Make Way for the Molly Maguires

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"Make Way for the Molly Maguires"


By: Anonymous

Date: Unknown

Source: Available from King Laoghaire: The Home of Irish Ballads and Tunes, <>.

About the Author: "Molly Maguires" is an example of the traditional ballads that emerged spontaneously from the Irish community, both in Ireland and in the United States, often to comment on political events and social conditions of the time.


The Molly Maguires were a highly secretive organization of Irish Catholic miners who, for at least a decade beginning in the mid-1860s and probably for some ten years before that, employed the tools of arson, riot, murder, and beatings in an effort to improve working conditions in the anthracite coal country of eastern Pennsylvania. All belonged to a fraternal organization called the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Little is known about the origins of the Mollies. The organization was thought to have originated in Ireland, where Catholic land tenants frequently rebelled against absentee English landlords and the Protestant estate managers they put in place. Legend has it that they took their name from a Catholic woman who had refused to be intimidated by Protestants who wanted to drive her out of her home because of her religion. Prior to administering a beating to an enemy, members of the group were reputed to have said, "Take that from a son of Molly Maguire!"

Many Mollies arrived in the United States as part of the wave of immigration that followed the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. In 1851, more than 221,000 Irish immigrated to the United States, and between 1820 and 1880, the total number was about 3.5 million. While most Irish were fleeing harsh conditions at home, they often found conditions in the United States little better. Help wanted signs in businesses were often positioned above signs that said "Irish need not apply." The Chicago Post wrote, "The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses. . . . Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country."

Irish immigrants were often forced to take the worst kind of manual labor, such as coal mining. But in the mid-nineteenth century, no child labor laws, minimum wages, or standards to protect the miners were in place. The only union was the General Council of the Workingmen's Associations of the Anthracite Coal Fields, but this union was poorly organized and generally ineffective. Accordingly, the Molly Maguires took matters into their own hands. Operating outside the law, they blew up railroad cars full of coal, organized riots, and beat, crippled, or murdered police, mine owners, mine supervisors, and anyone else who opposed them.

Like modern-day terrorist organizations, the Mollies employed a cell organization. The Ancient Order of Hibernians in each town formed a tiny group called a body, each with its own master, secretary, treasurer, and brethren. The "King of the Mollies" was John "Black Jack" Kehoe, the master of the body in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Each body met regularly and functioned much like a star chamber—a secret court that may make arbitrary decisions—listening to cases and deciding on a course of action.

Thus, for example, if a miner was fired for coming to work drunk, the body would discuss the case and vote on what, if any, form of reprisal to take, which could range from a beating to murder. The body would contact another body elsewhere in the state and one or more of its members would carry out the "sentence," then disappear into the countryside or on a train while the members of the local body ensured that they had alibis for the time of the crime. In turn, the first body might later be called on to execute a sentence for the second. In this way, members of the organization were able to operate with relative impunity.

The following ballad is one of several that attempts to capture a sense of the working conditions the Mollies—and other miners—faced.


Make way for the Molly Maguires
They're drinkers, they're liars but they're men
Make way for the Molly Maguires
You'll never see the likes of them again
Down the mines no sunlight shines
Those pits they're black as hell
In modest style they do their time
It's Paddy's prison cell
And they curse the day they've traveled far
Then drown their tears with a jar
So make way for the Molly Maguires
They're drinkers, they're liars but they're men
Make way for the Molly Maguires
You'll never see the likes of them again
Backs will break and muscles ache
Down there there's no time to dream
Of fields and farms, of woman's arms
Just dig that bloody seam
Though they drain their bodies underground
Who'll dare to push them around
So make way for the Molly Maguires
They're drinkers, they're liars but they're men
Make way for the Molly Maguires
You'll never see the likes of them again
So make way for the Molly Maguires
They're drinkers, they're liars but they're men
Make way for the Molly Maguires
You'll never see the likes of them again


In 1877, twenty members of the Molly Maguires, including Black Jack Kehoe, were hanged. In 1873, Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency hired one James McParlan to infiltrate the organization. Pinkerton did so on behalf of Franklin B. Gowen, an Irish Protestant coal baron who owned the Reading railroad—that had a virtual monopoly on the transport of coal out of Schuylkill mines—and who wanted to control the coal industry in part by crushing organized labor.

Accordingly, McParlan, under the name of James McKenna, spent nearly five years working his way up as a member of the Molly Maguires. After he had accumulated enough evidence—often by taking part in decisions that led to murder—twenty members of the organization were prosecuted in a biased trial conducted by Judge Cyrus L. Pershing. All twenty were later hanged. To many observers, the Mollies were martyrs to the labor movement; to others, they were terrorists.

Nevertheless, the end of the Molly Maguires did not signal the end of the labor movement in the mines. Just thirteen years later, in 1890, the United Mine Workers union was formed.



Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Web sites

Philips, James. "The Molly Maguires." <> (accessed May 16, 2005).

Audio and Visual Media

The Molly Maguires, directed by Martin Ritt. Paramount Home Video, 2004 (release of 1970 film).