IRISH HISTORY … AND HERDS OF ELEPHANTS

Diarmuid Breatnach

Politics is about the present and the future, obviously … but it is also about the past.

Different political interests interpret and/or represent the past in different ways, emphasising or understating different events or aspects or even ignoring or suppressing them entirely. There is choice exercised in whom (and even what particular pronouncement) to quote and upon what other material to rely. And by “political interests” I mean not only groups, formal (such as political parties) or informal, but also individuals. Each individual is political in some way, having opinions about some aspects of questions that are political or at least partly-political. For example, one often hears individuals say today that they have no interest in politics, yet express strong opinions of one kind or another about the right to gay and lesbian marriage, the influence of the Catholic Church, and how the country is being run by Governments

So when an individual writes a history book, there are going to be political interpretations, although not all writers admit to their political position, their prejudices or leanings, in advance or even in the course of their writing. One historian who does so is Padraig Yeates, author of a number of historical books: Lockout Dublin 1913 (a work unlikely to be ever equalled on the subject of the title), A City In Wartime — 1914-1919, A City in Turmoil 1919-1921and his latest, A City in Civil War – Dublin 1921-’24. The latter was launched on Tuesday of this week, 12th May and therefore much too early for people for who did not receive an earlier copy to review it. So it is not on the book that I am commenting here but rather on the speeches during the launch, which were laden with overtly political references to the past and to the present. If a review is what you wanted, this would be an appropriate moment to stop reading and exit – and no hard feelings.

The launch had originally been intended to take place at the new address at 17 D’Olier Street, D2, of Books Upstairs. However the interest indicated in attending was so great that Padraig Yeates, realising that the venue was going to be too small, went searching for a larger one. Having regard to how short a time he then had to find one and with his SIPTU connections, Liberty Hall would have been an obvious choice. Whether he had earlier been asked to speak at the launch I do not know but, having approached Jack O’Connor personally to obtain the use of Liberty Hall, in the latter’s role of President of SIPTU, the owners of that much-underused theatre building, it was inevitable too that O’Connor would be asked to speak and act as the MC for the event.

O’Connor’s introduction was perhaps of medium length as these things go. He talked about the author’s work in trade unions, as a journalist and as an author of books about history. O’Connor’s speech however contained much political comment. Speaking of the period of the Civil War (1919-1923), he said it had “formed what we have become as a people”. That is a statement which is of dubious accuracy or, at very least, is open to a number of conflicting interpretations. The Civil War, in which the colonialism-compromising Irish capitalist class defeated the anti-colonial elements of the nationalist or republican movement, formed what the State has become – not the people. The distinction between State and People is an essential one in our history and no less so in Ireland today.

Talking about the State that had been created in 1921 (and not mentioning once the creation of the other statelet, the Six Counties) and referring to the fact that alone among European nations, our population had not risen during most of the 20th Century and remained lower than it had been up to nearly the mid-Nineteenth, a state of affairs due to constant emigration, O’Connor laid the blame on the 26-County State and in passing, on the capitalist class which it served. He was undoubtedly correct in blaming the State for its failure to create an economic and social environment which would stop or slow down the rate of emigration – but he did not explain why it was in the interests of the capitalists ruling the state to do so. Nor did he refer to the cause of the original drastic reduction in Ireland’s population and the start of a tradition of emigration – the Great Hunger 1845-’49.

The Great Hunger memorial on Dublin's Custom House Quay. The Great Hunger and its immediate aftermath initiated mass Irish emigration.
The Great Hunger memorial on Dublin’s Custom House Quay. The Great Hunger and its immediate aftermath initiated mass Irish emigration.

Even allowing for the fact that O’Connor wished to focus on the responsibility of the 26-County State, the Great Hunger was surely worthy of some mention in the context of Irish population decline.  Just a little eastward along the docks from Liberty Hall is the memorial to that start of mass Irish emigration. It was the colonial oppression of the Irish people which had created the conditions in which the organism Phytophthora infestans could create such devastation, such that in much less than a decade, Ireland lost between 20% and 25% of its population, due to death by starvation and attendant disease and due also to emigration (not forgetting that many people emigrating died prematurely too, on the journey, upon reaching their destination and subsequently). Phytophthora devastated potato crops in the USA in 1843 and spread throughout Europe thereafter, without however causing such a human disaster as it did in Ireland. In Mitchell’s famous words: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” And that is what makes that period of population decline uncomfortable for some historical commentators.

Indeed, O’Connor did not mention British colonialism once, nor Partition, nor imperialism. And nor did either of the other two speakers, nor the author. I remarked on this to an Irish Republican present, to which he responded with a rhetorical question: “Did you expect them to?” Well, yes, perhaps naively, I did. While not expecting an Irish Republican analysis from Padraig Yeates and perhaps not either from anyone he would consider appropriate to speak at the launch of one of his books, dammit, we are talking about history. The presence of Norman/English/British Colonialism for 800 years prior to the creation of the Irish Free State, and its influence on that state’s creation and on subsequent events in Ireland, is worthy of at least a mention in launching a book about the Civil War. Not to mention its continuing occupation of one-fifth of the nation’s territory.

Colonialism and Imperialism and, in particular, the Irish experience of the British variant, were not so much ‘the elephant in the room at the launch as a veritable herd of pachyderms. They overshadowed us at the launch and crowded around us, we could hear them breathing and smell their urine and excreta – but no-one mentioned them. The date of the launch was the anniversary of the execution of James Connolly 99 years ago, a man whom the Labour Party claims as its founder (correctly historically, if not politically), a former General Secretary of the ITGWU, forerunner of SIPTU and the HQ building of which, Liberty Hall, was a forerunner too of the very building in which the launch was taking place. His name and the anniversary was referred to once, though not by O’Connor, without a mention of Sean Mac Diarmada, executed in the same place on the same day. And most significantly of all, no mention of who had Connolly shot and under which authority.

That circumspection, that avoidance, meant that a leader of Dublin capitalists, William Martin Murphy, could not be mentioned with regard to Connolly’s death either i.e. his post-Rising editorial in the Irish Independent calling for the execution of the insurgents’ leaders. But of course he did get a mention, or at least the class alliance he led in 1913 did, in a bid to smash the ITGWU, then under the leadership of Larkin and Connolly. This struggle, according to O’Connor and, it must be said also to Padraig Yeates, was the real defining struggle of the early years of the 20th Century, not the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence nor yet the Irish Civil War. It was in 1913 that “the wrong side won”.

One-eyed as that historical vision must be, we have to question whether it is even partially correct. The Lockout was a great defeat for the ITGWU and for the leading elements in the Irish workers’ movement. But the Lockout did not break the trade union and, in fact, it later began to grow in membership and in branches. Other trade unions also survived and some expanded. So in what manner was 1913 decisive in ensuring that “the wrong side won” in later years? The Irish trade union movement was still able to organise a general strike against conscription in April 1918 and the class to organise a wave of occupations of workplaces in April 1919. 

True, the Irish working class had lost one of its foremost theoreticians and propagandists by then, in the person of James Connolly. And who was it who had him shot? Not Murphy (though he’d have had no hesitation in doing so) nor the rest of the Irish capitalist class. In fact, worried about the longer-term outcome, the political representatives of the Irish nationalist capitalist class for so long, the Irish Parliamentary Party, right at the outset and throughout, desperately called for the executions to halt. General Maxwell, with the support of British Prime Minister Asquith, ordered and confirmed the executions of Connolly and Mallin of the Irish Citizen Army and British Army personnel pulled the triggers; in essence it was British colonialism that executed them, along with the other fourteen.

For the leaders of the Labour Party and of some of the trade unions, and for some authors, Padraig Yeates among them, the participation of Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in the Rising was an aberration. For these social democrats, the struggle should have been against the Irish capitalist class only (and preferably by an unarmed working class). It is an inconvenient fact that Ireland was under colonial occupation of a state that had strangled much of the nation’s economic potential (and therefore of the growth of the working class) in support of the interests of the British capitalist class. It is an inconvenient fact that the Irish capitalist class had been divided into Unionist and Nationalist sections, the former being descendants of planter landowners and entrepreneurs whose interests were completely bound up in Union with Britain. It is an inconvenient fact that the British and the Unionists had suppressed the last truly independent expression of the Irish bourgeoisie, the United Irishmen and, in order to do so effectively, had created and enhanced sectarian divisions among the urban and rural working and middle classes. It is also an inconvenient fact that the British cultivated a client “nationalist” capitalist class in Ireland and that the police and military forces used to back up Murphy’s coalition in 1913 were under British colonial control.

To my mind, a good comprehensive analysis of the decline in prominence of the Irish working class on the political stage from its high point in early 1913 and even in 1916, has yet to be written. One can see a number of factors that must have played a part and the killing of Connolly was one. But something else happened between 1913 and 1916 which had a negative impact on the working class, not just in Ireland but throughout the World. In July 1914, WW1 started and in rising against British colonialism in Ireland, Connolly also intended to strike a blow against this slaughter. As the Lockout struggle drew to its close at the end of 1913 and early 1914, many union members had been replaced in their jobs and many would find it hard to regain employment, due to their support for the workers and their resistance to the campaign to break the ITGWU. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that many joined the British Army or went to work in war industries in Britain. Although the Irish capitalist class supported the British in that War (up to most of 1917 at any rate) it was imperialism which had begun the war and British Imperialism which recruited Irish workers into its armed forces and industries.

Reaching back in history but to different parts of Europe, Padraig Yeates, in his short and often amusing launch speech, cracked that “for years many people thought Karl Kautsky’s first name was ‘Renegade’ ” — a reference to the title of one of Lenin’s pamphlets: The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Yeates apparently admires Kautsky and quoted him on Ireland. But Kautsky advocated no uprisings against imperialism or colonialism in the belief that “super-imperialism” (also called “Hyper Imperialism”) would regulate itself peacefully, letting socialists get on with the task of evolving socialism. Two World Wars since then and current developments have negated Kautsky’s theory but more to the point, to advocate his theory as a guiding principle at the time he did was a major ideological threat to proletarian revolution and to the evolving anti-colonial struggles of the world and therefore he was a renegade to any variant of genuine socialism and socialist struggle.

This is relevant in analysing the position of the trade union leaders and the Irish Labour Party today. They are social democrats and their central thesis is that it is possible to reform capitalism, by pressure on and by involvement in the State. They deny what Lenin and others across the revolutionary socialist spectrum declare, that the state serves the ruling class and cannot be coopted or taken over but for socialism to succeed, must be overthrown.

It is the social-democratic analysis that underpinned decades of the trade union leaders’ social partnership with the employers and the State, decades that left them totally unprepared, even if they had been willing, to declare even one day’s general strike against the successive attacks on their members, the rest of the Irish working class and indeed the lower middle class too since 2011. Indeed Padraig Yeates, speaking at a discussion on trade unions at the Anarchist Bookfair a year or two ago, conceded that social partnership had “gone too far”. Can Jack or any other collaborationist trade union leader blame that on the transitory defeat of the 1913 Lockout? They may try to but it is clear to most people that the blame does not lie there.

Two other speakers addressed the audience at the launch, Katherine O’Donnell and Caitriona Crowe. Catriona Crowe is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland and, among other responsibilities, is Manager of the Irish Census Online Project, an Editor of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vice-President of the Irish Labour History Society. She is also Chairperson of the SAOL Project, a rehabilitation initiative for women with addiction problems, based in the North Inner City. It was her, I think, who made the only mention of “Blueshirts” and her also that mentioned the anniversary of James Connolly. Although her speech was overlong in my opinion for a book launch in which she had already been preceded by two longish speeches, strangely I can remember very little of what she had to say.

Katherine O’Donnell’s contribution however made a considerable impression upon me. She declared herself early in the speech to be lesbian and a campaigner for gay and lesbian rights and is Director of the Women’s Studies Centre at the School of Social Justice at UCD. O’Donnell began by praising Padraig Yeates’ work, of which she declared herself “a fan”. In a speech which at times had me (and sometimes others too) laughing out loud, she discussed the contrast in the fields of historical representation between some historians and those who construct historical stories through the use of imagination as well as data; she denounced the social conservatism of the state, including the parameters of the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage, the legal status of marriage in general and the climate of fear of prosecution engendered by the shameful capitulation of RTE to the Iona Institute on the accusation of “homophobia” (she did not mention them specifically but everyone knew to what she was referring).

After the launch speeches -- (L-R) Padraig Yeates, Katherine O'Donnell, Caitriona Crowe.
After the launch speeches — (L-R) Padraig Yeates, Katherine O’Donnell, Caitriona Crowe.

Jack O’Connor, between speeches, made a reference to a giant banner hanging off Liberty Hall which had the word “NO” displayed prominently, saying that they had received congratulatory calls from people who thought it was against same-sex marriage. The banner was however against privatisation of bus services. The current banner on Liberty Hall says “YES” to the proposal in the forthcoming referendum and he said that now busmen were calling them up complaining …. to laughter, O’Connor commented that “it’s hard to the right thing, sometimes”. Presumably what he meant was that it is hard to know what the right thing to do is, or perhaps to please everybody. 

It is indeed hard to please everybody but I’d have to say that it is not hard to know that the purpose of and ‘the right thing to do’ for a trade union, is to fight effectively and with commitment for its members and for the working class in general. And that is precisely the responsibility which has been abrogated by Jack

In the background to this photograph of a Reclaim the Streets demonstration in 2002 is Liberty Hall, draped in a hug "Vote Labour" banner. SIPTU has maintained that position through a number of coalition governments in which Labour has participated and that have attacked the living standards and rights of workers.
In the background to this photograph of a Reclaim the Streets demonstration in 2002 is Liberty Hall, draped in a hug “Vote Labour” banner. SIPTU has maintained that position through a number of coalition governments in which Labour has participated and that have attacked the living standards and rights of workers.

O’Connor personally, along with other leaders of most of the trade unions, including the biggest ones for many years, SIPTU and IMPACT. And also by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. That is why Jack O’Connor gets booed now if he ever dares stand on a public platform related to trade union struggle, a treatment received also by David Beggs before he retired from the Presidency of ICTU.

Back in 2011, another giant banner hung from Liberty Hall – that time it urged us to VOTE LABOUR, as did leaders of other trade unions. Stretching magnanimity, we might give the trade union leaders the benefit of the doubt and say they had forgotten that the Labour Party had only ever been in Government in coalition, most often with the right-wing Blueshirt Fine Gael party and that its most recent spell sharing power had given us one of the most repressive governments in the history of the State. Let us imagine for a moment that these social-democratic union leaders had forgotten all that. But, after February 2011, as Labour and Fine Gael went into coalition and both reneged on their election promises, as the Coalition government began to attack the working class and the lower middle class, what is their excuse then? When did they denounce the Labour Party to their members, publicly disaffiliating from the party? No, never, and the fact that those disgusting connections continue was underlined by the presence at the book launch of a Labour Party junior Government Minister and the late arrival of none other than Joan Burton, Minister for Social Constriction …. er, sorry, Protection.

Plaques in Glasnevin's Republican Plot recording the names of 77 of the 81 Irish Volunteers officially executed by the Free State between November 1922 and May 1923. Their police and military killed about another 150 without judicial procedure.
Plaques in Glasnevin’s Republican Plot recording the names of 77 of the 81 Irish Volunteers officially executed by the Free State between November 1922 and May 1923. Their police and military killed about another 150 without judicial procedure.

Considering that the book being launched was about the Civil War, it is really extraordinary that no speaker mentioned the repression by the Free State during and after that war. I am certain that Padraig Yeates has not glossed over that, he is much too honest and too good a historian to do so. But that only one speaker at the launch (Catriona Crowe) should mention the sinister Oriel House and none the at least 25 murders its occupants organised, nor the 125 other murders by Irish Free State soldiers and police, nor the 81 state executions between November 1922 and January 1923, sets one wondering at just how much self-hypnosis sections of our political and academic classes are capable.

Elephants, elephants everywhere

but not one can be seen!

End.

JOE HILL — new song by David Rovics on 100th anniversary of the singer-organizer’s death by capitalist firing squad

Tribute by David Rovics in 2015, the anniversary year of the execution of Joel Haglund, alias Josef Hilstrom a.k.a. Joe Hill) 

 

 

David Rovics is a socialist troubadour from and in the USA of many years’ standing and has composed many songs about many issues.  He also regularly tours and this year plans to go on a tour of Joe Hill’s homeland to celebrate this worker organizer, singer, song and other text writer and martyr.  You can look him up on

davidrovics.com

 

(The punctuation arrangement below is mine — there was none in the text I received).

1.

Joel Haglund came from Sweden

Which was very far from Eden:

By the time he left most of his family died;

His sisters and his mother,

His father and his brothers

So with one remaining sibling at his side,

He got a notion

To sail across the ocean

Where he heard the streets were paved with gold;

Not long after his arrival

As he toiled for survival

He realized the bill of goods that he’d been sold.

Joel Haglund, aka Joe Hill
Joel Haglund, aka Joe Hill

2.

He got a whole lot wiser —

Became an organizer —

And he organized with artistry and skill.

He spoke up, raised his fist

Got right on the blacklist

That’s why he changed his name to Joe Hill.

He heard that it was best

If he headed to the west

Where the Industrial Workers of the World

Were finding the solutions

For making revolution

With red songbook and red flag unfurled.

Chorus:

A hundred years ago, the bard

With the union card,

Proved his music was too powerful, too strong;

They couldn’t stand the sound —

They had to take him down —

Lest he organize the working class in song.

3.

Soon as he paid his dues,

He tried hard to light the fuse,

Speaking, singing, writing lyrics and cartoons;

He sent off the whole mess

To the Wobbly press

And they sang his songs as they fought the goons!

He joined a singing movement

That fought for improvement

By abolishing wage-slavery worldwide;

He sang the Wobbly line

Beseeching workers to combine

Learn from Mr Block — the bosses lied.

(Chorus)

4.

His life would be cut short

By a kangaroo court

Eager to determine one man’s fate;

Evidence was circumstantial

But that’s inconsequential

When you’ve become an enemy of the state.

They put him up against the wall

And that was all

They gunned him down in 1915 —

He took all the bullets he could take

There by the Salt Lake

For being the best bard they’d ever seen

(Chorus)

 

JANUARY — BIRTHS AND STATE EXECUTIONS

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

The month of January is the start of the year, according to the calendar most of us use but, for the Celts and some other peoples, it was the last month of winter, which had begun in November, after the feast of Samhain.

I am notified of many birthdays in January from among my Facebook friends.  That would seem to indicate a higher rate of conception at the end of March/ early April and onwards but a quick search on the internet did not supply me comparative figures.  However, in our climate, new food begins to be available inland in January as salmon arrive to spawn and with sheep lactating from February.  Onwards from there, plants begin to grow again and birds lay eggs, animals give birth and so on.  The pregnant mother needs a ready supply of food to sustain a viable pregnancy.

Though January may be a month of births, from what I see of history it is also a month of deaths … early, unnatural deaths …. of executions, in fact.  These particular executions to which I refer took place in Ireland and in the United States of America and they were carried out by the respective states of those countries.

 

Executions by the Irish Free State

This week saw the anniversary of five such executions, on the 15th January 1923 — executions by the Free State of IRA Volunteers.  Four of these were in Roscrea and the fifth was in Carlow: Vol.F. Burke; Vol.Patrick Russell; Vol.Martin Shea; Vol.Patrick MacNamara; Vol.James Lillis.

They were not the first executions by the Free State: eight had been executed the previous November and thirteen in December.  The killing for the new year of 1923 had begun with five in Dublin on the 8th January and another three in Dundalk.

The Mountjoy Four executions by the Irish Free State in 1922 of one IRA Volunteer from each province.
The Mountjoy Four reprisal executions by the Irish Free State on 8th December 1922 of one IRA Volunteer from each province.

Nor were those executed on the 15th January to be the last for that month: on the 20th another eleven stood against a wall to be shot by soldiers of the Irish state; on the 22nd, another three; on the 25th, two more; and another four on the 26th before the month’s toll of 34 had been reached. As we progress through the year, each month will contain the anniversary of an executed volunteer and in all but one, multiple executions.

Apart from those who died while fighting, seventy-seven Volunteers and two other supporters of the struggle were officially executed by the Irish Free State between November 1922 and 29th December 1923. In addition there were many (106-155) murdered without being acknowledged by Free State forces — shot (sometimes after torture) and their bodies dumped in streets, on mountains, in quarries .1

Soiidarity demonstration outside Mountjoy Jail, probably organized by Cumann na mBan, perhaps in protest at Mountjoy executions December 1922
Soiidarity demonstration outside Mountjoy Jail, probably organized by Cumann na mBan, perhaps in protest at Mountjoy executions December 1922

These deeds and others led to the composition of a number of songs, among the best of which are in my opinion Martyrs of ’22  (sung to the air of The Foggy Dew) and Take It Down from the Mast.  The latter was written in 1923 by James Ryan, containing two verses about the Six Counties which one doesn’t normally hear sung.  Dominic Behan in the 1950s added a verse of his own about the four executions by the State in reprisal for the assassination of TD Sean Hales, when the State deliberately shot one Volunteer from each province, each of whom had been in custody when the assassination took place: Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett, Joseph McKelvey,  Dominic Behan recorded the latter in the 1950s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-b2EL8Jytao

This was the bloody baptism of the new state, a neo-colony state of twenty-six counties on a partitioned island, with six counties remaining a British colony.

 

MARTYRS OF ’22

1

When they heard the call of a cause laid low,
They sprang to their guns again;
And the pride of all was the first to fall —
The glory of our fighting men.
In the days to come when with pipe and drum,
You’ll follow in the ways they knew,
When their praise you’ll sing, let the echoes ring
To the memory of Cathal Brugha.

2

Brave Liam Lynch on the mountainside
Felll a victim to the foe
And Danny Lacey for Ireland died
in the Glen of Aherlow
Neil Boyle and Quinn from the North came down
To stand with the faithful and true
And we’ll sing their praise in the freedom days
‘Mong the heroes of ’22.

 3

Some fell in the proud red rush of war
And some by the treacherous blow,
Like the martyrs four in Dublin Town,
And their comrades at Dromboe:
And a hundred more in barrack squares
and by lonely roadsides too:
Without fear they died and we speak with pride
of the martyrs of ’22.

 

 
Executions of “Molly Maguires”

Wednesday, 14th January, was the anniversary of the executions of James McDonnell and Charles Sharp at Mauch Chunk jail, Pennsylvania. Both had been accused of being “Molly Maguires”, a resistance group of workers, mostly miners, in the Pennsylvania region. Today, the 16th, is the anniversary of the execution of another “Molly”, Martin Bergin; 20 were executed over two years. And many more had been murdered in their homes or ambushed — many others had been beaten; these activities were carried out by “vigilantes” hired by the coal-mine owners and by Iron & Coal Guards, also employed by them.

The exact origin of the name Molly Maguires is uncertain but they were among a number of agrarian resistance organizations of previous years in Ireland; according to accounts, they gathered at night wearing women’s smocks over their clothes to attack landlords and their agents. Since these smocks tended to be white in colour, Whiteboys or Buachaillí Bána was another name for them.  

Molly Maguires tribute statue by Zenos Frudrakis in Molly Maguires Memorial Park, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, USA
Molly Maguires tribute statue by Zenos Frudrakis in Molly Maguires Memorial Park, Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, USA

Somewhat Ironically, the state of Pennsylvania was itself named after a man with connections to Ireland: William Penn’s father, the original William, had commanded a ship in the Royal Navy during the suppression of the Irish uprising in 1641, for which he had been given estates in Ireland by Cromwell.

His son, William went to live on the Irish estates for a while and was suppressing Irish resistance there in 1666. Not lot long afterwards he became a Quaker in Cork.

In 1681 the younger Penn’s efforts to combine a number of Quaker settlements in what is now the eastern United States were successful when he was granted a charter by King Charles II to develop the colony. The governance principles he outlined there are credited with influencing the later Constitution of the United States.
 Charles II added the name “Penn” to William’s chosen name of “Sylvania” for the colony, in honour of the senior Penn’s naval service (he had by then become an Admiral).

Less than two hundred years later, Pennsylvania was one of the United States of America and the anthracite coal discovered there was being mined by US capitalists. The mine owners squeezed their workers as hard as they could and regularly replaced them with workers who were emigrating in mass to the United States in the mid-19th Century.

According to James D. Horan and Howard Swiggett, who wrote The Pinkerton Story sympathetically about the detective agency, about 22,000 coal miners worked in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, at this time and 5,500 of these (a quarter) were children between the ages of seven and sixteen years. According to Richard M. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais in Labor’s Untold Story, the children earned between one and three dollars a week separating slate from the coal. Miners who were to injured or too old to work at the coal face were put to picking out slate at the “breakers”, crushing machines for breaking the coal into manageable sizes. In that way, many of the elderly miners finished their mining days as they had begun in their youth.  The life of the miners was a “bitter, terrible struggle” (Horan and Swiggett).

Workers who were illiterate and immigrants without English were unable to read safety notices, such as they were. In addition immigrants faced discrimination and Irish Catholics, who began to arrive in large numbers in the United States after the Great Hunger of 1845-1849 faced particular discrimination although (or because) most spoke English (as a second language to Irish, in many cases). The mine-owners often employed Englishmen and Welsh as supervisors and police which also led to divisions along ethnic lines.

As well as wages being low and working conditions terrible, with deaths and serious injuries at work in their hundreds every year, the mine-owners cut corners by failing to ensure good pit props and refused to install safety features such as ventilating or pumping systems or emergency exits. Boyer and Morais quote statistics of 566 miners killed and 1,655 seriously injured over a seven-year period (Labor, the Untold Story).

In 1869 a fire at the Avondale Mine in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, cost the lives of 110 miners. There had been no emergency exit for the men’s escape. It is a measure of the influence of the mine and iron capitalists that the jury at the inquest into the deaths did not apportion blame to the mine-owner, although it did add a rider recommending the instalation of emergency exits in all mines.

Earlier at the scene, as the bodies were being recovered from the mine, a man had mounted a wagon to address the thousands of miners who had arrived from surrounding communities: “Men, if you must die with your boots on, die for your families, your homes, your country, but do not longer consent to die, like rats in a trap, for those who have no more interest in you than in the pick you dig with.”

The speaker was John Siney, a leader of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, a trade union that had been organizing among the miners for some time; his words were a call to unionize and thousands did so there and then and over the following days.

Trade union organisers in the USA throughout the 19th Century (and later) were routinely subject to harassment, threats and often much worse and the workers at times responded in kind. Shooting and stabbing incidents were far from unknown, with fifty unexplained murders in Schuykill County between 1863 and 1867. The mine-owners had the Coal and Iron Police force and were known to hire additional “vigilantes” to intimidate and punish trade union organisers. They also hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to gather intelligence on union organisers and on the Molly Maguires.

The employers watched concerned as the WBA trade union grew to 30,000 strong with around 85% membership among the coal miners of the area, including nearly all the Irish. The “Great Panic” of 1873 changed the situation. A stock crash due to over-expansion was followed by a decrease in the money supply and staggering levels of unemployment followed. As is often the case, the capitalists maintained their life-styles while claiming inability to pay living wages to their workers. As is often the case too, they used the opportunity of high unemployment to force worse wages and conditions upon the workers.

One of those capitalists owned two-thirds of the mines in the southeastern Pennsylvania area; he was Franklin B. Gowen, owner of the Reading & Philadelphia Railroad and of the Reading & Philadelphia Coal & Iron Company. Gowen was determined to break the WBA and formed his own union of employers, the Anthracite Board of Trade; in December 1874 they announced a 20% cut in wages for their workers. On 1st January 1875 the WBA brought their members out on strike.

The history of the coal mines of Pennsylvania and their terrible conditions and mortality in the 19th Century, the extreme exploitation of the mine-owners’ systems and their use of prejudiced and corrupt courts, media and vigilantes to have their way, is a long one. The history of the workers’ resistance is also a long one and the “Molly Maguires” were a part of it. Their own history is also dogged by controversy, with some even doubting the existence of the Mollies, claiming that the secret society was an invention of the employers to create panic and to associate the unionized workers with violence in the minds of the public. The brief notes following are part of a narrative accepted by some historians but not by others.

In order to defend themselves, the miners developed two types of organisation which, in many areas where the workers were Irish, existed side by side. One was the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, a trade union the methods of which were those of industrial action, demonstrations and attempts to use the legal system in order to improve working conditions and gain better remuneration for the workers. The leaders of the WBA condemned violence used by workers as well, of course, as denouncing the employers’ violence.

The other was the Molly Maguires, a secret oath-bound society which organized under the cover of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The AOH in turn was a self-help or fraternal organization for Catholics of Irish origin, mostly in the Irish diaspora, particularly in the USA, where early Catholic Irish migrants had encountered much hostility and discrimination from the WASP establishment and from “nativist” groups. In keeping with the history of their namesakes, the Molly Maguires of the USA were prepared to use violence in response to the violence of their employers.

In March1875, Edward Coyle, a leading member of the union and of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, was murdered, as was another member of the AOH; a miners’ meeting was attacked and a mine-owner fired into a group of miners (Boyer and Morais).

Reprisals by the Mollies followed as attacks on their members and the miners in general escalated. These attacks were carried out by State police, the Coal and Iron Police of the mine-owners and in particular by the “Vigilantes”, also hired by the mine-owners.

The information supplied by the Pinkerton Agents in their daily reports, although often only initial speculations from surveillance, were used to target individuals who were then often murdered2. One of the Pinkerton agents, James McParlan3 from Co. Armagh, who had penetrated the Mollies under cover of the alias “James McKenna”, was reportedly furious that his reports were being used to target people for the “Vigilantes”, including people he considered innocent. His job as he saw it was to gather information which would stand up in court to convict the leading Mollies, sentence them to death and break the organisation. Although his employer tried to pacify him in fact Alan Pinkerton himself had urged the mine-owners to employ “vigilantes”.

John Kehoe Molly Maguire
John “Black Jack” Kehoe, allegedly one of the leaders of the Molly Maguires

 

The mine-owners pursued a dual strategy of violence against Mollies and other leaders and members of the WBA, while also preparing legal charges against trade union officials and collecting evidence to have the Mollies tried for murder. The courts collaborated, as did the mass media. Much of the clergy were not found wanting either and denounced the union leaders to their congregations.

The state militia and the Coal and Iron Police patrolled the district, maintaining an intimidatory presence during the strike. On May 12th John Siney, a leader of the WBA was arrested at a demonstration against the importation of strike-breakers. Siney had opposed the strike and advocated seeking arbitration. Another 27 union officials were arrested on conspiracy charges. Judge Owes’ words while sentencing two of them are indicative of the side on which the legal system was, at least in Pennsylvania in 1875:
“I find you, Joyce, to be President of the Union and you, Maloney, to be Secretary and therefore I sentence you to one year’s imprisonment.”

Stories appeared in the media of strikes as far away as Jersey City in Illinois and in the Ohio mine-fields, all allegedly inspired by the Mollies. Much of the anti-union propaganda in the media was directly provided by Gowen who planted stories therein of murder and arson by the secret society.

With the workers starving and deaths among children and the infirm, surrounded by armed representatives of the employers and the state militia (also friendly to the employers), their leaders arrested, the union nearly collapsed and the strike was broken, miners going back to work on a 20% cut in their wages. The strike had lasted six months but the Mollies fought on and McPartland noted increased support for them, including among union members who had earlier declined to support their methods.

When the Mollies were brought to trial in a number of different court cases of irregular conduct, Gowen had himself appointed as Chief Prosecutor by the State. One of the accused, Kerrigan, turned state’s evidence and his and McPartland’s evidence helped send 10 Molly Maguires to their deaths: Michael Doyle, Edward Kelly, Alex Campbell, McGeehan, Carroll, Duffy, James Boyle, James Roarity, Tom Munley, McAllister.

Execution of Molly Maguire 1877 (French soure: I have been unable to find the name of the victim or the exact date of his execution
Execution of Molly Maguire 1877 (French soure: I have been unable to find the name of the victim or the exact date of his execution)

In that area and in many other major industrial areas across the United States throughout the rest of that century and well into the next, employers continued to use spies and “vigilantes”, company police, local law enforcement agencies, state militia, labour-hostile press, fixed juries and biased judges to break workers’ defence organisations, often martyring their leaders and supporters.

A number of books have been published about the Molly Maguires and their story of has been dramatised in the film of the name (1970), starring Sean Connery as Jack Kehoe and Richard Harris as McPartland. The Mollies have also been celebrated in a number of songs, among which the lyrics of the Dubliner’s version is probably the worst and those of The Sons of Molly Maguire are the best I have heard (see Youtube recording link below end of article).

Molly Maguire tribute banner ITGWU (Cork branch)
Molly Maguire tribute banner ITGWU (Cork branch)

In June 2013 the East Wall History Group organized a talk on the Mollies by US Irish author John Kearns at the Sean O’Casey Centre in Dublin’s North Wall area (video of the talk and audio of a radio interview with the author are accessible from this link:http://eastwallforall.ie/?p=1505).

In 1979, on a petition by one of John “Black Jack” Kehoe’s descendants and after an official investigation, Governor of Pennsylvania Milton Shapp posthumously pardoned Kehoe, who had proclaimed his innocence until his death (as had Alex Campbell). Shapp praised Kehoe and the others executed as “martyrs to labor” and heroes in a struggle for fair treatment for workers and the building of their trade union.

 

End

 

The Sons of Molly Maguire: 

 

Footnotes:

1  I gratefully acknowledge the listing of that wonderful voluntary and non-party organisation, the Irish National Graves Association, which has done such important work to document and honour those who have fallen in the struggle for freedom of the people of our land http://www.nga.ie/Civil%20War-77_Executions.php

2  In what one may see as a strange coincidence, among the Mollie victims of Vigilante violence were cousins of Pat O’Donnell, with whom he had stayed for some time. Pat O’Donnell shot dead Carey in 1883 because he had turned state evidence against the Invincibles (see https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/pat-odonnell-patriot-or-murderer/).

3  Also sometimes referred to as “McParlan”. In addition some researchers have expressed the opinion that there in fact two McParlands, brothers, working for Pinkerton against the Molly Maguires.