ASPIRING PUGILIST (c. 1879)
A few years after coming to America, young Billy Irwin posed for this picture circa 1879. The picture begs the question of why a ten-year-old boy would, wearing boxing attire, pose so seriously and resolutely while in a bare-knuckle stance. It has been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and the words which follows here are an attempt to put this picture in its proper historical context for the purpose of explanation. Billy Irwin, along with his mother and father, arrived in America in September of 1876. Upon arrival the family travelled the short distance to Wilke Barre, Pennsylvania where his father would be employed as a laborer in the coal mines. To be an Irish coal mine laborer at this time was to be at the bottom of the American social ladder. And the bottom of this ladder preferably, according to anti-immigrant nativists, was to be perpetually reserved for the unskilled Irish-Catholic. So early on in America young Billy Irwin had to learn who was for him and his family and who was against them. During the two years (1876-1878) that Billy and his family lived in Wilkes Barre he had ample time to experience many hardships and prejudices that would make him maturely aware of how he and his family fit into the eastern Pennsylvania coal region scheme of things.
The Irwin family had immigrated into an industrial “war zone”. And the combatants in this war zone were Irish against Welsh and English, nativist against immigrant, skilled British miner against unskilled Irish laborer, pro-labor unionist against anti-labor unionist, strikers against mining corporation strike breakers and Pinkertons against “Hibernians” (Ancient Order of Hibernians) derogatorily labeled “Molly Maguires.” The battle lines had already been drawn before Billy and family arrived in the coal region and the side(s) they would take were virtually “pre-ordained.” The Irwin’s were Irish…they couldn’t change that! They were Catholics…they wouldn’t change that! John Irwin was unskilled…he couldn’t help that! He wanted a better life for his family (pro-labor unionist) and the right to fair collective
bargaining (strike)…he shouldn’t have been condemned for that! And he and his fellow “Hibernians” came to be derogatorily labeled “Molly Maguires” …and at the time he resented that!! Given the dangers, remarkable violence and ethnic strife into which John Irwin had, by necessity, brought his family it seemed prudent for him to teach his son, Billy, how to protect himself against any harm that could more than likely come his way. In teaching self-defense to his son, John Irwin taught Billy, first and foremost, to avoid violence and provocation. Secondly if provoked and attacked he must fight to win. Thirdly if he couldn’t win he must batter his opponent to a draw. And lastly if he would lose then his antagonist must “know he was in a fight” so as to never want to fight him (Billy) again.
By 1877 the long and bitter coal strikes in eastern Pennsylvania had ended. The coal unions were busted and the corporate monopolies had won the day. On June 21, 1877 the largest mass execution in Pennsylvania took place with the hanging of ten alleged “Molly Maguire” leaders. Between 1877 and 1879 twenty alleged “Molly Maguires” were hanged. Many others served lengthy prison terms. Still others were “blacklisted” so that they could never work as laborers or miners in the area again. With nothing left in Pennsylvania many Irish “refugee” coal miners went west. A large percentage of these “refugees”, the Irwin family included, went to Colorado and found employment there.