“maybe its my Christian heart but I never could stand the sight of a man carrying a cross”
Growing up in England the opportunities to express pride in your Irish roots were very few and far between. The rare moments would come along, we had St Patrick’s Day, Celtic, our pubs and clubs and church and lets face it very little else. On the TV we were a figure of ridicule and nightly we were informed that the people sat right next to us in our living rooms were thick and stupid and steeped in superstition or dangerous and drunkards or trying to bring down the rule of law and that ordinary folk should inform the authorities of anything suspicious among the Irish community. Innocent people were sent to jail with little more evidence of guilt than their accents or their family backgrounds. With that going on in the background we learnt our history at home and among our family, friends and neighbours but one of the defining moments of my childhood was watching The Molly Maguires as a kid. It ticked all the necessary boxes for a young 2nd gen Irish lad with a identity crisis. Not only did it portray the Irish outside of Ireland and showed how badly they were treated and exploited but, and most importantly of all, how rather than except their fate and roll over they resisted that oppression and fought back, even though eventually it end in tragedy. The Molly Maguires were a secret society of militant Irish Catholic coal miners who resisted violence from the mine owners with violence themselves. The film is based on real events and the gripping story is a sympathetic and accurate depiction of the struggle for justice of the Irish-American miners.
Cinematography- James Wong Howe * Director- Martin Ritt * Music- Henry Mancini * Producer- Paramount Pictures
Sean Connery as “Black Jack” Kehoe * Richard Harris as Detective James McParlan/McKenna * Samantha Eggar as Miss Mary Raines * Frank Finlay as Police Captain Davies * Anthony Zerbe as Tom Dougherty * Bethel Leslie as Mrs. Kehoe * Art Lund as Frazier * Philip Bourneuf as Father O’Connor * Anthony Costello as Frank McAndrew * Brendan Dillon as Dan Raines, Mary’s Father * Frances Heflin as Mrs. Frazier * Malachy McCourt as The Bartender
Running time 123 minutes
“You either end up on the gallows or coughing your lungs out, what’s the difference?”
With the Great Hunger still vivid in the minds of the newly arrived Irish immigrants to America as they spread across the country, many of them washed up in Pennsylvania coal country where they became miners. The mine workers were treated abysmally and most died young of diseases picked up in the mines or in the ghetto’s that surrounded them. The years between ‘Black 47’ and the depression of 1920-21 saw great turmoil in industrial America. Violent confrontation between workforces and bosses over poor working conditions and even poorer wages, as well as the threat of workers uniting in trade unions, were common in the cities and the coal fields that fuelled them. The promise of work for the unskilled and a better life drew large numbers of Irish people to north-eastern Pennsylvania. The choice for the poorest of the Irish poor was the coal mine. They came mostly from west Ulster and north Connacht. The Irish didn’t confine themselves to coal but to get the black gold to New York and Philadelphia they also dug canals as well as building embankments, tunnelling and laying track. But more than anything, the Irish dug coal. A Mayo-man looking round a coalfield is quoted at the time as saying
“Do you mean to tell me that this is America?”
In 1880, the ‘foreign-born’ accounted for 23% of the region’s population and Ireland was the birthplace of 41% of those, the figure underestimates the Irish as many would have been born in America, England and Scotland. It is thought well over 30% of the regional population would have been Irish. These were dark times of persecution for Irish Catholics and they were not to get better by crossing the Atlantic. These were the men and women who built America. A people who had escaped poverty and death only to find a world where they were still enslaved the only difference being the company had replaced the empire.
We have no idea exactly when The Molly Maguires came into existance but they gained prominance in the mine fields in the years around 1860. They were a militant secret cell within the open catholic organsisation the Ancient Order of Hibernians. With no organized labour movement to speak of it became the Mollys who were the only protection those miners had. Protection was needed from anti-Catholic and anti-Irish discrimination, more than any other race they were used as scapegoats on whatever stage their enemies deemed fit. Irish working men started organising together while the, predominantly protestant, mine owners organised a paramilitary force to take them on. Violently breaking strikes and trade unions. Strikers and activists were sacked and evicted, their jobs and houses given to scabs, and ‘troublemakers’ often attacked and killed. In return the miners engaged in sabotage. Mines were flooded, breakers burned, stores dynamited and trains derailed. Mine bosses, superintendents and foremen, generally of English, Welsh or German extraction, were intimidated and killed and blacklegs and informers in the Irish community were ruthlessly punished. The rebellion came to an end with the execution of twenty people rounded up as Molly Maguires. They bravely went to the scaffold without betraying themselves or their comrades. The majority of the twenty had links to the same part of Ireland in west Donegal. At the time and right up until modern times (possibly around the time this film was made) the twenty men hanged as Molly Maguires in north eastern Pennsylvania were either valiant defenders of labour or
“the most noted band of cut-throats of modern times”
That controversy has ended and its clear now to all that the hanged men were innocent victims of a terrible miscarriage of justice.
So the stage was set in 1969 with radical politics and a vision of a better life for all not just a distant memory for a film to be based on The Molly Maguires to be made. In 1967 Director Martin Ritt was making ‘Hombre’ in which Scots-Irish actor Sean Connery’s then wife Diane Cilento was cast. Ritt had the idea for The Molly Maguires and asked Connery what he thought. Connery was interested but it took over four years to get the film off the ground. Both director Martin Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein had been blacklisted by major studios in the communist scare of the 1950s.
The film is dirty and relentless and coal dust gets everywhere. It was filmed in the abandoned Pennsylvania coal town of Ecksley, a place where the Mollys were active in their day, that adds credibility and authenticity to the picture. The colliery still stands along with the Emerald House pub, the company store and all the Mollys homes. A frighteningly impressive Sean Connery plays Jack Kehoe, the leader of the Mollys, while Richard Harris plays James McParlan. Kehoe is suspicious of McPharlan when he arrives to work at the mines but over time he begins to trust and allows him to join the Mollys and take part in their activities. Unbeknown to Kehoe, McPharlan is in fact working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency and has been sent to infiltrate and destroy the Mollys. The film is basically a clash between two ways of life. McPharlan who is willing to sell out and betray anyone to rise in class and Kehoe who puts the interests of his community first and is prepared to sacrifice all for the benefit of others. As McPharlan states in the film
“I’m tired of always looking up. I want to look down”
The history of Ireland has unfortunately been plagued with informers. People seduced by wealth or promises of land and power or simply those with no conscious they are rightly despised by all to but we Irish have a special disdain for them. The story as told in the film sticks closely to the truth of what happened and is as gripping and well made a piece of radical cinema as has ever been made. From the soundtrack to the costumes and location and acting the film is dazzling and is today considered a masterpiece, and deservedly so, which makes it incredible to think it bombed so badly upon release. It put paid for a time the idea that either Connery or Harris would make leading men. In the critics minds the wordless 15 minute prologue as well as the decision to not let Sean Connery speak until 45 minutes into the movie couldn’t have helped.
There were no ‘Marquis of Queensbury’ rules in early industrial America. Decent people sometimes did terrible things. They still do. It is the way of the world. The Irish fought oppression first with dynamite and powder and then with political power. Soon the Irish were to rise to all levels of political influence and the old guard were dispensed with. Martin Ritt thought the films financial failure being down to audiences being unable to decide whether Jack Kehoe or Jim McParlan was the hero.
“They should have understood, that Kehoe, who was a murderer, was the hero of the film”
In another interview Ritt acknowledged that life was changing and some of the decent values that America was built on were also changing.
“I wanted to show that the villain in the film was the informer, a man who wormed his way into the graces of his fellow workers and then turned them in. To me that is a villainous act. And in the American tradition, an informer is a villainous person, although those ethics have been somewhat undermined by the hysteria of the communist scare”
In 1970, Middle America couldn’t accept Kehoe as the hero he has now become. As the films ends and with McParlan’s true identity revealed, he visits Kehoe in prison. It is a significant moment between the two of them, ending a relationship based on trust and bringing to the fore the differences between them. The final image that imposes McParlan against the gallows he has helped to build emphasises that we have an awful lot to be grateful for free men that will stand against oppression and fight back. Their is no Hollywood here. What the Mollys gave was their all. Their is no romance just two solid hours of an uncompromising and heartbreaking look into what working people have had to endure. Our job now is to make sure those conditions never return.
(the following clip is the final scene of the movie so don’t watch if you haven’t seen the whole film!)
Composed, Arranged and Conducted
by Henry Mancini
For the film, composer Henry Mancini composed one of his finest musical scores, filled with jaunty Irish tunes and roaring dramatic evocative themes. Whether depicting early morning at the mines (the astonishing opening cue) or the resistance activities or the blossoming love affair, Henry Mancini’s score is right up there with his greatest soundtracks including such masterpieces as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, Days of Wine and Roses, Hatari!, Two For The Road and many others. amazingly it doesn’t appear to be available on CD anywhere.
(click on the tracks in green to hear them)
Theme from The Molly Maguires (New Day in 1876)
The Mollys Strike
Room and Board
Sandwiches and Tea
A Hard Day’s Work
On Your Knees
Jamie and Mary
Trip to Town
Strike Two/Strike Three
The Hills of Yesterday
The Mollys Strike Again
A Suit for Grandpa
Kehoe Lights Up/The Last Strike
Buy The Film
is out of print but since this article came out I have been sent a download link for it. Rather than put it here I will include it as a comment as these things have a habit of being taken down. So check the comments and download this rather brilliant album.If it does disappear leave a comment and we’ll try and upload it again.
Tagged: Finnegans Hell