The name Molly Maguire is usually associated with the secret society founded in the 19th century for the protection of Irish-Catholic miners in the coal fields of Pennsylvania. The name, however, belongs to a secret agrarian group that originated earlier in Ireland in the 18th century and carried into the 19th century. The Irish “Sons of Molly Maguire” acted typically as “ribbon men” and “white boys” protecting Irish-Catholic tenants and opposing landowners when they believed the tenants were being persecuted by unfair rents and practices. Their techniques were threats and violence against the landowners and land agents .
There are various opinions about the origin of the name. The most common is that Molly Maguire was an old woman who was evicted from her farm in County Antrim. Another is that she was a crazy woman in Fermanagh who imagined that she had an army at her command. Several of the letters threatening death to their enemies were signed by a Mary Anne Maguire.
The Mollies were often seen at night with blackened faces and wearing women’s clothing. They were sometimes confused with “mummers“, the roving rural entertainers who visited people’s homes singing or acting out plays and then asking for (or demanding) money.
County Donegal was one of the worst counties in Ireland for agrarian crime in the 1850s. From the book “Mevagh Down the Years,” author Leslie W. Lucas reported that the Mollies had a headquarters in Glenmenagh, near the Village of Glen (Mevagh Parish, County Donegal).
The principal offense that angered the Mollies was the change in land usage. There was a move by land grabbers after the famine to use land for livestock-grazing and enclosing the land in fences, thus preventing the small-scale leasing of land for crop growing that was the mainstay of the average rural farmer. The Mollies destroyed fences, and drove off or killed livestock. They were even known to plough pastures at night.
In America, the Molly Maguires came about because of abuses and safety violations in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. The fire in the Avondale Mine in Luzerne County took the lives of 110 miners in 1869. The result of this was an effort to unionize mine workers of whom many were rural Irish from County Donegal. The Workingmen’s Beneficial Association was founded to organize the workers. At the same time, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was a strong force among Irish workers at the mines. The AOH was originally founded in the USA in the early 1800s to protect priests and Catholic churches from violence caused by the nativist movement, who were Americans rabidly opposed to Irish immigrants taking over “their” country. The Molly Maguires were members of a secret group of Irish workers working within the AOH, but not recognized as a part of the AOH organization.
Franklin Gowan was a rich company owner who wanted to prevent the union from reducing his profits. He hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate the union and AOH and obtain whatever was needed to end their control. The Pinkertons hired James McParland, a native of County Antrim, to infiltrate the AOH (and Mollies) under the name of James McKenna. Through the years, James reported on Molly activities to his bosses. There were many violent acts through those years. Things got worse after a strike in 1875 when the company reduced miners’ pay by 20%. Ed Coyle, a union leader and head of the AOH, was murdered in March, 1875. After that, violence occurred on both sides by the Mollies and by vigilantes on the side of management.
Through information supplied by McParland and other witnesses, 10 men of the Molly Maguires were arrested for the murder of mine bosses. The prosecuting attorney was none other than Franklin Gowan, the president of the mining company. Ten men were convicted of murder and were hanged in 1877. Over the next two years, ten more were sentenced and hanged. As a result of the trials and executions, the existence of Molly Maguires of the Pennsylvania mine fields eventually disappeared.