Making Sense of the Molly Maguires

Making Sense of the Molly Maguires

History Hangout: Conversation with Kevin Kenny


In this episode, Ben Spohn Interviews Kevin Kenny on his book Making Sense of the Molly Maguires which recently had a special 25th anniversary release.  The Molly Maguires were a secret organization operating in Pennsylvania’s Coal Region during a period of labor unrest in the 1860s and 1870s. This period culminated in the execution of twenty suspected members of the Molly Maguires executed for the murder of sixteen men during this period. Since then there has been disagreement, over who the Molly Maguire’s were, what they did, and their motivations. Kenny argues that this is an inadequate understanding of the Molly Maguires and points out that most of the histories describing the Molly Maguires in this light, as some sort of sinister, secret organization were written by their detractors.

Kenny’s work offers a new explanation of the Molly Maguires drawing from American and Irish sources and traces the labor unrest in the pattern of the Molly Maguires back to similar groups in Ireland that operated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Keeping that in mind, Kenny’s work is a history of labor and immigration in America. While there is no denying the Molly Maguire’s involvement in violent labor unrest, this adds context to their motivations and provides an explanation for why they embraced the methods of protest that they did.

Kevin Kenny is the Glucksman Professor of History and Director of Glucksman Ireland House at NYU. For  some of his research Kenny consulted the Reading Company records at Hagley, which included material related to James McParland’s investigation of the Molly Maguires and other materials related to the Molly Maguire trials.  

The audio only version of this program is available on our podcast.