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Gathering the Threads
by Rosemary Maguire Nagy
Genealogy has become my passion, not restricted to just my family names and birthplaces, but ever-widening to encompass the history that molded their lives. I have developed a respect and admiration for my ancestors and the difficult choices they made in pursuit of a better life for their children.
Through my research, I discovered some historical facts that, when woven together, directed the lives of my grandparents and, subsequently, the lives of all the generations to follow.
In the late 17th century, the English introduced the craft of flax spinning to the farmers of Northern Ireland. The Spinning Wheel Records of 1695 are part of County Donegal's census records, along with the Hearth Tax record. A family was granted one spinning wheel, disbursed through their local parish priest. The objective was to create a cottage industry that would supplement their income.
In 1785, William Barbour opened a flax spinning mill in Lisburn. By 1864, the firm had extended its operations to Paterson, N. J. Paterson was, in this time period, the silk mill capital of the world. Irish workers were brought over, endentured to Barbour's Mill. Many were young women, leaving home and family behind, like so many immigrants before them. Two young sisters set out on this adventure, Alice and Lizzie McKay. They were still in their teens when they set sail.
Alice met a young man employed at the Mill. They married and raised a family. The young man was radical in his beliefs. He believed workers had a right to fair wages and better working conditions - socialist beliefs not popular with the Mill owners or many of the working poor who were too frightened of losing their jobs to express dissatisfaction. He knew the mill owners violated child labor laws, employing very young children to perform menial tasks. This practice was common in Ireland and the Mill owners had imported the practice. The young man's name was John Maguire, but because of his radicalism, he was always known as Molly Maguire.1
John assisted in organizing the Silk Mill Strike of 1913, the first organized workers strike. The positive result of the strike was the exposing of child labor law violations and the push to create and enforce tougher regulations to protect children from exploitation.
John and Alice Maguire were my grandparents.
More than one hundred years have passed since the first flax spinners arrived in Paterson. Ninety years have passed since the silk mill strike. The events have almost faded into history. The Barbour Mill is still in operation. In an attempt to acquire my grandmother's immigration record, I contacted Barbour. They claim to have no record of any of the immigrants employed by their firm, no records of any endentured workers. I contacted the Paterson Genealogy Society. They make reference to the "silk mill strike" as an historical point, but have no documentation. Newspaper archives are the only reference source available on the subject.
My approach to the events is only to record them for my children and the children of all Irish immigrants who came to America to work and stayed to raise generations. To me, it's become important to not only know who we are but why and how we came to be.
I moved from New Jersey many years ago, my access to libraries and archives of the area limited. Then, just a few months ago, I met a very elderly lady. At ninety-seven, she had an active mind and enjoyed conversation. She told me she was the youngest of eleven children, born in Paterson, N. J. She recalled her oldest sister worked at the Barbour Mill when she was ten years old. Inspectors would walk through the factory, the children would be told to stand on boxes to appear taller. The very young ones were told to hide.
Her words were so impactful - facts and data can't possibly conjure up as vivid an image as this frail lady's retelling of her sister's memories. Suddenly, it all clicked into place. My grandmother worked as a child in the Irish mills before immigrating to America. My grandfather's zeal was in response to his love for her, his desire to right the wrongs done to her. She was a victim of her history. He was a rebel, impatient with the pace of change. My father always spoke of the deepest desire of all Irish immigrants - A better life for their children. Grandpa - you did it!
1We can't say how Rosemary's grandfather reacted to being called Molly Maguire. Chances are, he would have been pleased, as it implied an empathy for the plight of exploited laborers. But, there's a less than favorable side to the Molly Maguire story. It's a complex tale of turbulence and violence that begins in Ireland and ends in the coalfields of Schuylkill and Carbon counties, Pennysyvania. It's a tale thoroughly investigated in the book, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires.
Images: Paterson History
To read a related article on flax weaving in Ireland, please click The Cloth of Kings - Irish Linen.
Thu, Dec 7, 2017
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
Click for More Culture Corner.
In addition to the volatile teaming of Sean Connery and Richard Harris on opposite sides of a Pennsylvania miners' war, director Martin Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein give viewers a visceral, grittily authentic drama about the exploitation of Irish immigrant miners in the centennial America of 1876. Connery's secret gang, the Molly Maguires, retaliates by destroying mines and equipment; Harris infiltrates the group as an informer hired by the coal-company owners, leading to his inevitable crisis of conscience. Pub brawls and manly action give the film its meat-and-potatoes appeal.
Amazon reviewer, Jeff Shannon
Click for Molly Maguires