On This Day – 4.5.1836    The Ancient Order of Hibernians in America is founded






Molly Malone may be the best-known Molly in Irish history, folklore or music, but despite her entrepreneurial spirit and wide wheelbarrow, she wasn’t nearly as important, influential, or reviled as Molly Maguire. Whether or not either of these iconic women actually existed, is a moot point, but in the case of Ms. Maguire the organization with which her name was associated, was a force to be reckoned with in Irish and Irish-American political life for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One critic, a unionist, referred to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (often known as The Mollies) as ‘a bitterly sectarian and secret society with a long dark and cruel history’. You might respond, ‘well he was probably a member of the Orange Order, so what would expect him to say?’ But the distinguished nationalist MP William O’Brien referred to the Hibernians as a Frankenstein, and the Roman Catholic Cardinal Logue described it as ‘‘a pest, a cruel tyranny, and an organised system of blackguardism’, although his beef was as much to do with late night drinking and dancing, than politics

So, what was the nature of this monster, or fraternal Catholic organisation, depending on your point of view. Initially it was primarily an American Catholic body, which emerged at a time of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment in the USA. This was exemplified by the activities of the nativist and anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party, and attacks on churches and church property across the US east coast cities. Founded in New York in 1836 the Hibernians quickly moved into machine politics, and became an arm of the Democratic party, in organisations like Tammany Hall in New York city.


In the coal and anthracite regions of Pennsylvania its lodges or chapters were associated with the secretive militant labour group, the Molly Maguires, called after an Irish agrarian movement of tenant farmers, better known for shooting landlords, than ploughing or milking. In 1884, as Brendan Behan could have predicted, there was a split in the organisation – the reasons are far too tedious to rehearse and don’t really matter anyway as they kissed and made up again in 1898. At that stage, there were just under two hundred thousand Americans affiliated to the AOH.


In the late nineteenth century, the Ancient Order of Hibernians was imported from the USA and began to take hold in Ulster, where it was seen as a political and cultural counterweight to the loyalist Orange Order, and was organised along similar lines. Around this time, it acquired its eminence grise, in the form of the West Belfast Irish Parliamentary Party MP Joseph Devlin. Devlin was the archetypal party boss. If he had moved to the USA he probably would have become Mayor or Governor of New York, or ‘Boss’ of the corrupt but mightily effective Tammany Hall machine.


Instead he used the pietistic and nationalistic AOH as a power base for his dominance of Ulster nationalism and wielded a huge influence on the Irish Parliamentary Party, while it was under the leadership of John Redmond. So powerful was Devlin that not even the Sinn Fein landslide of 1918 could shift him. Almost all of the few surviving nationalist MPs were in Ulster, clinging on largely thanks to Devlin’s popularity and capable management.

The Irish and American branches of the organisation formally merged in 1902. Between then, and the outbreak of the Great War, the Irish section of the AOH grew from about five thousand members, mostly in Ulster lodges, to just short of one hundred thousand throughout the thirty-two counties.

The AOH was never a radical organisation, although it could often be relied upon to resort to strong-arm tactics against loyalist or rival nationalist groups. It opposed Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union during the 1913 lockout. Larkin blamed the AOH for helping to prolong the strike. In the 1930s there was a strong Hibernian presence in the ranks of O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, and many Hibernians joined the Irish Brigade which fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. For a century and a half, until 1993, the AOH ran the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade with a rod of iron, ensuring that, for example, gay and lesbian groups were not allowed to parade.

On the plus side, it served as an effective protective force against American nativism, and has contributed hundreds of thousands of pounds and dollars to charitable causes.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, in many ways a mirror image of the Orange Order, was founded in the notorious Five Points neighbourhood in New York, one hundred and eighty-two years ago, on this day.






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.