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29 Jun 2022

Kilkenny miners, the part they played in forging the history of America - and how they were treated

Author and historian Gary Martin tells Siobhan Donohoe about how people hid their Irish ancestry for fear of being prosecuted

Day In The Life Kilkenny

This week’s Day in the Life comes from America. It’s based on a story from Gary Martin, who is an avid reader of the Day in the Life column - simply because he loves Kilkenny!
Gary lives in Pennsylvania, USA and is very proud of his Irish heritage, especially with his connections to Kilkenny.
Gary reached out to me on LinkedIn to tell me a fascinating story about his family and the coalminers from Castlecomer, who immigrated to America during the Great Famine.
What shocked me about his story was how poorly the coalminers were treated. They were deemed to be no better than slaves and some even hid their identity and origins to stay out of trouble.
Some the miners were branded as being part of the infamous Molly Maguire gang. The Molly Maguires, were a secret organisation of coal miners supposedly responsible for acts of terrorism in the coalfields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia from 1862 to 1876.
The group named itself after a widow who led a group of Irish anti-landlord agitators in the 1840s. However, Gary believes that although West Virginia had their Coal wars, there were never any Molly Maguire connection.
In 1877, 10 members of The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), which is the largest and oldest Irish Catholic organisation in America, were executed.
“To this day,” said Gary, “it is still the largest legal mass execution of American citizens in our country’s history.”
The miners were convicted of violent crimes against the coal industry, yet the facts of the labour, class, and ethnic conflicts, even the existence of the Molly Maguires remain contested.
Some believe it was a way for the coal barons to stop any worker uprising.
Gary’s story also disturbed me when he talked about how people hid their Irish ancestry in fear of being prosecuted. When Gary was 17, he recalls watching a movie about the Mollies in the area where he was from, starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris.
“I asked my grandmother if she knew about them,” he said. “She replied simply ‘they weren’t around here’.
So, then I asked what she could tell me about our ancestors. (Her maiden name was Brennan, her mother’s name was Curran, and her mother’s maiden name was Hogan). My grandmother thought for a few minutes and said, ‘I think we’re German’.”
That was the day that Gary knew there was a lot of history lurking in many families in the area that he grew up in.
Gary has written two books on the subject. One is called Coal and Iron, which he gifted to our Kilkenny Library when he first visited Kilkenny 20 years ago.
Gary describes the book as ‘an attempt to try to arouse some interest in my two loves - my Irish heritage and my occupation as Union Ironworker’.
His second book, Irish Day, is a sequel. It’s based on the Irish Valley which. at one time, was a very populated area with 90% Irish families living there for many generations.
Gary joined the Navy at age of 17, during the Vietnam war. After his military career, he spent 25 years as a structural Ironworker, erecting steel buildings. He retired at 62.
Here is a glimpse into Gary’s research on his Kilkenny heritage…
Gary, thank you for reaching out to us in the Kilkenny People. Why do you feel it’s necessary for this story to be heard again?
I’m writing to you because a very significant era that has come and gone involving our two countries should be retold. As it was possibly one of America’s first militant efforts to organise union movement and was dealt with by enormously wealthy coal companies, who not only squashed the union, but it also destroyed two generations of Irish Catholic heritage.

Author and historian Gary Martin

Although some books and people have revived the story, I believe much more effort should be made to make this era an epic Irish American saga, much of which started in Castlecomer.
How were your Castlecomer ancestors involved in these events?
The huge need for coal in US started with its biggest incline in the 1840s. This was due to railroad expansion, then the Civil War, followed by huge industrial growth. All these events made coal the number one source of energy in America.
During the Great Irish Famine, the American coal barons were in dire need of workers. So, they went to Castlecomer and areas close by to recruit families to come to Schuylkill County Pennsylvania, where they would have good jobs for life.
The big problem was the Irish were worked and treated worse than slaves. After years of mistreatment, the Irish started striking which eventually led to violence.
Beatings, sabotage and ultimately murders took place. And so, the story told was that Schuylkill County was granted a Charter from Ireland to form a ‘Molly Maguire’ to wage war against the coal barons.
Well, the coal companies fought back first by forming their own unrestricted police force called the Coal & Iron Police.
The coal barons hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency, who brought in an undercover agent to infiltrate the Local Chapters of the AOH.
He posed as an Irish Catholic on the run from the police in New York. He was good at his job and soon became very popular with AOH members.
You believe a lot of injustice was carried out.
The miners started to be arrested for many crimes but most severely were some were charged with murder.
This is where American justice system was ignored and replaced with money and power.
First, the Prosecutor was also the president of the coal company. Second, the main witness was the Pinkerton spy who was not considered a man of good character.
Thirdly, there was a disturbing issue regarding the jury - not one Irish person or Catholic person was on that jury.
Most of the jurors were from the Southern part of the county, farmland and of German descent. Some barely understood English.
What happened on the ‘Day of the Rope’?
On June 21, 1877, six so-called Molly Maguires were hanged in Pottsville. On the same day four more were hanged in neighbouring Carbon County.
We here in the Coal region of Schuylkill still call this ‘The Day of the Rope’. Ten members of the AOH were executed and to this day it is still the largest legal mass execution of American citizens in our country’s history.
Over a two-year time span, 24 AOH members were hanged. Today, most of them wouldn’t even have been arrested, let alone hanged.

The original cemetery in front of St Kieran's Church, which was built by Kilkenny miners in Schuylkill County in 1858

So, most people I know believe very strongly that this was the wealthy coal barons way of keeping unions out of their companies because, to this day, there is not one shred of proof that an organisation called the Molly Maguires was in this county.
It worked in favour of the coal barons. The union effort was crushed for a few decades. If any Irish Catholic argued with management, he was fired and branded a Molly.
As a result, and for their economic safety, many Irish Catholics stop talking about the old country. Many changed their names and the true saga of the importance of that time in history, has been mostly faded to an almost insignificant event.
There are still many people like me who are very passionate and haven’t stopped.
You also say that 90% of the people who lived in the ‘Irish Valley’ of Schuylkill County were descendants of Kilkenny?
The first Kilkenny miners built a church there in 1858 and named it St Kieran’s Church. My great grandfather Thomas Holohan was the first baby baptised there.
It’s still there today but has not been used in years. In front of St Kieran’s Church is the original cemetery. The oldest graves have inscriptions you can still read.
Not all, but many have inscriptions of where they were from. The inscriptions mostly just say ‘Kilkenny’, but some say ‘Carlow, Laois’. It’s very clear that most of the graves were Kilkenny Irish.
The people of the Valley are very proud and take pretty good care of the grounds.

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