THREE years ago many Irish people had never heard of Mother Jones.
But later this month, an international festival in her native city will celebrate the turbulent life and times of the legendary Cork-woman who became a household name across America.
Born in the shadow of Shandon steeple, Mary Harris survived famine, the American Civil War, the loss of her business and the yellow fever epidemic which killed her husband George Jones and the couple’s four children to become one of the most famous union organisers in America.
Plans are also in place to have her grave-site restored and a special museum built in her honour in the US state of Illinois by June 2015.
Harris, who became known throughout the US as Mother Jones, was once dubbed “the most dangerous woman in America” for championing the rights of workers and fighting injustice.
Born in 1837 and baptised in the North Cathedral, her family survived the famine but later emigrated to Canada. She became a legendary campaigner for workers’ rights , facing down the notoriously rapacious mining barons and their brutal private armies.
Clad in her trademark respectable black dress and bonnet and carrying a handbag, Harris, who started out in life as a seamstress and teacher, was repeatedly arrested and flung into prison for her efforts on behalf of the United Mine Workers.
She even ventured into remote mining camps in places like Colorado and West Virginia, which many union organisers avoided for fear of injury or death.
Her defiance of industry bosses made her a heroine amongst the desperately poor and encouraged ordinary workers to join together and fight the appalling injustices and inhumane conditions they routinely endured.
Operating in the male-dominated world of mining, Mother Jones earned enormous respect and admiration for her ability to stare down the mining moguls, and, when she passed away at the age of 93 in November 1930, tens of thousands attended her funeral.
Today her grave at the Union Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois, is a place of pilgrimage
Later this month, Gareth Pierce, the human rights lawyer who played a key role in the release of the Guildford Four and Bermingham Six will be among an estimated 2,000 people from around Ireland, Greece, the USA and Britain — including labour union chiefs, civil rights activists, film-makers and musicians — who will participate in a full programme of events marking the third Cork Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.
The four-day event, which runs from Tuesday July 29 to Friday August 1 (a day which has now been officially designated Mother Jones Day by Cork City Council) is now, according to the festival organising committee, one of the largest community-organised history, union and cultural events in Ireland.
Many of the activities will take place in the historic Shandon Quarter.
One of the festival highlights will be the premiere of Mother Jones and her Children, a new documentary from Frameworks Films, to be shown for the first time on Friday, August 1, at 8pm at the Firkin Crane.
The festival summer school will examine landmark events such as the British Miners’ Strike of 1984, as well as other stories of miners and their communities.
These include the Battle for Orgreave, the story of the Allihies Copper miners and the horrific Ludlow Massacre, in which two dozen people, including women and children, were killed in an attack by the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards on a tent colony of 1200 striking miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado in April 1914.
“We are trying to include things that other festivals don’t, and we place a strong emphasis on people and events which have been largely forgotten in history,” says festival spokesman Ger O’Mahony.
Professor Rosemary Feurer of Northern Illinois University — an expert on Mother Jones — will show a film on Mother Jones and discuss her connections with James Connolly and Jim Larkin.
Feurer has long campaigned for the construction of a Mother Jones Museum near the site of the Mother Jones burial site in Illinois. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, the establishment of the Cork festival two years ago gave huge momentum to the campaign to further recognise the life of Mary Harris with the construction of a museum and a refurbishment of the memorial site.
Other speakers at the Cork event include David Joyce of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Claire McGettrick of Justice for the Magdalen.
A special Miners Day will be held on Thursday July 31, with people such as Anne Scargill, Betty Cook, Paul Winter and Dave Hopper speaking on the British Miners’ Strike which began in 1984.
Tadhg O’Sullivan will detail the story of the Allihies Copper Miners, while Greek film-maker Lamprini Thoma will present the European premiere of Louis Tikas and the notorious Ludlow Massacre. Tikas, a friend of Mother Jones, was among those murdered at Ludlow.
The story of the life and death of Cork socialist and patriot Tadhg Barry from Blarney Street will be featured, with a showing of the Frameworks Film Tadhg Barry Remembered.
Friday August 1 will bring The Mother Jones Gala Concert with Richard T Cooke, featuring local Cork talent including the Cork Rokk Choir, Kieran McCarthy, Aoife Delaney and many more. Jimmy Crowley, Two Time Polka, the Cork Singers Club and Wildwood Flower and the new Mother Jones Céilí Band will also appear at the festival.
A Garden Party will also take place on Friday evening at the Butter Market with the Lions Youth Brass band from Cheshire. The Butter Exchange Band will perform at a commemoration event at the Mother Jones monument later that evening.
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