Like many Irish immigrants the Monaghans began their American journey by working as miners in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania during turbulent times. Then one of the clan climbed out of the mine and founded a liquor house that lasted more than a half century and established the Monaghans as a force in local business and politics.
The Monaghans seem to have risen above such bitter conflicts. Bernard Sr. was engaged in legitimate political life, active in the Democratic party. Bernard’s son, John, born in Mayo in 1835, followed his father to America about 1847 and, according census data, also initially worked as a coal miner. By 1858 he had made it out of the pit by saving his money and opening a wholesale liquor house in Ashland, operating successfully at that location for eleven years. Then John moved to Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, at 220 S. Main Street, the avenue shown below, selling liquor and some groceries.
John and his wife Anna produced a family of ten children, seven sons and three daughters. The prosperity the former miner had found in selling liquor was evinced in affording three servants and his ability to provide his children with advanced education. His eldest son, Bernard J. Monaghan II, shown right, was among those benefiting. After attending elementary school in Shenandoah, Bernard was sent to Villanova College in Delaware County and after being graduated there entered Bryant & Stratton’s Business College in Philadelphia. Following his graduation in 1877 he entered his father’s firm. Bernard soon would be joined by a younger brother, Peter. The firm became John B. Monaghan & Sons.
Neither Bernard nor Peter followed their father’s pattern when it came to family size. In 1892 Bernard married Lizzie E. McOboy, daughter of Lawrence and Catherine McOboy. They had only one child, Anna. Five years later Peter wed Eleanor J. Rossiter, a Philadelphia native. They had three children — James, Mary and Eleanor.
The business climate during latter part of the 1800s was marked by periodic bank panics and depressions, as well as labor unrest at the mines, that caused the failures of area companies and affected the Monaghans. A biographer noted: “It is probable…that no businessman of the community suffered more severely than did the elder Monaghan but he always came up smiling and with renewed vigor serf to work to recover lost ground.”
The Monaghans were both retailing and wholesaling liquor, including running a “rectifying” operation, mixing and blending whiskeys to achieve a particular smoothness, taste and color. For their customers running saloons and restaurants they packaged their liquor in gallon and two gallon ceramic jugs. They also advertised using comely children in their flyers and signs. As the business grew, the profitability of whiskey resulted in the close-out of the grocery department and the use of the space solely to stock liquor.
Meanwhile the Monaghans continued to be active in Democratic politics. Like his father, John was well known in party circles. In 1890 Bernard took the next step, running for State Senator, representing the northern portion of Schuylkill County. Oddly, his challenger for the Democratic nomination was a relative by marriage and his opponent in the general election a cousin. Elected nonetheless, he served on the Committees of Municipal Affairs, Elections, Centennial Affairs, and Insurance. His principal legislation was aimed at requiring that insurance companies were transparent in the representations made by their agents to those being insured. A 1893 biography said of Bernard: “He is thoroughly awake to the needs and interests of the district which he represents, and has an intelligent comprehension of the important questions growing out of the industrial and social relations which exist in the mining regions of Pennsylvania.”
In 1882 at the age of 83 Bernard Sr. died. Five years later his son, John, retired from the liquor firm, turning the business over to his sons. At that point a third son, M. V. Monaghan, joined the firm as a partner. True to the family tradition, noted a biographer: “He takes an active interest in politics being prominent in the councils of the Democratic Party.” The sons, seeking more room for expansion, subsequently commissioned the erection of a three-story cement block building in Shenandoah for storage and the rectifying process. The firm was accounted “one of the leading commercial institutions of Schuylkill County” by a regional history. Moreover, Peter was active in the local banking sector. M.V. was an officer of a building and loan association aimed at miners, mechanics and laborers and a director of the Citizens’ Electric Light Company. Bernard had interests in grain, coal and cattle.
In 1903 John B. died and was buried in the graveyard of the Annunciation Church in Shenandoah. Peter then assumed full responsibility for the ownership and management of the liquor house. Said a biographer: “No loss of prestige was occasioned the firm when he took hold.” Over ensuing years John B. Monaghan's Sons continued to be an important part of the region’s commercial scene until shut down by National Prohibition.
This family of Irish immigrants, the Monaghans, beginning by toiling in the mines, by dint of hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit fashioned a business that survived more than 50 years and brought prosperity and recognition to its members as prominent local businessmen and political activists. To paraphrase a tribute from one observer, the Monaghans “enjoyed the confidence of their city.”
Today many of the family lie together in the graveyard of the Shenandoah Annunciation church. The gravestones of Bernard and Peter are shown here. The Irish Monaghans might have joined the civil unrest of the their times but instead chose the political and commercial mainstream — and that made all the difference.
Note: Much of the biographical information and quotations contained here is from two volumes: “Biographical & Portrait Cyclopedia of Schuylkill County” by Henry W. Ruoff (1893) and “History of Schuylkill County Pennsylvania” Vol. II, eds. Schalck and Henning (1907).