the molly maguires -- 1/6/14

In today's selection -- from Pinkerton's Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland by Beau Riffenburgh. Occupation and other repressive acts by a government often bring a counter-reaction called terrorism. These "terrorist" groups -- whether in the right or the wrong -- have significantly smaller resources than the government, and so resort to dramatic means to compensate for their weakness. In Ireland, occupied and subjugated for centuries by the British, one such group to arise was the "Molly Maguires." Another group with the same name arose in America, but this time among Irish coal miners in reaction to the heavy handed tactics of mine owners:

"The name 'Molly Maguires' first appeared in the 1840s in the countryside of northern Ireland, ascribed to a secret society engaged in agrarian violence threats, beatings, burnings, property damage, and occasionally murder against English landlords, their agents, and other Irish engaging in land practices considered by the Mollys to be unjust. It was not the first such underground organization in Ireland but was rather part of a lineage of secret societies that existed as far back as the 1760s. That decade saw the advent of a movement known as the Whiteboys, because of their practice of wearing white shirts or frocks over their clothes and white bands around their hats while making nighttime raids expressing their opposition to rack rents, evictions of tenant farmers, and tithe collections. The British government attempted to repress the Whiteboys by outlawing them and using military intervention, but the illegal behaviors only increased. Eventually, the expression 'Whiteboyism' was applied not just to the original organization but as a generic term for rural violence.

"The Whiteboys were succeeded by other kindred groups, such as the Defenders and the Threshers. Early in the nineteenth century the Society of Ribbonmen, a secret Catholic brotherhood named for the green ribbon worn by its members, was established in opposition to the Protestant Orange Order and as an ongoing protest against landlords, land agents, and tithes to the Protestant Church. As with Whiteboyism, the term 'Ribbonism' became a catchall for different movements espousing agrarian aggression.

The Molly Maguires had appeared by the mid-1840s in north Leinster, north Connacht, and Ulster. The identity of the original Molly Maguire remains a topic of debate, and stories and legends abound about whence the organization's name sprang, although they tend to be more folkloric than historical. One tale states that she was a destitute old widow evicted from her house by armed bailiffs; another that she was the owner of an illegal tavern in which the society's members met; and a third that she was a woman of such phenomenal strength and charisma that she led nighttime raids herself. One theory places the origins of the movement in the Irish Rebellion of 1641, in honor of Connor Maguire, Second Baron of Enniskillen, who was executed for high treason after the failed attempt by Catholic gentry to seize power in Ireland. ...

A "coffin notice", allegedly posted by Molly Maguires in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania

"What is certain is that some members of the society marauded while dressed in women's clothing, which was seen either as honoring the concept of Molly Maguire or as representing the Irish mother begging bread for her children. As Trench wrote: 'These 'Molly Maguires' were generally stout active young men, dressed up in women's clothes, with faces blackened or otherwise disguised; sometimes they wore crape over their countenances, sometimes they smeared themselves in the most fantastic manner with burnt cork about their eyes, mouths, and cheeks. In this state they used suddenly to surprise the unfortunate grippers, keepers, or process-servers, and either duck them in bogholes, or beat them in the most unmerciful manner.'

"Actually, men of a much wider range of professions were attacked: landlords' agents, peasant farmers who settled on land from which previous tenants had been evicted, and shopkeepers and merchants who charged rates that were considered too high. Crops and fences were damaged, grazing animals driven off or killed, and small plots and buildings burned. ...

"But how did that translate to the New World -- who were the American Molly Maguires and how were they related to their Irish counterparts? For decades it was accepted that both were parts of a single, well organized, conspiratorial society driven by ethnic and religious issues, suggesting that the Molly Maguires transferred either directly from Ireland to Pennsylvania, or with a stop in Britain en route. But it appears more likely that the pattern of outrages in Pennsylvania's anthracite coal area was a result of the demographics of immigration; that is, the high number of immigrants who settled there from northwest and north-central Ireland -- particularly Donegal -- brought with them that region's distinctive mode of direct, violent action in pursuit of what they deemed justice. And because 'Molly Maguires' was an accepted term in the north of Ireland, it is likely that those in Pennsylvania took the same name due to familiarity with it."


Beau Riffenburgh


Pinkerton's Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland


Viking Adult


Copyright 2013 by Wildebeest Publishing Ltd.


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment