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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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).
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.
The Sons of Molly Maguire:
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.