Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, and Molly Maguires
Contrary to the nineteenth-century conspiracy theorists, it is highly unlikely that an organization called the "Molly Maguires" was imported directly from Ireland to the United States. Nonetheless, the social structure and cultural practices in the parts of Ireland where the American Mollys originated offer some important clues about the nature of Molly Maguireism in Pennsylvania. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Irish countryside was infamous for its violence. At the heart of the violence was a mysterious, secret-society tradition that had emerged with the Whiteboy movement of the 1760s. In time, the term Whiteboyism came to be used generically, describing agrarian violence as a whole. So, too, did the term Ribbonism, though there was also a distinct Society of Ribbonmen active in the 1820s and 1830s. The Molly Maguires, who emerged in Ireland in the 1840s, were the last of the long line of rural secret societies that began with the Whiteboys. The American Molly Maguires were a rare transatlantic example of this Irish rural tradition. Without an understanding of Irish rural history, the eventual outbreak of Molly Maguire violence in Pennsylvania makes little sense. A detailed examination is needed, first, of the general pattern of protest and violence in the Irish countryside; and second, of the highly distinctive history and culture of north-central and northwestern Ireland. For it was in this part of Ireland, and the single county of Donegal in particular, that most of the American Molly Maguires originated.
Where in Ireland were the Molly Maguires active? What institutional form did they take? And what were their motivation and strategy? The first of these questions can be answered with some accuracy. The second and third are more difficult to answer, as the Molly Maguires left virtually no evidence for the historian to use. But partial answers can be extracted from the elite sources, specifically the reports and observations of Detective James McParlan, the land agent W. Steuart Trench, the English journalist Thomas Campbell Foster, and the contemporary press.
When James McParlan was assigned by Allan Pinkerton to investigate the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania in October 1873, his first task was to draw up a preliminary report on the origins of the society in Ireland. The result was a seven-page memorandum giving details of various Irish secret societies. McParlan was an Ulster Catholic, born and raised in County Armagh, and his report concentrated on the societies in his part of the country, with an emphasis on their sectarian nature. He began by tracing the history of secret societies like "the Society of Molly McGuire" back to organizations in eighteenth-century Ulster. At first, he claimed, these societies accepted members "irrespective of religious opinions." Then, following the bloody insurrection of 1798, the societies took on a rigidly sectarian form, with Protestants banding together in the Orange Order, and Catholics, despite the strong opposition of their clergymen, forming rival groups such as the "Threshers" and the "Ribbonmen." These were the predecessors of the Molly Maguires, who first emerged in south Ulster and east Connacht during the Great Famine of the late 1840s.
Proceeding clockwise from County Monaghan, the area in question includes counties Cavan, Longford, Roscommon, Leitrim, and Fermanagh. (See map 1.) W. Steuart Trench, the author of the best-selling Realities of Irish Life, which would be frequently cited at the trials in Pennsylvania in the 1870s, claimed that he first came across a tenant organization called the Molly Maguires in County Monaghan (south Ulster) in 1843. Trench claimed to have encountered the secret society for a second time in 1851, when he was appointed land agent on the Bath estate, also in County Monaghan. This time he learned that he had been sentenced to death by "the leaders of the Ribbon Association." "In accordance with this specimen of Ribbonite `fair play,'" Trench recalled, "a document was drawn up, and the next Sunday the police found a notice, formally posted on every Roman Catholic chapel in the district, of which the following is an exact copy:"
To Landlords, Agents, Bailiffs, Grippers, process-servers, and usurpers or underminers who wish to step into the evicted tenants' property, and to all others concerned in Tyranny and Oppression of the poor on the Bath Estate.
That you are hereby (under the pain of a certain punishment which will inevitably occur) prohibited from evicting tenants, executing decrees, serving process, distraining for rent, or going into another's land, or to assist any tyrant, Landlord, Agent in his insatiable desire for depopulation. Recollect the fate of Mauleverer, on this his anniversary. Dated May 23, 1851.
After two men were convicted and hanged for conspiring to murder a bailiff on the Bath estate, the local Ribbonmen were not heard from again.
While Trench concentrated on the single county of Monaghan, Thomas Campbell Foster extended the geographical net to include the neighboring counties of Cavan (in south Ulster) and Leitrim (in east Connacht). In 1845 and 1846, Campbell traveled throughout Ireland, sending back a series of letters to the Times of London describing Irish rural life and, in particular, agrarian violence. He began his journey in the area then most disturbed by violence, south Ulster. "It is a matter of notoriety that the county of Cavan has for some time been in an excited and disturbed state, and that several very shocking outrages have been perpetrated in it," Foster reported from Cavan Town on August 15. "Armed police and soldiers are everywhere seen about the town." Notices were posted offering rewards and seeking information on "the secret society commonly called `Ribandmen' or `Molly Maguires.'" A local magistrate, Mr. Bell, had recently been assassinated; and there were numerous reports of threats, assaults, armed robberies, and murders elsewhere in south Ulster and east Connacht, especially county Leitrim.
The question of geography aside, the most important matter on which McParlan, Trench, and Foster agreed was the identification of the Molly Maguires, the Ribbonmen, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians as different names for the same organization. "Now, what is the `Molly Maguireism' which has disturbed this county?" Foster inquired from Cavan on August 21, 1845. "`It is the same as `Ribandism,' say the magistrates, in their placards offering rewards for the apprehension of `Molly Maguires.'" "Molly Maguireism," Foster concluded, was a local generic term for agrarian unrest: "it is, in fact, but the embodyment of the spirit of discontent; it is an old-existing malady with a new name."
This "malady" had first manifested itself in the Whiteboy movement of the 1760s. There had been a specific society of Whiteboys in the eighteenth century, but the term Whiteboyism was used generically thereafter to describe agrarian violence in general. The term Ribbonism was also used as a catchall for rural violence in the early nineteenth century, but there was also a distinct organization called the Society of Ribbonmen, which needs to be distinguished from the generic usage. The society was an outgrowth of the Defenders, a Catholic sectarian organization active in south Ulster, east Connacht, and north Leinster in the late eighteenth century. The Defenders appear to have been absorbed into the United Irish network prior to the insurrection of 1798. The Ribbonmen emerged from the debacle of the uprising, inheriting from the Defenders a sense of the republican radicalism of the French Revolution and casting off sectarianism in favor of an often pronounced anticlericalism. The Irish Molly Maguires of the 1840s and 1850s were active in the parts of the country that had been the centers of Defenderism and Ribbonism, and there appears to have been some institutional continuity from the Defenders through the Ribbonmen to the Molly Maguires.
Between 1822 and 1840 there were two main Ribbon networks in Ireland, one based in Dublin and the other in the old Defender territory in the north-central region. Branches of Ribbonism were also organized in England and Scotland, just as McParlan reported, under the name Hibernian Funeral Society. In 1825 the Ribbonmen adopted the name St. Patrick's Fraternal Society, in order to placate the Catholic church. According to an American history of the AOH published in 1898, "there was a large number of members who rebelled against those changes and withdrew from the order and continued under the name Molly Maguires and Ribbonmen," especially in south Ulster. In that part of the country the terms Ribbonmen and Molly Maguires were used interchangeably in the 1840s. But they were typically used in a loose, generic sense, and the Molly Maguires seem to have been an agrarian secret society of the "Whiteboy" variety rather than an alternative Society of Ribbonmen, even if the generic term Ribbonism was used to describe them. The rural, local, and often Gaelic flavor of agrarian agitators like the Molly Maguires, Threshers, and Lady Clares, marked them off as very different from the secular, cosmopolitan, and protonationalist Society of Ribbonmen.
The name Ancient Order of Hibernians was first adopted in the United States in 1838. "It was the Ribbonmen who carried the Order across the Atlantic," according to the official history of the American AOH. Members of St. Patrick's Fraternal Society in New York City, "together with some others who had been Ribbonmen in Ireland," met with some Ribbonmen from Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, to organize a new society in 1836. Divisions of the society were organized in Schuylkill County and in New York City, and two years later the title Ancient Order of Hibernians was adopted. "The Order thrived among the coal miners in Pennsylvania," the official history of the AOH noted, "and the headquarters remained in that State until shortly before the first American charter was granted to the New York body in 1853." Branches of the AOH were also organized in Scotland, England, and Ireland.
In his initial memorandum to Allan Pinkerton, James McParlan claimed that the Molly Maguires, as a well-organized conspiratorial organization, had been imported from Ireland to the United States by way of England. In the 1850s, according to McParlan, the Molly Maguires and the Ribbonmen were one and the same organization. Although the society was soon crushed by the Irish authorities, many of its members emigrated to England and Scotland, where they operated under the name Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The detective reported that he had first come across the Order in 1856 while working in the manufacturing and mining district along the river Tyne in northeast England. Most AOH members from this area had since moved to the United States, McParlan claimed, and "being that their training in the Mines & Manufacturys of England had them somewhat skilled in that business the[y] early found employment in the Eastern states," where they reestablished their secret society. In the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, McParlan claimed, the Molly Maguires operated under the name Ancient Order of Hibernians. His memorandum concluded with an account of the inner workings of this society in the United States.
In retrospect, McParlan's claim of direct continuity from Ireland to Pennsylvania via precisely the part of Britain where he had lived in the 1850s is rather too neat to be convincing. While branches of the Ribbonmen and the Ancient Order of Hibernians certainly existed in Britain, there is no evidence that any such organization was exported directly to the United States. If the AOH was a transatlantic outgrowth of Ribbonism, it was clearly a peaceful fraternal society rather than a violent conspiratorial one. The order had lodges throughout the northeastern United States, but it was only in the lower anthracite region that these lodges became associated with violence. The violence in Pennsylvania was clearly inspired by its Irish prototype, but it was also rooted in local industrial conditions. And most of it occurred in the 1860s and 1870s, almost a generation after the violence in Ireland had ended.
The third and most difficult question about the Molly Maguires in Ireland concerns their motivation and strategy. Until quite recently, Irish agrarian violence in general tended to be explained in terms of a nationalist, Catholic populace struggling to cast off the yoke of the British, Protestant oppressor. But, in what has amounted to a sea-change in Irish historical writing since the 1960s, one myth in particular has been overturned: that of a homogeneous, nationalist peasantry doing valiant battle against an alien, landlord class. This effort to liberate Irish historiography from what one historian has called "the paralyzing straight-jacket of nationalist orthodoxy" has been the defining characteristic of recent Irish historical writing.
As part of this move away from the old nationalist synthesis, historians of the Irish countryside have tried to devise an alternative explanation for the rural violence endemic in Ireland between 1760 and 1850. The most convincing school of interpretation concedes a point that was anathema to the old orthodoxy: The oppressors of the Irish were as often Irishmen as Englishmen, and the victims of agrarian violence were much more commonly Irish land agents, middlemen, and tenants than English usurpers. Abstract concepts of "Irishness" and nationalist struggle have been replaced by an analysis emphasizing socioeconomic relations and local concerns and grievances. Above all, the violence is understood in terms of the disruption of traditional practices of landholding and land use, which violated the "moral economy" of the rural poor.
The response to such violations was direct, violent action. Fences were torn down, and animals grazing on newly enclosed land were driven off, mutilated, or killed. Landlords' agents were threatened, beaten, and assassinated, as were tenants who settled on land from which others had been evicted. Merchants and millers who charged prices deemed unjust were threatened and attacked. Land converted to pasture was dug up at night to make it arable once again, in an effort to expand the availability of land for small-scale potato cultivation. Far from being irrational or bloodthirsty, the violence had a specific purpose and "legitimizing notion," namely the attempt to restore traditional conceptions of a just society and economy in the face of innovations and intrusions. The type of violence in question may be described as a form of retributive justice enforced to correct transgressions against traditional moral and social codes.
With the exception of the frankly sectarian organizations in Ulster, the presence of agrarian societies in a given part of Ireland can be seen as a measure of the extent to which that region had undergone the process of agrarian transformation that typically provoked rural popular protest. In general, the agitation was a protest not against the existing land system but against attempts to change it. A particular type of enterprising landlord, or more often his agents, usually initiated the violence by seeking to alter traditional patterns of estate management. Landlords' agents were the principal victims, but peasant farmers were also attacked for taking land from which other tenants had been ejected. A great deal of the agitation had to do with access to arable land, particularly in the form of conacre (tiny patches of land rented for the time necessary to plant and sow a crop of potatoes). The occupation and control of land, not some general notion of Irish nationhood, was the chief source of conflict. Above all, the struggle needs to be conceived of in regional rather than nationwide terms. It occurred at different times in different places, and local agrarian societies were rarely concerned with, or even aware of, developments in other parts of the country.
The object of the Irish Molly Maguires in the 1840s, James McParlan reported, was "to take from those who had abundance and give it to the poor." The strategies he outlined, such as the intimidation of shopkeepers in an attempt to enforce just prices, resemble the behavior historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have described in their work on the "moral economy" of popular protesters and demonstrators. "Their mode of operation," McParlan reported, "was to have there [sic] leader dressed up in a suit of womens clothing to represent the Irish mother begging bread for her children under the disguise." The leader, or "Molly," approached a storekeeper "and demanded the Amount Levyed on him in the shape of meal flour and general Groceries." If the storekeeper refused to comply, the "Molly" instructed his followers to enter the store and help themselves, and warned the owner of dire consequences should he report the incident to the authorities.
Agrarian violence in Ireland coincided closely with seasonal and festive rituals, particularly the conjunction of half-yearly rents with the Celtic festivals of Halloween and May Eve. There were "clear linkages between Whiteboyism, the cycle of peasant economy, and rural custom," as one historian has observed. The agrarian agitators displayed a conviction that they were enforcing a just law of their own in opposition to the inequities of landlord law, the police and court system, and the transgressions of land-grabbers. In Ireland, as in Pennsylvania, many of the Irish clearly had little stake in the official legal system, which they experienced as an instrument of injustice and oppression. Significantly, the Whiteboys and Ribbonmen were referred to by their detractors as "midnight legislators" who enforced a secret law by violence. In the revealing words of Sir Thomas Larcom: "There are in fact two codes of law in force and in antagonism--one the statute law enforced by judges and jurors, in which the people do not yet trust--the other a secret law, enforced by themselves--its agents the Ribbonmen and the bullet." The Molly Maguires, on both sides of the Atlantic, embodied an alternative, informal system of law, which could not permanently be tolerated by the authorities.
Having briefly portrayed the Irish Molly Maguires as crusaders for social justice, James McParlan was quick to point out that they rapidly outgrew their modest and justifiable beginnings, becoming instead a bloodthirsty terrorist organization. "Instead of performing the simple Acts of taking from the rich and giving to the poor," he wrote, "the[y] commenced hostilities something after the fashion of the KuKluxKlahn [sic] of the Southern States of the Country but as the[y] had no negros [sic] to kill the[y] commenced shooting down Landlords Agents Bailiffs or any unoffending neighbour who might not coincide with their views." He went on to give vivid details of the torture, intimidation, and killings supposedly perpetrated by this nefarious society, "one of the most formidable organizations for Rapine & Murder [that] ever existed in Ireland." Yet, despite this condemnation, the image that sticks in one's mind is the earlier one of the "Molly" demanding food for "her" starving children.
Trench and Foster also emphasized the economic dimension of the Molly Maguire conflict in Ireland, even in border counties like Monaghan, next to McParlan's native Armagh. Given that most landlords and their agents were Protestants, the conflict often assumed the form of religious hatred. But this should not obscure the fundamental issues of land and property at the heart of the matter. The struggle over these issues was most pronounced in the eastern portion of the province of Connacht, where Molly Maguire activities reached their peak of intensity. Thomas Campbell Foster had no hesitation in declaring that the root cause of the conflict, both here and in Cavan, was a struggle over access to the land.
Unlike the rest of northern Connacht, the land of Roscommon was particularly well suited to conversion from small-scale tillage to large-scale pasture and cattle farming. In this respect, Roscommon was undergoing changes similar to those that much of the provinces of Leinster and Munster had already experienced. As a result, the problems faced by Roscommon smallholders and the tactics they employed in response, duplicated developments seen in other parts of Ireland since the 1760s. A central issue among the Molly Maguires in Roscommon was the desire to retain the tiny patches of land held under the conacre system, on which a family could raise sufficient potatoes to live. These holdings were threatened by an enclosure movement, and the Molly Maguires responded by digging up newly enclosed pasture land to render it fit only for conacre. This tactic had also been employed by the Whiteboys in the 1760s and a group called the Terry Alts in the late 1820s and early 1830s, to name but two examples.
Another tactic in Roscommon was to attack and maim animals grazing on pasture. The Molly Maguires allegedly concealed needles in the grass, which were then swallowed by cattle, with fatal consequences. In one reported incident, they killed a hunting dog and left a notice to its owner expressing their wish that they had killed him instead. In other parts of the country, herdsmen were intimidated and attacked, and countless animals were killed or mutilated. Here, too, the Molly Maguires were duplicating tactics inaugurated by the Whiteboys eighty years earlier. In one such incident, "a bay gelding, as if a substitute for its hated owner, was tried, found guilty, tortured and shot."
One final, intriguing question about the Irish Molly Maguires of the 1840s is the origin of their name. A number of stories were told about the name in the nineteenth century. One version held that an old widow called Molly Maguire had been evicted from her house and local peasants had banded together to avenge her. Another version held that Molly Maguire was the owner of the "shebeen" (illicit tavern) where the secret society met to plan its activities. According to a third version, Molly Maguire was a fierce young woman, pistols strapped to each thigh, who led bands of men through the countryside on their nocturnal raids. Though conveniently simple, these stories were doubtless apocryphal; they cropped up in various unconnected parts of Ireland, from Antrim to Roscommon, and they are best seen as elements of folklore rather than accurate sociological descriptions.
The most plausible explanation of the name "Molly Maguires" is that the men who engaged in the violence disguised themselves as women. "These `Molly Maguires,'" as W. Steuart Trench observed, "were generally stout active young men, dressed up in women's clothes, with faces blackened or otherwise disguised; sometimes they wore crape over their countenances, sometimes they smeared themselves in the most fantastic manner with burnt cork about their eyes, mouths and cheeks." Similar practices were common to nearly all Irish agrarian societies in the period 1760 to 1850. The Whiteboys (na Buachailli Bana), for example, were so named because they wore white linen frocks over their clothes and white bands or handkerchiefs around their hats. At the same time, they apparently pledged allegiance to a mythical woman, Sieve Oultagh (from the Irish Sadhbh Amhaltach, or Ghostly Sally), whom they designated as their queen. The Molly Maguires appear to have done much the same thing. Disguised as women when they went out at night, they dedicated themselves to a mythical woman who symbolized their struggle against injustice, whether sectarian, nationalist, or economic. The clothing was not just a means of disguise; it also served to endow the agrarian agitator with legitimacy, investing him with "the character of the disinterested agent of a higher authority," the "son" or "daughter" of Molly Maguire.
One possible cultural source for the costumes of the Molly Maguires is the practice of mummery imported to Ireland by English and Scottish settlers in the seventeenth century. Mummery was strongest in the North, and in the predominantly Catholic borderlands of Ulster and Leinster it was soon assimilated into the indigenous culture. On festive days, like midsummer's or New Year's, the mummers travelled from door to door demanding food, money, or drink in exchange for a performance. There was often a somewhat ominous undertone to their festivities; they threatened retribution if they were spurned, and the threat was not always made in jest. They dressed in straw costumes, white shirts, or brightly colored women's clothing, and their faces were usually blackened. The Molly Maguires dressed in very similar costumes, perhaps to signal that they too were acting on behalf of their community, upholding an alternative social order against external authorities. Rather than being an aberration, the Mollys were very much an outgrowth of the cultural world that surrounded them. Moving quickly from taunts and threats to outright violence, they presented themselves as the custodians of their community.
In Ireland, as one of the leading historians of early modern Europe has observed, "we have the most extensive example of disturbances led by men disguised as women." The "Threshers," for example, dressed in white sheets before going out at night to enforce "Captain Thresher's Laws" The "Peep o'Day Boys," the "Lady Rocks," and the "Lady Clares" all disguised themselves, often quite elaborately, in women's clothing. How is this pattern of gender inversion to be explained? Given the preliterate character of Gaelic culture, no written evidence on this point has survived. But it is clear that allegiance to a mythical woman was a common theme in nineteenth-century Irish culture, not just among agrarian rebels. In parishes and villages the residents were "children of the one mother"; in the nation at large, to the extent that a concept of it existed, they were "children of the Gael." Ireland was typically symbolized by a beautiful woman in the aisling poetry of the eighteenth century. And the members of agrarian secret societies were "children" of "Sieve," or "Molly Maguire," or "Terry's Mother." In McParlan's initial report to Allan Pinkerton, the leader of the Molly Maguires wore "a suit of womens clothing to represent the Irish mother begging bread for her children."
As for the motif of cross-dressing, it was characteristic of most communal societies in the Irish countryside, not just those that had recourse to violence. Indeed, the violent societies appear to have been an outgrowth of nonviolent ones, representing the transformation of cultural play into social protest. "Contemporary accounts," as one historian has observed, "... suggest that the organisation of the Whiteboys may have owed something to the traditional pattern of rural life, with its Mayboys, Wrenboys, Strawboys and their captains." Disguise, transvestism, and overt sexual games also characterized one of the most distinctively Irish cultural forms of the time, boisterous and often sacrilegious wakes for the dead.
This propensity to dress in women's clothing was not just a cultural peculiarity of the Irish. It was a common motif in the festive rituals of early modern Europe, for example, in France on St. Stephen's Day and New Year's Day, and in northern England and the Scottish lowlands during the twelve days of Christmas. The more remote a region was from developed agricultural areas and metropolitan and industrial centers, the longer these cultural traditions survived. They were still thriving in rural Wales (the "Rebeccas"), in parts of France (les demoiselles d'Ariege), and in many parts of Ireland as late as the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, the "Wren Boys" who continue to cavort through parts of rural Ireland on St. Stephen's Day are an eerie residue of this bygone culture.
The impulse behind disguise and cross-dressing was not, of course, some collective confusion over sexual identity. But if sex was not being questioned, gender and other forms of social hierarchy were. In societies where the word "woman" often signified the passionate, the disorderly, the violent and chaotic side of human nature, temporary assumption of women's identity by men was fraught with significance. Recent historians have detected in the practice of carnival, for example, not just a social safety valve but real alternatives to the prevailing social order, particularly in terms of gender. The world of Mediterranean festival, social mockery, and cultural play may seem a long way from the rainswept boglands of north-central and northwest Ireland. But the social and cultural roots of the Molly Maguires apparently lay in this obscure world of ritual and protest, common to different parts of early modern Europe at different times. In general, the patterns of protest and violence in question survived longer in Ireland than elsewhere in Western Europe. And the Molly Maguires were the last of the long line of violent secret societies to emerge in the Irish countryside in the century after 1760.