The comedian was puzzled when he looked at the census from 1860: The occupation of every man, including a father and son, was listed as miner.
Patrick Gaffigan and his son James were coal miners in Saint Clair. The comedian recognized the names immediately; James and Patrick were his great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather.
During a recent episode of “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” on PBS, comedian Jim Gaffigan learned about his ancestors’ place in Schuylkill County history.
On the show, Gates, a historian and professor, researches the genealogy of celebrities. On the episode “No Irish Need Apply,” Gates researched the ancestry of Gaffigan and actress Jane Lynch. The episode included photographs of coal region mines from several area groups, including the Lackawanna and Luzerne County historical societies.
“We are always extremely pleased when the opportunity to share our rich history with the media arises,” said Mark Ricetti Jr., director of operations and programs at the Luzerne County Historical Society.
Members of the Gaffigan family first arrived in Schuylkill County in the 1860s, fleeing anti-Irish persecution in New England.
The 1860s were a turbulent decade in the county’s history, as miners tried to unionize.
“Your whole family worked in the mines for generations,” Gates told Gaffigan during the program.
All Gaffigan had to say was, “Wow.”
The most dramatic incident in the Gaffigan family history involving Schuylkill County took place after the family moved away. In 1878, Pennsylvania Gov. John F. Hartranft tried to have Michael Gaffigan, Jim’s great-great-great uncle, who was then living in Illinois, returned to Pennsylvania. He was a suspect in the 1865 murder of Michael Durkin, a killing allegedly connected to the Molly Maguires.
Durkin was one of several victims of the coal region secret society, which was primarily composed of Irish-Americans who believed that violence was a way to improve the dismal and dangerous conditions in which the miners toiled.
“They went to work in the dark, they came out in the dark, and they worked all day in the mines, in the dark,” Gates said. “It was like a death sentence.”
Gates was referring to the coal miners in general, but the Molly Maguires also worked in the dark. Their secret plots were seen as yet another reason to be suspicious of the Irish immigrants who were coming to America by the millions.
Irish-Americans were already stereotyped as drunken, ignorant and violent, but to anti-Irish campaigners, the Molly Maguires were proof that the Irish conspired to destroy America itself. In the late 1870s, suspected Molly Maguires were being executed so frequently that one Philadelphia newspaper wrote that the hangings were getting old.
Prosecutors were eager to try suspects for the crimes attributed to the Molly Maguires, but Michael Gaffigan was spared. In December 1878, the governor of Illinois refused to return Michael to Pennsylvania, supposedly in an attempt to win the Irish vote in the upcoming election. Irish immigrants like the Gaffigans were pouring into Illinois at the time, becoming an important voting bloc.
To this day, it’s not known if the group was involved in Durkin’s murder.
“It was characterized as a Molly Maguire event when it might not have been a Molly Maguire event,” Gates said.
Ever the comedian, Jim Gaffigan joked of his ancestors: “They’re not part of a cool gang, but they are murderers.”