“Did you ever eat colcannon when ’twas made with yellow cream,
And the kale and praties blended like the picture in a dream?
Did you ever take a forkful, and dip it in the lake
Of the heather-flavoured butter that your mother used to make?”

19th-century folk song, “Colcannon” (aka The Skillet Pot),

Colcannon is a traditional Irish dish consisting of cabbage (or kale) and onion (or leeks) fried until tender then folded into creamy mashed potatoes. Bacon may be added if desired. A true “peasant food”, colcannon was made from readily available ingredients found in the garden.

The Coal Region is home to many with deep Irish roots. The discovery of Anthracite and the plentiful work for miners led many Irish laborers, escaping oppression and the infamous potato famine, to the Coal Region.

Every family has “their” recipe and each will be a little bit different than the others. Colcannon makes a terrific side dish with ham or corned beef, but it can be a meal in itself. Simple, down-to-earth comfort food that’s easy on the budget and sure to please your taste buds.

Make left-over magic

Form refrigerated left-overs into patties and fry in a pan in some melted butter until browned on both sides.

Coming to America

During the mid-19th century, America saw a huge influx of Irish immigrants. Many of these immigrants moved to the anthracite coal regions of eastern Pennsylvania to find work, specifically in the mines located in Carbon, Schuylkill, and Lehigh Counties.

The Irish moved to America hoping they would escape horrible working environments and the brutal tyranny of the English, as well as to find a better life for their families. They soon discovered that the conditions in America were not so different from the conditions in Ireland.

They were subject to overwhelming ridicule and discrimination. When searching for work, they would see “Help Wanted” signs, but often followed by the words, “Irish need not apply.” When they were fortunate enough to find jobs, they were working in the most dangerous and horrendous conditions in 19th century America.

With almost no labor or mining laws, the coal mines were extremely dangerous and in decrepit condition. In 1864, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA) was formed in Pennsylvania to help enforce appropriate and safer mining conditions.

The WBA strictly forbade violence and opposed militancy. However, this organization catered more to its own interests than the needs of the workers. Due to this self-serving attitude and also due to prejudice that existed within the organization, the Irish decided to form their own group to protect their workers. This group was known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The AOH only allowed Irishmen or sons of Irishmen. They sought to provide fairness for the Irish working class and were willing to punish those who mistreated workers.

Many of the Irish immigrants who relocated to the Anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania originated from oppressed regions of Ireland where the Molly Maguries fought for human rights. It is believed that the Molly Maguires resurfaced in the Pennsylvania coal region in order to fight for the Irish coal miner’s rights, but no concrete evidence has ever been obtained to confirm their existence. However, most historians have since accepted their existence as fact.

The Irish assembled small Catholic missions to practice their religion in a region otherwise hostile toward their cultural identity. In Ireland, they faced the oppression of English rule. In the coal towns, they suffered the prejudice of English and Welsh coal operators. 

The Irish laborers’ relationship with these operators bordered on serfdom. This relationship formed at an early age, with breaker boys satisfying a high demand for child labor. Mining life also engendered permanent uncertainty. As company housing tenants, families risked eviction without forewarning.

Breaker boys’ were young boys, usually between the ages of 8 and 12 years old, employed in breaking stage of coal mining, breaking mined coal into relatively uniform sized pieces by hand and separating out impurities such as rock, slate, sulfur, clay and soil.

Coal companies required miners to purchase all goods and mining supplies through their stores, which created permanent indebtedness. The companies also exploited the miners’ ethnic divisions and language barriers within their labor hierarchy.

Company Store, Eckley Miners’ Village, Weatherly, PA

Enter the Molly Maguires

The Molly Maguires’ name can be traced back to early 19th century Ireland. Molly Maguire, an Irish widow, in the 1840s, protested against English landlords who tried to steal peoples land. She headed a group called the “Anti-landlord Agitators” who were best known for getting in bare knuckle fights with their landlords in order to maintain their land and their dignity. “Take that from a son of Molly Maguire!” was often heard after group members would deliver a beating. Eventually their violence gained notoriety across Ireland, and they later proudly called themselves the “Molly Maguires” after their leader.

Molly Maguire meeting

Here in Pennsylvania, “The Mollies” were a small group of Irish immigrants, mostly coal miners, who formed a secret society to combat discrimination against Irish Catholics and unfair and dangerous working conditions in the mines.

While their causes were just, they at times resorted to violence, including murder, to gain redress for their grievances. 

From 1875 to 1877 a series of trials were held in Pottsville, Pennsylvania to uncover alleged crimes committed by the Molly Maguires. Although the trials could not provide any evidence that the Molly Maguires actually existed, the media still referred to these men by that name.

Since there was no evidence to link these men to the Molly Maguires, the men were tried as individuals. The trials resulted in 20 men being sentenced to hang. Emotions were so strongly against them that before they were executed, they were excommunicated from the Catholic Church and consequently denied a proper Christian burial.

During and after the trials, the local and national press had a field day at the Mollies expense. They compared the Molly Maguires to groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and stated, “floggings, lynchings and tar-and-feathers” were common practice for both groups.

They demonized the Mollies, referring to them as “Black-riflemen,” portraying them as a gang of ruthless murderers. Very little truth ever came out of the media’s stories and these media tactics are now referred to as “yellow journalism.”

During the Molly Maguires trial there were numerous incidents of skeptical testimony that has now been recognized by the state of Pennsylvania as inconclusive evidence. It has been speculated that the witnesses were clearly refutable and the evidence was circumstantial at best.

Ultimately, the convicted men executed in 1877 and 1888 in the towns of Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) and Pottsville, Pa.

Historical marker near Old Schuylkill County Jail

The subject of the guilt or innocence of the executed men is still a hotly debated topic among some of the people in the Anthracite region. The Molly Maguires left virtually no record of themselves. No one knows whether they referred to themselves as the Molly Maguires or by some other name. What little information is known about them was recorded by observers and historians. Many question the objectivity and accuracy of these accounts.

Scholars today agree that the trials were travesties of justice, motivated by prejudice against Irish Catholics and the desire for revenge on the part of the mine owners. While some of the men were almost certainly guilty of at least some of the crimes for which they were convicted, others may have been entirely innocent.


Recipe by Lori Fogg, A Coalcracker In The KitchenCourse: Main Dishes, Recipes, Side Dishes & VegetablesCuisine: Coal Region, IrishDifficulty: Easy

Traditional Irish dish consisting of cabbage (or kale) and onion (or leeks) fried until tender then folded into creamy mashed potatoes. Bacon may be added if desired.


  • 2 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cubed

  • 4 slices bacon

  • 1/2 small head cabbage, chopped (or substitute with kale)

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 1/2 cup milk

  • salt and pepper to taste

  • 1/4 cup butter, melted


  • Place potatoes in a saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender.
  • Place bacon in a large, deep skillet. Cook over medium high heat until evenly brown. Drain, reserving drippings, crumble and set aside. In the reserved drippings, saute the cabbage and onion until soft and translucent.
  • Drain the cooked potatoes, mash with milk and season with salt and pepper.
  • Fold in the bacon, cabbage, and onions, then transfer the mixture to a large serving bowl.
  • Make a well in the center, and pour in the melted butter.
  • Serve immediately.