of public toilets in Derry. Every year in that city they celebrate the Relief of Derry, in 1689.

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