On this day – 18.12.1878 Hanging of John Kehoe of the Molly Maguires



Their Irish origins are mysterious, though they were almost definitely a 19th century agrarian secret society. Their name may have emanated from a tradition that was not just Irish – the Welsh were party to it as well in the so-called Rebecca riots – where male activists disguised themselves as women before engaging in illegal activity up to and including murder. They may have also have been associated with the main Roman Catholic rival to the Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.


But it wasn’t in Ireland that the Molly Maguires made a name for themselves. It was in the anthracite mines and on the rail-roads of Pennsylvania. Here, the tactics used against landlords and land agents in Ireland, were applied in bitter labour disputes, with the Ancient order of Hibernians, an organisation that originated in the USA, acting as a legitimate front for the illegal activities of the Mollies. Then again there are historians who do not believe this shadowy conspiracy ever existed on the scale that was claimed by the owners and shareholders of the mines and railways in late 19th century Pennsylvania. That is a point of view that was widely held at the time as well.


Immigrant labour offered a glorious opportunity for Pennsylavania capitalists to undercut the wages being paid to American-born miners. Wages for Irish migrants were low and conditions were brutal. ‘On the job’ fatalities and injuries ran into the hundreds each year. The so-called ‘panic of 1873’ – not a million miles removed from the stock market crash of 1929 and the sub-prime crisis of 2007 made a bad situation even worse for the mine and railroad workers.


Just as every crisis brings opportunity, mostly for the unscrupulous, the President of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron company, Franklin Gowen, son of an Irish immigrant and the richest man in the region, decided it was high time to crush the burgeoning trade union activity in the state, represented by the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. While the ‘Molly Maguires’ may have been the convenient invention of Gowen himself there is no doubt that perceived enemies of the Pennsylvania mineworkers were being killed by the dozen. In one of the six main anthracite-mining counties there had been 50 such murders between 1863-67.


Gowen, with the co-operation of his fellow mine owners, engaged the services of the yet-to-be-famous detective agency run by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton, to help break a general strike in the anthracite fields. In 1875 he despatched an agent, Armagh-born James McParland, to the area. Posing as ‘James McKenna’ the Pinkerton detective infiltrated the Benevolent Association and claimed also to have insinuated himself into the confidence of the Molly Maguires. Information gathered by McParland was, in the first instance, passed on to vigilante elements who happened to share Gowen’s union-bashing objectives. When suspected ‘Mollies’ were murdered in their own homes McParland threatened to resign from the Pinkerton organisation but was persuaded to remain in place. After six months the strike ended and most of the miners returned to work having agreed to a 20% wage cut. However, Irish-born members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians refused to concede and fought on. Attacks on overseers, strike-breakers and police continued until information supplied by McParland led to a number of arrests.


The Armagh Pinkerton, who had, by his own account, been a trusted collaborator of the leadership of the Mollies, testified against a number of those accused of murder. Demonstrating the extent of his political power within the state of Pennsylvania Gowen managed to have himself made special prosecutor and actually conducted some of the cases against the Mollies. The accused included the alleged ringleader of the organisation John ‘Black Jack’ Kehoe. McParland’s testimony sent ten men to the gallows. Many of them, including Kehoe, loudly proclaimed their innocence of the crimes of which they had been convicted. In 1979 the state of Pennsylvania pardoned Kehoe posthumously after an investigation by its Board of Pardons at the behest of one of his descendants.


The Molly Maguires have passed into legend. Arthur Conan Doyle based a Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Valley of Fear on their alleged activities. The 1970 film The Molly Maguires, starred Sean Connery as Kehoe and Richard Harris as McParland.


John ‘Black Jack’ Kehoe, the last of the Molly Maguire defendants was hanged in Pennsylvania 137 years ago, on this day.






On This Day – Drivetime – 11 December 1920 – The burning of Cork by the Auxiliaries with the assistance of the Black and Tans.



The events of the night of 11/12 December 1920 in Cork probably had their origins in the killing of seventeen members of the Royal Irish Constabulary on 28 November in Kilmichael. Of course these were not any ordinary members of the RIC, an organisation not greatly beloved of the plain people of Ireland in the first place.


The victims of Tom Barry’s flying column at Kilmichael were members of the RIC Auxiliary force, recruited in the summer of 1920 from former and serving British Army officers and touted as an elite counter-insurgency group. Counter insurgents they undoubtedly were but their elite status took something of a drubbing as an IRA unit with a fraction of their military experience wiped out a detachment of the force, that became reviled in Ireland as ‘the Auxies’, a week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin.


What happened in Cork on 11 December, however, had a more proximate cause. The local IRA had observed that a force of Auxiliaries always left Victoria barracks on the outskirts of Cork and headed for the city centre at 8.00 pm. every evening. An ambush was laid for them at Dillon’s Cross which led to the death of one of the RIC ‘Temporary Cadets’, as they were formally known.


In the first wave of retaliation the Auxiliaries entered a local pub, terrorized the occupants, seized one of them, and in an egregious exhibition of military valour, stripped him naked and forced him to sing God save the King in the middle of the road. That was only the start of their nocturnal frolic.


At 9.30 they returned to Dillon’s Cross, raided a number of houses, forced the occupants into the street and burned down their homes. The spree of mindless violence then continued in the city centre. There the Auxiliaries were joined by their only slightly more wholesome cousins, the Black and Tans. Together, in and out of uniform, they went on the rampage. Among other notable establishments, Grant’s department store was set alight. When the fire brigade arrived to fight the blaze the firemen were prevented from doing their jobs by the Temporary Cadets and their allies – nicknamed, appropriately, after a pack of hounds.   The fire fighters were threatened, shot at, and their hoses were cut.


At 4.00 am. Cork City Hall and the Carnegie Library went up in flames. In terms of historical records this did for Cork what Ernie O’Malley later allegedly accomplished on a national scale when the Public Record Office in the Four Courts was atomized during the Civil War. When more fire brigade units arrived they were denied access to water by the security forces and were also fired upon when they attempted to do their jobs. At some point that night two members of the IRA, the brothers Con and Jeremiah Delany were taken from their beds and shot out of hand.


In all five acres of the city were destroyed, comprising forty business premises and three hundred homes. Over three million pounds worth of damage was done – which equates to around two hundred million euros today. Two thousand people were left out of work.


The British government blamed the entire episode on the IRA and were aided and abetted in this by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, who threated to excommunicate IRA volunteers who continued their involvement in the War of Independence. His Grace was accused by Cork politicians of ‘adding insult to injury’. Ironically the only report into the affair, sanctioned by the British government, took the opposite tack and pointed the finger at K Company of the Auxiliaries based at Victoria Barracks. When the British government refused to publish the so-called ‘Strickland’ report the Prime Minister and Irish Secretary were berated in the House of Commons by one of the few remaining Irish Party MPs, T.P.O’Connor, who sat for one of the Liverpool constituencies.


K Company of the Auxiliaries thereafter sported burnt corks in their hats as a provocative reminder of their penchant for pyromania and wreaking havoc. The unit was, to the regret of none, other than its members, disbanded in March 1921, four months before the War of Independence truce.


Much of the centre of the city of Cork was razed to the ground by the British security forces ninety-five years ago, on this day.





On This Day – Drivetime – 4.12.1879 Birth of Hamilton Harty



How do you respond to the description ‘the prince of accompanists’? With delight if you want to spend your working life playing piano chords while an opera or lieder performs downstage of you and takes all the accolades. But perhaps not so ardently if your ambition in life is to be a composer and conductor.


The Irish composer Hamilton Harty, born in Hillsborough Co. Down in 1879, was so described by the Musical Times in 1920. He was something of a musical prodigy – becoming a church organist in Co.Antrim at the age of 12 and holding down similar posts in Belfast and Bray, Co.Wicklow while still a teenager. He moved to London in his early twenties where he was seen as a ‘promising composer and outstanding accompanist’ – there it is again, second fiddle.


However, he was good enough as a composer to have his Comedy Overture performed at the 1907 Proms by an orchestra under the direction of Sir Henry Wood himself. In addition he didn’t do too badly out of being an accompanist in that one of the soloists with whom he worked was the soprano Anges Nicholls. She later became Mrs. Harty.


As a composer he devoted much of his time to reworking Irish themes. This is evident in his Irish symphony, first performed at the Feis Ceoil in Dublin in 1904 with Harty himself conducting. That same year the third place finisher in the singing competition was one James Joyce.


Harty also began conducting with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1911. In 1913 he conducted the orchestra in his own composition Variations on a Dublin Air. He was also invited to conduct at Covent Garden at around that time but Harty and Grand Opera never really hit it off. The composer wrote of opera that it was a medium in which ‘clumsy attempts are made at defining the indefinable suggestions of music’. There is no record of what opera thought of Harty but the Times wrote of his efforts that he made the music of Bizet and Wagner sound like ‘quotations from some forgotten German score’. Ouch!


Harty finally found his niche as a conductor with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. He made his debut with the Hallé in April 1914. Unfortunately his career was interrupted by the small matter of a global war. He sensibly joined the Navy, where casualties were considerably lighter than on dry land and survived to be demobilized in 1918. He became the Hallés permanent conductor in 1920 and restored the reputation to the levels it had experienced under its founder Charles Hallé.


Harty and the Hallé came to fit each other like a pair of old gloves. On one occasion the famous Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel was performing a Brahms concerto with the Hallé. He overlooked two bars, enough to throw any conductor and orchestra into total confusion. Harty and the Hallé didn’t so much as miss a beat. Later Schnabel, by way of a compliment to the conductor, suggested that the Hallé was ‘second only to the Berlin Philharmonic’. Harty was having none of it – pointing out with some asperity that the Hallé was ‘better by two bars’.


Harty was knighted in 1925 but his career in Manchester did not come to a happy end. When, in 1932, he accepted the post of conductor in chief with the London Symphony Orchestra the Hallé dropped him like a hot bassoon. He took some measure of revenge by poaching a number of their key players for his new band. However his tenure with the LSO was brief and chastening. He didn’t bring in the crowds and was dumped unceremoniously after only two years.


Towards the end of his life he suffered ill health but still managed to adapt a number of Irish songs and create a new tone poem The Children of Lir. He did a lot of work in his final years with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was only 61 when he died in 1940. His ashes were scattered in Hillsborough parish church.


Hamilton Harty, accompanist, composer, and conductor was born 136 years ago, on this day.