‘Making Sense of the Molly Maguires’ by Kevin Kenny Literature Analysis

The book ‘Making Sense of the Molly Maguires’ by Kevin Kenny addresses the industrial capitalism that followed the American civil war. It highlights the bitter disagreements that took place between the Railroad Company and individuals who were mining coal. The company was in full control over the Pennsylvania coalfields in the 1870s causing the Workingmen’s association to organize a strike in 1875.

However, the strike failed because the companies had the support of the government and members of the press who worked hard to ensure that it did not succeed. A revolt against the management was later started leading to the deaths of six people. Eventually, 20 immigrants of Irish origin who had been given the name Molly Maguires were charged in court after which they were convicted and hanged for perpetrating the killings.

Kenny tries to explain where the word Molly Maguires was derived from. He associates the term with communities in Ireland that lived in rural areas between 1760 and 1850. The name was used to make reference to secret groups that came together to fight against the feudal exploitation. The feudal system forced the poor Irish peasants to work in the expansive estates and prevented them from doing any productive work by denying them land. When the enclosure movement came into place, it encouraged the peasants to revolt against the lords who were the greatest impediment towards their land ownership.

The land had been turned into large scale farming places and cattle keeping regions by the landlords. Since the enclosure movement faced a lot of opposition, secret groups were formed to eliminate the problems the Irish peasants were going through. The groups secretly killed the landlords, destroyed pasture lands and fences and forcefully evicted those who occupied the lands.

In the book, retributive justice is used to refer to a type of collective violence intended at correcting the violations the Irish miners were going through. The violence was based on what was considered right or wrong by the society. Before the peasants were punished by the lords, warning notices decorated with coffin images were first issued. This warned the peasants to either stop what they were doing or risk being punished. The memories of the movements that were fighting against oppression remained in the minds of the rural societies. As a result, the struggle for land acquisition did not stop. Individuals who were lucky to finally settle in Pennsylvania used the same strategies used to fight feudalism and continued the class struggle that was rising in the coalfields1


1. Kenny, K. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.pp.20.

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