Cork’s Rebel Daughter

most dangerous

The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Mary Harris was born in Cork City in 1837. Like the lady herself, that’s a bit controversial: she claimed to have been born on 1st May 1830 – probably because that enabled her to celebrate her 100th birthday in 1930 – but also because the first day of May has always been associated with workers’ rights. She didn’t make a huge impact in Ireland, as she emigrated with her parents as a child. The first paragraph of her autobiography (published 1925 by C H Kerr + Co, Chicago) succinctly summarizes the early years of her life:

…I was born in the City of Cork, Ireland, in 1830. My people were poor. For generations they had fought for Ireland’s freedom. Many of my folks have died in that struggle. My father, Richard Harris, came to America in 1835, and as soon as he had become an American citizen he sent for his family. His work as a laborer with railway construction crews took him to Toronto, Canada. Here I was brought up but always as the child of an American citizen. Of that citizenship I have ever been proud…

Mary Harris – Mother Jones – remembered in Cork (left) and in the US (right)

Mary was a ferocious socialist – perhaps influenced initially by her husband George E Jones, a member of the Iron Molders Union in Memphis. She lost her husband and four young children to a yellow fever epidemic in 1867, and seemed to take the emerging Labor Movement as her family thereafter. She re-created herself as ‘Mother Jones’ and spent the rest of her life supporting the rights of workers in the railroad, steel, copper, brewing, textile, and mining industries. The five foot tall white-haired Irish lady participated in hundreds of strikes all over America, and attracted public attention by mobilising miners’ wives to march with brooms and mops in order to block strikebreakers from entering the mines.

Mother Jones meets President Coolidge in 1924 (Library of Congress)

Mother Jones meets President Coolidge in 1924 (Library of Congress)

Mother Jones helped found the US Social Democratic Party (1898) and the Industrial Workers of the World (1905); she published articles in the International Socialist Review, met and lobbied (and gained the respect of) several Presidents and spent time in jail. On one occasion when violence broke out during a mine strike in West Virginia, a state military court convicted her of conspiracy to commit murder.  Nationwide protest led the Governor to commute her twenty-year sentence.

Mother Jones in action in 1921

Mother Jones in action in 1921

Some quotations ascribed to Mother Jones:

A lady is the last thing on earth I want to be.  Capitalists sidetrack the women into clubs and make ladies of them

Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living

My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong

No matter what the fight, don’t be ladylike! God almighty made women and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies

I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator

The employment of children is doing more to fill prisons, insane asylums, almshouses, reformatories, slums, and gin shops than all the efforts of reformers are doing to improve society

I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser


Strangely, Mary did not support the women’s suffrage movement in the United States: she considered it a middle class diversion taking the focus away from the fight against social injustice and basic universal rights for all workers. In her eighties she was still actively supporting strikes involving streetcar, garment and steel workers.

Mary Harris Jones died on November 30, 1930.  After being celebrated by a mass in Washington DC, she was buried at the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Illinois, next to victims of the Virden, Illinois mine riot of 1898.  Her funeral was attended by thousands of labour supporters, mine workers and other mourners.

Cork remembers this daughter of revolution: we found a commemorative plaque in the Shandon district, close to the old Butter Market – historically the city’s most notable industry. In the States her name lives on also: Mother Jones is an independent, non-profit making magazine and website reporting on politics, the environment, human rights, and culture ‘…that in its power and reach informs and inspires a more just and democratic world…’

MoJo – the liberal Mother Jones Magazine

Bravo, Mary Harris of Cork, for being so committed to the fight for the basic rights of humanity in general and the working population in particular. And watch out, capitalists and oppressors – as she is reported as saying frequently ‘…the kaisers of this country are next, I tell ye…’



Snap-Apple Night

November - a time for Fire Festivals

November – a time for Fire Festivals

Hallowe’en is big in Ireland. It has always been celebrated and is, of course, an opportunity for children in wonderful spooky disguises to go out collecting sweets and treats. But this – the ‘Day of the Dead’, and traditionally the beginning of the winter – has generated far more elaborate customs than any I have encountered before. Have a look at this parade which takes place in Shandon, Co Cork.

The origins of Samhain (Oiche Shamhna in Irish) seem to be an old Irish festival marking the first day of winter and the ending of the farming year. All crops had to be in and safely stored – hay, potatoes, turnips, apples – and cattle and sheep were moved from mountain and moorland pastures and brought closer to the farmstead; milking cows were brought inside for the winter and feeding with stored fodder began. Turf and wood for the winter fires must have been gathered and dried. If fires were lit year-round – for cooking – they had to be allowed to go out for the one night and were then lighted again in the morning: this custom still survives in some Irish households.

Fire is an essential element in the festival. The word ‘bonfire’ is supposed to be derived from ‘bone fire’ – the burning of the bones of the animals slaughtered before the onset of winter once the meat had been prepared and preserved to keep the larder full through the cold bleak months to come. It’s no coincidence that in England bonfires are lit in early November to ‘remember’ Guy Fawkes and his plot to blow up the House of Lords in 1605: this was just a continuation of fire festivals that already happened then – and are still happening now. When I lived in Devon I came across (and took part in) traditions of pulling burning barrels through the streets (Hatherleigh) or carrying burning barrels through crowds of spectators (Ottery St Mary). West Country carnivals were common at this time of the year, and many were accompanied by flaming torches and fireworks. It has always seemed necessary to ‘lighten’ and warm the darkening year with fire.

Tar Barrels in Hatherleigh, Devon, 2012

Tar Barrels in Hatherleigh, Devon, 2012

November, from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes 1999:

‘…The Month opened with Snap-Apple Night and tales of púcas and little folk. From the rising of the moon on November Dark the mackerel would make their way to deeper water; it was the end of the seine season. With the crops all in and hill grazing finished, fires were set on the hills and preparations made for the winter. There was little employment for the months ahead…’

Snap-Apple Night by Irish painter Daniel Maclise, 1833

Snap-Apple Night by Irish painter Daniel Maclise, 1833

Continuing tradition - a modern Snap-Apple, by Coca Cola

Continuing tradition – a modern Snap-Apple, by Coca Cola

‘…The first game of the night was always ‘Snap-apple’ when an apple was hung from a beam in the kitchen and all the children took turns to ‘snap’ the apple. Sometimes the apples were put in a half barrel of water and you had to take one out with just your teeth, with your hands behind your back…’

Two Hallowe’en tales from Northside of the Mizen:

…One fine Halloween, Neddy Hodnett (Gurthdove) was crossing the land on the way back from scoriachting (visiting friends and neighbours), when he came across a Narry the Bog (a heron) at Hodnett’s Sleabh. He caught it and put it under his coat. Neddy knew that Dan Thade Coughlan was out scoriachting and he also knew what route across the fields Dan would take, so he hid in a beillic. It wasn’t long before Dan came from the east, and as he passed the beillic, Neddy knocked a screech out of the Narry. Dan leapt out of his skin with fright and with a roar he leapt over the ditch and away out of sight. Dan didn’t take long to arrive home and he told everyone he had met the devil himself, coming agin him! Dan did not leave the house, day or night, for a week…

The Púca of Knocnaphuca  …The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had a call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They went twisting and turning down through tunnels until the entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after…

I like Finola’s tradition for Samhain: making (and tasting) a Hallowe’en barm brack… Delicious!

barm brack