From Shandon to Hillsborough

CELEBRATING the workers’ rights activism of Cork-born firebrand, Mary Harris, The Spirit of Mother Jones Festival takes place in the Shandon area of Cork city from Jul 30-Aug 1.

Now in its second year, the festival has been expanded and will see academics, authors, activists and musicians taking part, with Aug 1 designated by Cork City Council as Mother Jones Day in the city.

Mother Jones (1837-1930) was a school teacher and dressmaker who became a prominent labour leader in America, having emigrated there in her teens with her family. She would go on to organise major strikes and co-found the Industrial Workers of the World. When her husband and four young children died of yellow fever and her dressmaker’s shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, Mother Jones began working as an organiser for the Knights of Labour and the United Mine Workers Union. She was called “the most dangerous woman in America” because of her success in organising miners and their families against the mine owners.

In 1903, concerned about the lax enforcement of child labour laws in the Pennsylvania mines and silk mills, Mother Jones organised a children’s march from Philadelphia to the home of the then president, Theodore Roosevelt, in New York.

Gerard O’Mahony, co-ordinator of the Cork festival, said the event was so successful last year that “we decided to fill the gap in what might be described as the summer school market in Cork. Rather than just commemorating Mother Jones’s birth 175 years ago, we’re going to celebrate the spirit of Mother Jones. It allows for a lot more leeway in examining issues that are relevant today while acknowledging the relevance of Mother Jones and placing her in a historical perspective”.

Last year, about 500 people attended the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Mother Jones on John Redmond Street. “It has become a local focus of interest,” says O’Mahony, who adds that there is some confusion as to the exact location of Mother Jones’s birthplace on Cork’s north side. She claimed to be born in 1830 in an effort to age herself, bolstering her image as a wise old matriarchal figure.

As O’Mahony points out, issues that Mother Jones was concerned about are still pertinent today. He cites the recent collapse of an unsafe garment factory building in Bangladesh which killed 1,129 workers. Mother Jones’s children’s march was about working conditions. “It’s like history repeating itself,” says O’Mahony.

The festival committee has this year decided to present an award to somebody who represents the spirit of Mother Jones. The recipient will be chairperson of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Margaret Aspinall, who lost a son in the tragedy and fought to highlight the injustice of the cover-up by police and other sectors of the establishment.

On Aug 1, Professor Simon Cordery of Western Illinois University will deliver the annual Mother Jones Lecture. He recently completed a book entitled Mother Jones: Raising Cain and Consciousness. Mother Jones is celebrated in songs such as ‘Union Maid’ by Woody Guthrie and ‘The Spirit of Mother Jones’ by Andy Irvine. Irvine, who sang at last year’s festival, will return with a concert at the Firkin Crane.

Actor Jer O’Leary, will perform a Jim Larkin monologue while the Cork Singers’ Club will sing songs associated with Mother Jones at the Maldron Hotel. Jimmy Crowley will present a workshop entitled ‘Songs of a Beautiful City’ at the Maldron Hotel. Also playing there will be Hank Wedel and Two Time Polka. The event will culminate with the Butter Exchange Band performing a recital of music associated with Mother Jones.

* For the full programme, visit


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