The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America's First Labor War

The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America's First Labor War

The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America's First Labor War

The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America's First Labor War


A gripping history that peels away layers of myth and misinformation surrounding the "Mollies" to cast brilliant new light on one of the nation's longest and most murderous industrial conflicts

Sensational tales of true-life crime, the devastation of the Irish potato famine, the upheaval of the Civil War, and the turbulent emergence of the American labor movement are connected in a captivating exploration of the roots of the Molly Maguires. A secret society of peasant assassins in Ireland that re-emerged in Pennsylvania's hard-coal region, the Mollies organized strikes, murdered mine bosses, and fought the Civil War draft. Their shadowy twelve-year duel with all powerful coal companies marked the beginning of class warfare in America. But little has been written about the origins of this struggle and the folk culture that informed everything about the Mollies.

A rare book about the birth of the secret society, The Sons of Molly Maguire delves into the lost world of peasant Ireland to uncover the astonishing links between the folk justice of the Mollies and the folk drama of the Mummers, who performed a holiday play that always ended in a mock killing. The link not only explains much about Ireland's Molly Maguires where the name came from, why the killers wore women's clothing, why they struck around holidays but also sheds new light on the Mollies' re-emergence in Pennsylvania.

The book follows the Irish to the anthracite region, which was transformed into another Ulster by ethnic, religious, political, and economic conflicts. It charts the rise there of an Irish secret society and a particularly political form of Mummery just before the Civil War, shows why Molly violence was resurrected amid wartime strikes and conscription, and explores how the cradle of the American Mollies became a bastion of later labor activism. Combining sweeping history with an intensely local focus, The Sons of Molly Maguire is the captivating story of when, where, how, and why the first of America's labor wars began.


We behold a stream as deep as it is dark, which indicates, by its continu
ous current, that it is derived from an unfailing fountain, and which how
ever augmented by the contributions of other streams of bitterness, must
be indebted for its main supply to some abundant and distant source.
Where, then, is the wellhead to be found?

—Richard Lalor Sheil, on Irish secret society violence

The Schuylkill River earns its name in the rugged, coal-laden hills north and west of Minersville, Pennsylvania. Arendt Corssen of the Dutch East India Company dubbed the river “Skokihl,” Dutch for “hidden stream,” in the 1600s, and its West Branch rises as two all but invisible creeks that meander through Foster and Cass Townships in Schuylkill County.

One of the creeks, the West-West, begins in the hills above the village of Forestville, whispering its way down through a quiet, fern-lined hollow where the waters pool below a series of falls. Over the eons the action of water flowing over rock ate through the ridge, exposing seams of hard coal, or anthracite. the ridge came to be known as Mine Hill.

Deep in the hollow, near one of the falls, a broad, flat rock bears the chiseled names of long-dead coal miners— S. Lynch, C. J. Lynch, W. J. Dormer, E. P. O’Brien, and P. J. Doyle— and the year, 1886. Their families had come from Ireland de cades before to mine the coal, creating Forestville, where the stream tumbles out of Mine Hill. Over the course of half a century, miners tore more than a million tons out of the Forestville Colliery.

Today, the mine is gone. the village consists of a sprinkling of houses, the Forestville Fire Company, and a barely noticeable bridge that carries Forest Lane over the creek.

From Forestville, the stream winds south to an even smaller hamlet, Phoenix Park, which shares the name of that vast green expanse in Dublin where Irish radicals assassinated London’s chief secretary and undersecre-

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