News, On Campus

“Making Sense of the Molly Maguires”: Kenny Discusses the 19th Century Irish Secret Society

Kevin Kenny, a history professor at New York University, unpacked the history and myth of the Molly Maguires through his book, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires

“In writing their story, I set out to determine who they were, what they did, and why they did it,” Kenny said. 

Kenny visited Boston College on Tuesday to deliver a lecture discussing Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, which was sponsored by the Irish studies and history departments.

The Molly Maguires were a secret organization of Irish coal miners in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. Assassinations and violence grew throughout the area because of poor working conditions and ethnic tensions, leading to 16 killings. The Molly Maguires were thought to be responsible, and 20 supposed members were hanged, according to Kenny. 

Kenny said that contemporaries believed the Molly Maguires to be inherently savage Irish immigrants who did not belong in industrial America.

“Challenges to that nativist myth in the first half of the 20th century produced a counter myth that transforms the category of evil from the immigrant workers to the exploiters, casting the Irish as innocent victims of economic, religious, or ethnic oppression,” he said.

Kenny said that he disagrees with both statements. He instead asserted that the Molly Maguires were a mix of both ideas. 

“The Molly Maguires were not depraved killers, but neither were they figments of the nativist or anti-labor imagination,” Kenny said. “They never existed as the conspiracy imagined by their enemies, but they did use violence to combat their exploitation.” 

Kenny noted that taking into account the expected inconsistency and falsified reports by James McParland, a private detective, there is evidence that some convicted Molly Maguires took part in killings and attacks, using The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish fraternal society, as a home to their operations.

“It is clear from the evidence, even allowing for McParland’s distortions, that some of [the convicted men] used local lodges of [The Ancient Order of Hibernians] for violent as well as fraternal purposes,” Kenny said. 

Kenny explained how this sliver of connection blew the conspiracy out of proportion and ultimately depicted the Molly Maguires as something they were not: an immigrant organization focused on destroying American democracy. 

“This [evidence] was grist for the mill of conspiracy theorists at the time … allowing them to magnify the threat posed by a small, desperate, and often misguided group of immigrant workers,” Kenny said. “Contemporaries portrayed the Molly Maguires as a vast, well-organized conspiracy imported directly from Ireland, hellbent on subverting American liberty and democracy.” 

Kenny then delved deeper into the ethnic persecution and discrimination that the Molly Maguires and Irish faced in the United States at the time, highlighting the lack of a fair trial for the convicted. 

“No explanation of motive was provided at the trials, and, nor it seems, was one expected,” Kenny said. “The explanation of Irish depravity was that Irish were depraved by nature. They killed people because that is the type of people they were.” 

This anti-immigrant sentiment swiftly took hold across America, according to Kenny. Historically, Kenny said that Americans condemned Irish violence stemming from the labor movements and associated these riots with an outdated immigrant culture. 

“Contemporaries denounced Irish American violence from the labor and anti-abolitionists … as the transatlantic outgrowth of alien immigrant culture that had taken root in the United States,” Kenny said. 

Kenny criticized the historical sentiment that the Irish and the Molly Maguires started violence without reason. Instead, he emphasized that many were fighting for fair and equal working rights. 

“The rural poor souls sought to enforce their own moral code in response to violations of customary practices on land usage by landlords, agents, and their tenants,” Kenny said. “They weren’t fighting for the sake of fighting. Usually, they fought for access to work.” 

Kenny said that part of his undertaking writing the history of the Molly Maguires was to understand the mines where the violence took place and not impart his own judgment in his book. 

“To explain a historical phenomenon is not to justify it—historians do not sit as judge and jury on the past,” Kenny said. “They try as far as possible to make sense of the past on its own terms. I was not asking whether people’s actions were right or wrong. I was trying to determine what they did and why.” 

November 9, 2023