A Special Report from ILHS delegate Rosemary Feurer
The Cork, Ireland commemoration of the baptism of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones 175 years ago on August 1, 1837 produced moments of spirit that connected past to present. While labor Mother Jones is most well-known for her burial place alongside her “boys” in the Union Miners Cemetery, Mt. Olive, Illinois, she was born 175 years ago in Cork, Ireland. Organizers who sought to bring global recognition to this fiery agitator organized a series of extraordinary events, and performed a great service in bringing her spirit back to the city of her birth. They hosted a variety of events that surrounded the unveiling of a new plaque in her honor. As a member of the Illlinois Labor History Society, I was glad to bring greetings to this event from our group, as well as the Mother Jones Foundation and the Mt. Olive Union Miners cemetery, those who honor her resting place in Illinois. But those of us who honor her place in U.S. history would do well to understand Mother Jones’ origins as a transnational agitator for justice, someone for whom the Irish origins and continuing connections are significant. The events in Cork highlighted those interconnections with a series of events that included performance, song, film, lectures, exhibits.
The week’s events started on the evening of July 31 with a showing of the short film, “Mother Jones, America’s Most Dangerous Woman,” produced by Rosemary Feurer and co-directed by Rosemary Feurer and Laura Vazquez, at the Maldron Hotel. There was such a large crowd for the first showing that two more showings were arranged. The depth and quality of the discussion that followed showed that the audience was responding not only to learning more about her, but were also drawing connections between events in Ireland both in the past and the present.
The film was followed by songs from a new musical about Mother Jones by Si Kahn, performed by Jim Williamson in the Maldron Hotel lounge. Afterward the Cork Singers Club performed U.S. and Irish labor, protest, and folk songs with extraordinary passion. One after another resident, many of them from the North side of Cork, came to the event and put their name on the singers cue. One was the spirited Teresa Ni Charthaig woh presented, “The Ballad of Mother Jones,” which she had written especially for the occasion. The song gives some acknowledgement of Mother Jones’ “Norrie” or North side origins, and it was given a standing ovation by the crowd.
It quickly became clear that those from the North side of Cork felt a special attachment to the discovery of Mother Jones’ origins in the Shandon area of Cork, on the north side of the Lee River (pictured at right). Some, for instance, found evidence of a “Norrie” lilt to Mother Jones’ accent in the only live footage of her that is featured in the film. Others found that certain of Mother Jones’ characteristics relate to the North Side and to Cork’s reputation as the “rebel city” of Ireland. Cork is one of Ireland’s oldest cities, and the Shandon area has a distinct identity going back to the twelfth century. Some of the residents told me that even today this area’s residents are known for their forthright attitude, their directness, and resolute approach to issues, qualities that served Mother Jones in her fight against injustice. Ger O’Mahony, an organizer of the commemoration, commented, “Mother Jones is a daughter of rebel Cork, but her unique characteristics and determination resonate particularly with those from the North Side. Many people can identity with the tragedy, suffering that she endured, and the indomitable spirit,” Cork went on to become a major point of dissent in the Irish rebellion against Great Britain, which resulted in tremendous repression, including the assassination of Cork’s Lord Mayor in 1920, and then the death of his successor who went on hunger strike after he was imprisoned.
Wednesday August 1 became a cascade of celebrations that displayed tremendous spirit. It began with a mass at the North Cathedral, Shandon. This was the church where Mary Harris was baptized on August 1, 1837. The baptismal font and entry area holy water font currently in the church were those that were used on that day in 1837. After the service, a group gathered around the font as the conversation moved from the baptism to discussion of the famine which gripped the area from 1846 on. Young Mary would have been a witness to the hundreds who fell dead from starvation, the stench of rotting corpses a daily encounter. Mary would have grown up amongst the hundreds of corpses carted off while food was taken to the Lee River to be exported. The famine was a political awakening for many at the time, as they would have understood this not only as a failure of the potato crop, but as a kind of forced starvation.
Afterward, a tour went to areas in the immediate location of the church where Mary was baptized, including to a site that could have been the location of Mary’s introduction to education, as one Catholic benefactor set up a school for girls during this very time, defying the hierarchy to establish the school. Whether or not Mary Harris was able to benefit from this is unclear, as so much of Mary’s exact residence and early life remain a mystery. Mother Jones later rejected organized religion, as did many of her activist peers, describing clergy who supported employers as “sky pilots.”
Most of Wednesday’s events were hosted by the Firkin Crane, an exhibition and dance hall that was once part of Cork’s famous butter exchange market. An exhibition of the life of Mother Jones by Jim Wilkinson there was viewed by hundreds. It was truly impressive in its evocation of the scope of Mother Jones’ life. The Right Honourable the Lord Mayor of Cork, Councillor John Buttimer opened the proceedings with remarks that showed he had studied Mary Harris Jones life and its meaning, noting that Mary’s life was dedicated to universal values of equality and justice. The Cork Shakespearean Company performed selections from events and speeches in Mother Jones life. There were more songs, notably the performance of yet another new song “Mother Jones, a True Cork Rebel,”
In the afternoon, a panel discussion began with Joe O’Flynn, an official of SIPTU, Ireland’s largest union, who commented that it was good that this event would help to “atone for this city’s failure to remember their rebel daughter,” and could benefit from learning about Jones’ contribution and consider the relevance of the assault on workers’ rights then and now. “This generation and generations to come in Ireland are paying a very heavy price for the greed of a chosen few at the top who have virtually bankrupted this country,” he noted. Elliott Gorn, author of Mother Jones, the Most Dangerous Woman in America, gave an evocative overview of key aspects of Jones’ life and persona. Marat Moore, who is a former UMWA staff member and miner, and who is at work on a novel about Mary Harris early life, considered the context for Mary Harris’ Cork background, and argued that the three tragedies of Famine, Fever (1867 Yellow Fever in Memphis Tennessee) and Fire (Chicago, 1871) were the seminal events in Mary’s life that led to her formation as a major labor leader. Then U.S. actress and playwright Kaiulani Lee gave a powerful performance from her new play about Mother Jones, “Can’t Scare Me.”
Audience members responded to the panel and performances with gusto. They asked pointed questions about the lessons that they drew from Mother Jones’ life, questions that indicated that many felt that the issues raised by the events were relevant to the present. Some suggested that Mary’s rebellious spirit needed to be replicated more forcefully in today’s unions. This is the kind of open political discussion, with workers questioning and debating a major labor leader, that is increasingly rare in the U.S. labor history events. I felt that Mother Jones spirit was rising, as she was known for her defiance of some of the icons of labor, including John L. Lewis.
U.S. participants in the Cork festivities, left to right: Marat Moore, Joe Rathke, Rosemary Feurer, Kaiulani Lee, Elliot Gorn.
Wednesday’s highlight was the unveiling of the new limestone plaque to Mother Jones on John Redmond Street. It was produced by Mike Wilkins of the Cork Sculpture Factory . The text reads: “Mary Harris, 1837-1930, known as Mother Jones, campaigner for workers rights, opponent of child labour, champion of American mineworkers, was born on the northside of Cork and baptised at the nearby North Cathedral on 1st August 1837. “Pray for the ead and fight like hell for the living.”
Just prior to the unveiling, the Butter Exchange Band performed a number of songs, ending with a march down the street while playing “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain,” a song reportedly written by supporters of Mother Jones a century ago. Cork had been rainy all week, but just as the band began marching toward the covered plaque, the sun shone down radiantly to mark the event.
Mother Jones would well have appreciated that on John Redmond Street that day to celebrate the new plaque were not only local residents, trade unionists, but also some well-known Irish dissenters who have defied authorities on a range of issues toward her goal of creating a “higher and grander civilization for the ages to come”.
I spoke on behalf of the U.S. attendees, suggesting that that we prized the energy of those who were honoring Mother Jones at these events, and would do our best to bring some of the spirit of Mother Jones back to the U.S. We came away with a new determination to remember Mother Jones not only as an historic heroine, but as someone whose values and belief in empowering the common people were needed now more than ever.
The evening ended with a performance by Andy Irvine, a well-known Irish folksinger, whose song “The Spirit of Mother Jones” was performed. The evening ended with more songs and conversations at the Maldron Hotel.On Thursday a bus toured the Cobh area where millions of Irish immigrants, including Mary Harris, left for the U.S. , Canada and other parts of the globe in the 19th century. There we saw the terrible conditions that working class Irish faced on the ships. Afterwards we came back for a special visit with the Lord Mayor, who thanked us for helping to bring their unsung rebel daughter back to recognition in her native city.
Those of us who attended and who honor the memory of Mother Jones in the U.S. came away with a strong sense that Mother Jones spirit is alive and thriving in Cork, Ireland.
For more on these events see the Cork Mother Jones website