The Molly Maguires were, as anyone familiar with Sean Connery and Richard Harris-starring movie from 1970 of the same name, a 19th century secret society made up of Irish immigrant miners who fought oppression in the Pennsylvanian coalfields of the 1870s. But the actual history of the Molly Maguires stretches far broader and deeper than this fine example of American blue collar history and the infiltration of Pinkerton detective James McParland into their number which ultimately led to twenty arrests and execution by hanging. Understandably enough, this Irish fraternity had its roots in the old country.
Secret societies were commonplace throughout Ireland in the 18th century (though, much like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, they likely run the risk of being arrested for the obscure law of the 1797 Unlawful Oaths Act, which prohibited the swearing of secret oaths) and were founded on mutual, communal welfare; a desire to look after one another, to fight tor tenants’ rights and to preserve their (primarily Gaelic) way of life in the face of exploitation and oppression. Along with the Molly Maguires, there were also (or had also been) organisations known as the Ribbonmen (a Catholic society founded in 1817 and most active in the Tithe War between 1835 and 1855), the Peep o’ Day Boys (a Protestant society formed in 1779 that ultimately led to the formation of the Orange order), the Whiteboys (formed in the 1760s, they took their name from the white smocks they wore but were also known as ‘Levellers’, just as the followers of Gerrard Winstanley were once called. Their activities were outlawed by the so-called ‘Whiteboys Acts’ of parliament in the early 1800s), the Threshers, the Lady Clares and the Lady Rocks. Principally made up of tenant farmers and the like, the cause of these societies was one and the same; an agrarian rebellion against those who represented their English occupiers, such as landlords, agents and other sundry middlemen. This rebellion could take all manner of guises, from resisting land enclosure and killing or driving off livestock to the the beatings and even assassination of such agents.
In the performance of their activism, members would often dress as women to disguise themselves; much like the Welsh farmers and agricultural workers of the Rebecca Riots of 1839 to 1843. The Molly Maguires were also known to blacken their faces with burnt cork, recalling the traditions of the Mummers’ plays. But whilst mummery, which dates back to the Middle Ages, would see villagers don costume on festive days and perform for their neighbours who would repay them in food, drink or coin, the trade here was much less agreeable. Entering the premises of a shopkeeper who they believed guilty of overpricing their wares, the Mollies would request a donation. If this were not not forthcoming, they would simply take what they wished off the shelves, before warning of dire consequences should their actions be reported as a parting shot.
With the potato famine of 1845-’49 seeing over a million emigrate from Ireland to new shores, it is perhaps understandable that they carried in their hearts the ethics of a fraternal society. As strangers in strange lands such as England and America, they would need to be on their guard and look out for one another, preserving their interests. We know what this led to in America, but what of the Molly Maguires of Liverpool?
A million plus escaped Ireland during the blight, and they all came to Liverpool. Many would continue their journey from the city’s port, setting sail for the new world of America, but many stayed put here in the North West. Indeed, Liverpool is widely known for having the strongest Irish heritage of any UK city. Those immigrants who stayed soon established a chapter of the Mollies in the city. Ran by secretary Patrick Flynn, the Liverpool Molly Maguire Club secured headquarters at an alehouse in Alexander Pope Street (also known as Sawney Pope Street). A subscription-based ‘mutual defence association’, Flynn wrote that their aims were “the mutual assistance of the members when they got into ‘trouble'”.
Like their counterparts in their native Ireland and the US, the Liverpudlian Mollies soon earned their notoriety. On 10th May, 1853, The Liverpool Mercury newspaper reported that, “a regular faction fight took place in Marybone amongst the Irish residents in that district. About 200 men and women assembled, who were divided into four parties – the ‘Molly Maguires’, the ‘Kellys’, the ‘Fitzpatricks’ and the ‘Murphys’ – the greater number of whom were armed with sticks and stones. The three latter sections were opposed to the ‘Molly Maguires’ and the belligerents were engaged in hot conflict for about half an hour, when the guardians of the peace interfered”.
Whilst similarly notorious, there was seemingly one crucial difference between the Liverpudlian Mollies and the rest – the Molly Maguires of Liverpool were widely known as a criminal fraternity whose interests were gangsterism rather than the welfare of Irish emigres. The Liverpool Mercury‘s article paints a picture not unlike the scenes set by Martin Scorsese in his 2002 movie Gangs of New York which dramatised (albeit with some poetic licence) the real-life pitched street battles between rival factions for dominance over the Five Points district of 19th century Lower Manhattan, as previously recorded in Herbert Asbury’s 1927 non-fiction book of the same name.
The Mercury relates that this skirmish was nothing original. By 1851, two years prior to their report, more than 20% of Liverpool’s population was Irish and the Marybone district was effectively ‘Little Ireland’ or ‘East Dublin’. It is clear that this recorded incident was just another chapter in a longstanding gang war between the Mollies and three rivals whose names – the Kellys, the Fitzpatricks and the Murphys – suggest more familial outfits, perhaps resistant to the fee-paying, semi-official sect, and in all likelihood seeing their business – legal or otherwise – being squeezed by the more organised Mollies.