The making of the 1970 movie “The Molly Maguires” has a story behind it that is as fascinating and outrageous as the Molly Maguires themselves. The Molly Maguires were a secret society of Irish-American outlaws who terrorized the coal region of Northeastern Pennsylvania in a fight for better pay and working conditions for miners. They were named after a mythical Irishwoman who defended the working class from English landowners and overzealous rent collectors. When director Martin Ritt set out to make a movie about them, he envisioned making the next “Doctor Zhivago.” Instead, the movie bombed at the box office and was largely forgotten. However, the real-life Molly Maguires remain a staple of Pennsylvania history and folklore. Growing up in eastern PA, I was culturally connected to that story and, unlike critics and audiences in 1970, was interested in the movie.
“The Molly Maguires” dramatizes the story of two real-life characters: Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery), an Irish immigrant who organizes the Mollies; and James McParlan (Richard Harris) a detective who infiltrates their ranks on behalf of the coal companies. (Kehoe’s great-grandson, who still runs the bar that his great-grandfather established, told me he hates Connery’s performance. But that’s another story.) Both characters make difficult and morally complex choices. After learning that a Molly Maguire’s pregnant wife and mother-in-law were murdered by vigilantes, McParlan is conflicted. He wonders whether or not bringing such attention to the Mollies is worth it, when it caused innocent people to be killed. Despite these qualms, McParlan continues to investigate the Mollies, and it is his testimony that results in them being hanged (or as Kehoe’s great-grandson called it, “dancing on the end of a rope.”)
Why did McParlan participate in the crusade against the Molly Maguires? Was his highest allegiance to the law, or was he just collecting the coal company’s checks? I believe that McParlan’s choice was morally neutral – he was simply bringing down the hammer of fate in a case where neither side was entirely correct. In his time among the Mollies, McParlan sees them planning and executing the murders of mine foremen and other enemies. It’s indisputably criminal, and in McParlan’s eyes it must be punished. Kehoe invites McParlan to see things from his point of view. The Irish miners work long hours in filthy conditions for starvation wages. They must purchase their own equipment, further docking their pay. Their existence is bleak and exhausting. As the years wear on, the evidence of black lung and other ailments is obvious on the older men. The women live hardscrabble existences, scrubbing the coal dust off their husband’s black faces. As Irish Catholic immigrants, they face enormous prejudice, including from their fellow miners. McParlan is somewhat sympathetic, but ultimately sides with the coal companies to eliminate the Mollies.
In such appalling circumstances, is it any wonder that the Mollies rose up violently? On one hand, Kehoe is right to use murder, threats and intimidation to agitate for workers’ rights. The coal companies have enacted an act of large-scale violence on the miners, treating them like vermin and subjecting them to unrelenting toil. As John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” That being said, Kehoe’s choice to use violence was a poor one. Church and community leaders who would be sympathetic to peaceful organizing condemn the Molly Maguires. They have no support from the public they claim to represent. Furthermore, some of the killings, such as the murder of policeman Benjamin Yost, were based more on personal vendettas than any political cause. In some respects, the Molly Maguires were like a small-scale Irish mafia, controlling local politics and ordering “hits” on those who crossed them. They created a climate of fear and unrest that made work in the mines – work which powered the United States’ great cities – difficult. Those sympathetic to the Mollies, however, will argue that this was merely coal company propaganda.
Maybe that is why the movie “The Molly Maguires” did so poorly. Maybe audiences didn’t want to be confronted by a story with no easy answers and no happy ending (the Molly Maguire reign of terror ends, but working conditions remain harsh) Even now, I think of how both Kehoe and McParlan both have valid arguments to support their sides. However, due to Kehoe’s actions, I see no alternative for McParlan other than to prosecute the Molly Maguires. To this day they are viewed as martyrs for the cause of the Irishman and the working man, but in their time their relationship with those two groups was more complex. Equally complex are the choices that McParlan and Kehoe faced as they both did what they believed was right. In a sense, the beliefs of both men were valid.