2:00 pm. The highlights of the past ten years of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festivals.
7:00 pm. Tadhg Barry Remembered. A documentary by Cork Council of Trade Unions and Frameworks Films.
8:00 pm. Interview with Dr. Donal Ó Drisceoil, author of Utter Disloyalist: Tadhg Barry and the Irish Revolution.
The official launch of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2021 took place at the Maldron Hotel, Shandon last night. The Lord Mayor of Cork represented by Cllr. John Sheehan declared the festival open and stated that he was delighted that the festival had proceeded this year as each event set out to challenge one’s views of history and social issues. Speaker, Anne Twomey attended and participated in a brief Q&A session afterwards in relation to questions about Muriel MacSwiney.
The Cork Mother Jones Committee is proud to announce that the 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Award will be presented to members of the campaigning group The Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA).
Members Maureen Considine, Ann O’Gorman and Catherine Coffey O’Brien have agreed to accept the award on behalf of the members of the Alliance.
Jim Nolan on behalf of the Cork Mother Jones Committee declared;
“We are pleased to announce that the Spirit of Mother Jones Award for 2021 has been awarded to members of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance who have campaigned for the proper memorialisation of the women and children who lie buried in the grounds of the former Mother and Babies Home at Bessborough in Cork City.
Specifically the CSSA by their determination and bravery prevented the recent plans to construct apartments on sensitive areas of the Bessborough grounds and through their efforts they discovered an Ordnance Survey Map from 1950 which clearly shows the marked Children’s Burial Ground.
In addition to their actions the members of the Alliance, their experts and their legal team won an oral planning hearing of An Bord Pleanala and convinced the planning inspector of the merits of their argument to protect the Children’s Burial Ground.
Finally by their ongoing efforts and continuing campaign to seek the human right in accordance with common Irish tradition for a dignified burial place for those who died, for the preservation of the burial grounds, for the right of access to those grounds and for the creation of an appropriate memorialisation garden for the mothers and childrenat Bessborough, they have displayed the courage of their convictions and are worthy of the Spirit of Mother Jones award for 2021.
We are indeed honoured to present the Spirit of Mother Jones award for 2021 to the representatives of the Alliance, Catherine Coffey O’Brien, Ann O’Gorman and Maureen Considine.”
The Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (the CSSA) represents a group of survivors of Bessborough Mother and Baby ‘Home’. The CSSA’s membership is largely composed of mother-survivors, whose babies’ died in the institution, and includes family members. Children and mothers who died in Bessborough are buried onsite and in various public burial places such as St. Joseph’s cemetery (Ballyphehane) and All Saints cemetery (Carr’s Hill), with just a handful of the total burials marked.
Following proposals for development on the grounds of Bessborough towards the end of 2020, the CSSA opposed the plans citing the newly discovered evidence for the location of a large Childrens’ Burial Ground on the Bessborough estate. The Commission of Investigation into the Mothers and Baby ‘Homes’ stated that it is “highly likely” that burials took place in the grounds.
Using the 1950 Ordnance Survey original map drawing, which clearly shows “Childrens’ Burial Ground” marked on the grounds of the former Bessborough lands, the CSSA’s legal team convinced An Bord Pleanala to refuse permission for the development on the grounds that it would be “premature to grant permission for the proposed development prior to establishing whether there is a children’s burial ground located within the site and the extent of any such burial ground.” This has now created some space to ensure the proper memorialisation of the women and children who are “highly likely” to lie buried in the grounds.
The full citation reads as follows.
The Spirit of Mother Jones Award for 2021 is presented to members of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance for:
Their bravery and determination to ensure that development does not take place on sensitive burial areas of the former Mother & Baby ‘Home’ at Bessborough in Cork.
Their efforts to organise a voice for the mothers of deceased children, and to publicly question where the remains of hundreds of babies are buried, and why the records of burials have not been produced to date.
Their work in locating the OSI 1950 Map which has a marked location of a Childrens’ Burial Ground clearly displayed.
Their resilience in defending and verifying the accuracy of this map at the oral hearing of An Bord Pleanala during April 2021 and for convincing the planning Board to reject the proposed development.
Their continuing campaign to seek the right with the common tradition for a dignified burial place for those who died, for the preservation of the burial grounds, for access to the same and for the creation of an appropriate memorialisation garden for the mothers and children at Bessborough.
The members of the CSSA are the second Cork-based recipients of this International Award which is named in honour of Cork born Mary Harris known around the world as Mother Jones. The award will be presented this week to Catherine, Ann and Maureen at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.
A discussion about the role of the CSSA and its contribution to the oral planning hearing will be shown on Saturday 27th November at 7:00 pm on Cork Community Television as part of the online Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 21. Further details at www.motherjonescork.com
The Spirit of Mother Jones Awards to date;
2013, Margaret Aspinall and Sue Roberts. (Hillsborough Family Support Group).
2014, Gareth Peirce. Solicitor.
2015 Fr Peter McVerry.
2016 Dave Hopper (RIP) General Secretary, Durham Miners’ Association.
2017 Ken Fleming. (International Transport Workers Federation).
2018 Mary Manning (on behalf of the Dunnes Stores workers).
The following films associated with Mother Jones and the labour movement in Ireland and America will be shown as part of the 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival. The Cork Mother Jones Committee wishes to thank our friends. Lamprini Thoma, Mari-Lynn Evans, Randal MacLowry, Rosemary Feurer and everyone at Frameworks Films for their kindness towards ensuring access to these films.
Friday 26th November at 7:00 pm.
“Tadhg Barry Remembered.” A film produced by Frameworks Films in collaboration with the Cork Council of Trade Unions for Cork Community Television.Release Date: 2013. Runtime: 60 minutes.
This documentary tells the story of Tadhg Barry (1880-1921), a native of Cork city, who has largely been forgotten. It seems hard to believe that a man whose funeral, one of the largest ever in Ireland, and which closed shops and factories from Co Down to Cork city could be relegated to a footnote in history. And yet this is what has happened to a man who was one of the last people to be killed by British forces during the War of Independence on 15th November 1921, just weeks prior to the signing of the Treaty.
Active in numerous organisations such as the G.A.A and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, Barry was a committed socialist, was a union organizer and had organized meetings for James Connolly in Cork as well as being involved with Sinn Fein. He was later elected as an Alderman to Cork City Council.
The documentary was funded under the Sound & Vision scheme, an initiative of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. www.frameworksfilms.com.
Saturday 27th November at 2:00 pm.
“Blood On The Mountain.” A film produced by Mari-Lynn Evans, Deborah Wallace and Jordan Freeman. Release date: 18th November 2016. Runtime: 93 minutes.
The film is an honest investigation into the economic and environmental injustices that have resulted from industrial control in West Virginia. The documentary details the struggles of a hard‐working, often misunderstood people, who have historically faced limited choices and have never benefited fairly from the rich, natural resources of their land.
Blood on the Mountain delivers a striking portrait of a fractured population, exploited and besieged by corporate interests, and abandoned by those elected to represent them. The beauty of the oldest mountain range in North America, with lush, old growth forests, small towns and isolated communities, is contrasted with the long‐term poverty, migration, lack of health care, inadequate educational systems, and political corruption. The coal, timber, oil, and gas industries have generated billions of dollars, but these huge profits went to companies in other states, leaving the region impoverished. Appalachia is a wonderful place, a home to a resilient people but is a mass of contradictions.
Many Appalachian counties are left with little or no tax base to help fund schools, health care, or job creation. Entrenched, corrupt local governments and lagging public policy have not generated sustainable economic alternatives in the region. It is a cruel irony that a region so rich in natural resources is home to many of the poorest and exploited people in the United States.
“Palikari…….Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre” a film from Greece by Lamprini Thoma and Nickos Ventouras. Release Date: 2014. Runtime: 92 minutes.
The Ludlow Massacre and the assassination of Greek immigrant and labour leader Louis Tikas (Elias Spantidakis) is one of the decisive moments of the American labour movement, an event that connects, a century later, the United States of 1914 to the labour and immigrant demands of Greece.
Louis Tikas and union organisers, mainly Greek miners had established a tent colony at Ludlow. However as tension and attacks on the union village escalated, Tikas was murdered along with two other union men by Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt of the Colorado National Guard on 19th/20th April 1914. Later the tented village was attacked and burned to the ground by elements of the Colorado National Guard. (led by Sligo born Patrick Hamrock!)
After this attack, the charred bodies of two women and eleven children were located in the pits. Patria Valdez and four of her children including Elvira, just three months old died, along with the Costa family Cerdelina and Charlie and two children aged 4 and 6 years. An eleven year old boy, Frank Snyder was killed by a bullet through the head. It led to open warfare between thousands of miners and mines guards in which many were killed.
Lamprini Thoma and Nikolaos Ventouras examined the memories, the history and the legacy of Louis Tikas and the Ludlow massacre in Colorado, talked with prominent historians, artists and descendants of Ludlow miners, and documented the scars left by this tragedy on the body of working America. http://www.palikari.org/
Saturday 27th November at 6:00 pm.
“Mother Jones, America’s Most Dangerous Woman” a film by Rosemary Feurer and Laura Vazquez.Release Date: 2007 (Canada). Runtime: 24 min.
Mother Jones: America’s Most Dangerous Woman is a documentary about the amazing labor heroine, Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother Jones. Mother Jones’ organising career influenced the history of early 20th century United States. She overcame class and gender limitations to shape an identity that allowed her to become an effective labor organiser in the early 20th century. Mother Jones transformed personal and political grief and rage about class injustices into an effective persona that led workers into battles that changed the course of history. The terrible conditions and labor oppression of the time motivated her to traverse the country, in order to organise against injustices. It also examines the human tragedy of the Ludlow Massacre.#
“The Mine Wars” a film produced and directed by Randal MacLowry.Release Date: 2016. Runtime: 120 min
A production of the Film Possee for American Experience (WGBH-Boston).
The Mine Wars explores the largely forgotten story of the epic struggle between Capital and Labour over the recognition of the United Mine workers of America union in the coalfields of South West Virginia. These culminated in the largest civil insurrection in America since the Civil War at Blair Mountain where thousands of miners took up arms and were even bombed from the air.
Between 1890 and 1912, miners in West Virginia endured the highest death rate in America. Mother Jones was active in 1902 and again in the period 1912-1913 when Paint Creek and Cabin Creek featured. Later Mingo County, Logan County, the Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain where at least 50 people were killed are highlighted. This film concentrates on a UMWA leader and former miner Frank Keeney, who inspired by Mother Jones went to organise the union in West Virginia.
Mother Jones, herself incarcerated for three months in West Virginia, described the state as “Medieval West Virginia with its tent colonies on the bleak hills! With its grim men and women! When I get to the other side, I shall tell God almighty about West Virginia.”
The Mine Wars tells the story on this side! See The Film Possee Facebook. www.pbs.org
Thanks to Randall.
Sunday November 28th at 4:00 pm
“Mother Jones and her Children” afilm by Frameworks Films and the Cork Mother Jones Committee.Release Date: July 2014. Runtime: 52 min.
This film tells the story of Mary Harris (1837 – 1930) from Cork who went on to become “the most dangerous woman in America”. Starting with her early years in Cork, this documentary goes on to detail her life in America following the famine, her marriage to George Jones and the birth of her four children. It details the tragedies which befell her. Her growing involvement in the labour movement in America, defending the rights of children and workers is documented. Through interviews with leading experts on Mother Jones, we learn of her fearless and tireless campaign to organise workers at a time of severe labour strife and her international legacy today. www.frameworksfilm.com
This online interview with Mona Polacca took place at the launch of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2021 at UCC on the 14th October 2021..
The discussion was held as part of UCC Community Week in a collaboration between the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival with the UCC Department of Civic and Community Engagement and the Center for Earth Ethics in New York City.
Our thanks to Dr John Barimo and Shannon Smith for their cooperation in making this interview available.
William Hammond organised the recording of seven songs which commemorate Cork born Mary Harris. Frameworks Films undertook the filming and recording of the session on a beautiful morning in Shandon, Cork City. The recordings were held at the old Butter Market garden under the landmark Bells of Shandon during the summer of 2021.
The programme of songs will be shown on Cork Community Television on Sunday 28th November at 8:00 pm.
The music video features newly written songs by Karan Casey, John Murphy and Mags Creedon sung by the songwriters.
It also includes a song The Ballad of Mother Jones written by legendary Teresa Ní Chárthaigh of Blarney Street and sung by Māire Ní Chēileachair. Richard T. Cooke has written a song “And the Band played Hallelujah” which he recites. John Nyhan, his son Gearoid and Mick Treacy also contribute a song “Let The Mountains Roll”. Finally, William features with a waltz he composed for Mother Jones and a song recorded by Gene Autry called “The Death of Mother Jones”.
Máire Ní Chéileachair.
From Farran in Cork, Máire got her love of singing and the Irish language from her parents who are from Kilnamartyra. In 2018, Māire won Corn Ui Riada and was also named TG4 singer of the year, she has recorded two CDs.
From Ballyvolane in Cork City, he is a prolific songwriter and a member of the Cork Singers Club. He has commemorated the Burning of Cork in song along with some of Corks finest musicians in his recent debut album entitled, Cork 1920, A City In Flames.
Karan Casey from Ballyduff Lower, Co Waterford is an Irish folk singer and traditional singer, and a former member of the Irish band Solas. She is one of the most instantly recognisable, alluring and original voices in all of world music. Her recording, Distant Shore, is a collection of potent and beautiful Irish and contemporary ballads.
Richard T. Cooke.
Richard is a true blooded Corkonian and this is evident in the many books, television history documentaries, radio programmes and songs. And this was recognised when he received the prestigious Lord Mayor’s Civic Award in 2009:-” For his lifetime in promoting Ireland and his beloved City of Cork to the world through his writings and through his songs.” Richard is a member of the Mother Jones Committee.
Known also as Hammy is from Fermoy he has been living in Cork for over 40 years. William has a great love of traditional music and set dancing. He is an accomplished accordion player in the CD style and a singer with the Cork Singers Club. William has been organising festivals in Cork for over 35 years including the Cork Folk Festival, Michael Dwyer Fest, Féile Fearmuí and the Mother Jones Festival.
John was born in Cork City and is now living in North Cork. Influenced by the Folk Revival musicians including; Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention, Sweeney’s Men, Planxty and Rory Gallagher. John is known throughout Ireland and the USA as a promoter of Folk and Bluegrass concerts and he is joined by his son Gearoid in this recording. His friend Mick Treacy a veteran of the Holy Ground Folk Club in Birmingham and of the folk scene in England and Ireland accompanies.
Mags is a member of the Cork Songwriters Club and she regularly performs poemsong at Munster Arts events with O’ Bheal poetry. She is a Pan Celtic finalist in 2018, and 2019 and has performed on the charity Èalù album 2016 Commissions. Mags is also a member of the Cork Singers Club and has written a song for the Cork Libraries about the Cork writer, Frank O’ Connor.
The filming and recording by Frameworks Films took place on Sunday 29th August 2021 at the old Shandon Butter Market garden in the heart of the Shandon Historic Quarter. The Cork Mother Jones Committee wish to express our thanks to everyone involved in Cork’s tribute to Mother Jones.
The Spirit of Mother Jones Festival will take place online on Cork Community Television from Thursday 25th November 2021 until Sunday 28th November 2021. We are hoping to have a number of live events, including Q&A’s with the interviewees as well as some live music at the Maldron Hotel in Shandon during the course of the Festival. These are subject strictly to the Covid 19 regulations specified at the time and the attendance will be limited.
Thursday 25th November – Sunday 28th November 2021
Programme of online events on Cork Community Television.
Thursday 25th November 2021
2:00 pm. The highlights of the 2020 online Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.
7.30 pm. Muriel MacSwiney………The Unlikely Revolutionary. An interview with Anne Twomey, historian and teacher, of the Shandon Area History Group.
Friday 26th November 2021
2:00 pm. The highlights of the first ten years of the Spirit of Mother Jones festivals.
7.00 pm. Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the death of Tadhg Barry, of Blarney Street.
Tadhg Barry Remembered. Documentary by Cork Council of Trade Unions and Frameworks Films.
8.00 pm. Interview with Dr. Donal O’Drisceoil
Author of Utter Disloyalist: Tadhg Barry and The Irish Revolution.
Saturday 27th November 2021.
2:00 pm. Blood on the Mountain produced by Mari-Lynn Evans.
4:00 pm. Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre produced by Lamprini C Tomas and Nickos Ventouras.
6:00 pm. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Rosemary Feurer.
6:30 pm. Interview (zoom) with Mari Steed, Adoption Rights campaigner.
7:00pm. Maureen Considine and Catherine Coffey O’Brien of the CorkSurvivors and Supporters Alliance, CSSA discuss their effort to safeguard the Bessborough Burial ground.
Sunday 28th November 2021
2:00 pm. The Mine Warsproduced and directed by Randall MacLowry.
4:00 pm. Mother Jones and Her Children by Frameworks Films.
7:00 pm. Dr. Sean Pettit…….An Extraordinary Teacher with an introduction by Richard T Cooke. This film features Sean’s final presentation “The Cork City of Mary Harris” at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival on 29th July 2016.
8:00 pm. The Songs of Mother Jones.
Featuring Māire Ní Chēilleachair, Karan Casey, William Hammond, Mags Creedon, Richard T Cooke, John Murphy, John & Gearoid Nyhan and Mick Treacy.
The 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival will also include Q&A sessions with the speakers at the Maldron Hotel after the broadcasts on Cork Community Television. The capacity is strictly limited in accordance with the Covid-19 regulations for the safety of participants. Full details on how to attend will be announced later.
The Spirit of Mother Jones festival will broadcast a discussion between two activists of the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA) which has campaigned to get the relevant authorities to locate and protect the burial ground of hundreds of babies born in the Bessborough Mother and Baby ‘Home’ during its operation from 1922 to 1996.
The discussion will be broadcast on Saturday evening 27th November at 7.30.
Catherine Coffey O’Brien and Maureen Considine discuss how their organisation located a 1950 Ordnance Survey map which showed the location of the Children’s’ Burial Ground at Bessborough and used it as the basis of their campaign to protect the site from an apartment development.
They also discuss efforts to achieve healing for those who suffered. The memorialisation of the women and children who died in these institutions should be a priority. The class structures within the homes need to be examined in greater detail in order to ensure that the full oral and written testimony of survivors and the archival legacy of the period be secured and open to all in perpetuity.
Background to the planned development.
By order dated 25th May 2021, An Bord Pleanāla, (ABP) the Irish Planning Board refused planning for an apartment complex of 179 residential units at Bessboro, Ballinure in Cork City. Its decision stated that it is
“not satisfied that the site at Bessboro was not previously used as, and does not contain, a children’s burial ground and considers that there are reasonable concerns in relation to the potential for a children’s burial ground within the site associated with the former use of the lands as a Mother and Baby Home over the period 1922 to 1998.“
An Bord Pleanála
A second planning application for 67 apartments nearby was later refused by both Cork City Council and An Bord Pleanàla on environmental grounds and the fact that the overall design was no longer coherent without permission for the other blocks in the complex.
While many survivors, politicians and others objected to the original planning application submitted in late 2020 under the Irish planning fast track Strategic Housing Development legislation, in the subsequent oral hearing conducted online by ABP over three days from Wednesday 21st April to Friday 23rd April 2021, the active participation and detailed arguments made by the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance (CSSA) ensured that ABP had no choice but to reject the development.
Through the research and determination of the CSSA, it had discovered an Ordnance Survey original map drawing, dated 1950, clearly marking the site of the “Childrens’ Burial Ground”. Although contested fiercely by the developer, the Alliance’s legal team convinced ABP to reject the planned development which would have effectively desecrated, through ground works, most of the burial ground as shown on the map.
Earlier, the closing date for public submissions to ABP was the 12th January 2021, coincidentally the same day as the Final Report of theCommission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (M&B CHOI) was published.
As the CSSA needed to include remarks on the commission’s final report members were left no option, but to hand-deliver and electronically submit objections to the Cork City Council and ABP before close of business on the same day. No extensions or allowances could be made by the planning system.
According to the Commission of Investigation;
“the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or county homes in the 20th Century was probably the highest in the world”.
An estimated 100,000 Irish women may have given birth in the various institutions during the 20th century. Of the estimated 56,000 mothers who were sent to those 18 institutions investigated by the above Commission, an estimated 9,000 of their babies (15% of the children born) died in them.
Bessborough in Cork was one such institution. Established in 1922, it was owned and run by the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary nuns, based at Chigwell in London. Later in 1933 a maternity hospital was opened. Some mothers were treated privately, but most were paid for by the public assistance/health authorities.
From 1922 to 1998, 9768 mothers were admitted and approx. 9000 babies were born. Of these, at least 921 children associated with Bessboro died, 761 died in Bessboro itself. Between the years 1940-44, 330 children died there or a third of the total. The burial place of 856+ children and 14 women has not been identified to date. Stillborn infants are not included in any final number of Bessborough dead.
“in spite of serious efforts, it has not been able to establish where the majority of the Bessborough children are buried”.
The Executive Summary Report is blunt;
“The Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary are unable to identify where the children from Bessboro are buried. The Commission finds it very hard to believe that there is no one in the congregation who does not have some knowledge of the burial places of the children.”
Further planning applications under the Strategic Housing Development legislation for residential development of the Bessborough grounds are expected shortly.
Catherine Coffey O’Brien is a graduate of University College Cork. She describes herself as a tin-smith’s granddaughter and an intergenerational survivor of industrial schools institutions. She was tricked into going to Bessborough in 1989 when pregnant, but soon ran away. She did not want another generation of her family to be lost to the system.
Maureen Considine is a graduate of Fine Art from CIT Crawford College of Art and design and a Master graduate of Art History in University College Cork. She is now a PhD candidate and funded Excellence Scholar in the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences UCC. From Mayfield, she specialises in art history and critiques consultative engagement with marginalised communities.
During the Spirit of Mother Jones 2021 Festival programme, we will show a recorded interview with Adoption Rights campaigner Mari Steed conducted by John Barimo of the Cork Mother Jones Committee on Saturday 27th November at 6.30 pm on Cork Community Television. (www.corkcommunitytv.ie).
Mari Steed was born in the Bessborough Mothers and Babies Home in Cork in 1960 and was just two years old when she was adopted from Ireland by a family from Philadelphia. Years later, her search for her birth mother Josie led to the Magdalene Laundries’ story where her birth mother was confined as a young girl.
She describes her reunion with her mother and how she visited her each year in the UK. During her difficult search for information about her family, Mari also discovered that she had also been included in a vaccine trial in the early 1960s at Bessborough.
Her growing activism led to her becoming one of the founder members of Justice forMagdalenes (JFM) in 2003 which was mainly responsible for the successful campaign to obtain a State apology for the survivors. Today she is the US coordinator for the Adoption Rights Alliance and is challenging the recent Commission of Investigation into the Mothers and Babies Homes Report.
She remains disappointed that the survivors of the Mothers and Babies Homes are still not being believed by the State nor have they received “restorative justice” even to the extent of the failure to provide all survivors with basic needs such as advanced medical cards. A full State apology is awaited. Mari wants the State to enshrine the real story of the tens of thousands of women who were placed in the Magdalene Laundries and the Mother and Babies Homes in the 20th century by its permanent inclusion in the school curricula.
Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2021.
Cork Community Television, Saturday 27th November, 6.30pm.
The 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival will contain an interview with Anne Twomey, teacher and historian on the life of Muriel MacSwiney. This will be shown on Cork Community TV on Thursday, November 25th at 8:00 pm followed by a Q&A with Anne at the Maldron Hotel.
Anne is a member of the Shandon Area History Group which recently published “Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times”.
The Cork Mother Jones Committee through the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival has attempted over the past decade to research and promote the cause of women, especially strong independent women whose life stories have sometimes been ignored, silenced or deleted from the public discourse. In the following article Muriel MacSwiney … an Unlikely Revolutionary, we take a brief look at her eventful path through life.
Mary Harris and Muriel Murphy were both born on the north side of Cork City, but unlike the poverty of Mary Harris, Muriel Murphy was born to wealth and privilege at Carrigmore in Montenotte, a future heiress to the huge riches of the Cork merchant prince and unionist supporting Murphy family.
In Muriel’s statement to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) dated December 1951 she wrote “My family, of course, were completely imperialist, conservative, capitalist and roman catholic”.
The youngest in a family of six, she complained of being kept isolated from the “common people” and claimed to have left her snobbish convent at seventeen where she had “learned literally nothing”. Muriel received little formal education and author Angela Clifford in Letters to Angela Clifford suggested that as a result “her originality was left unfettered, she thought and then she did what her thinking suggested”.
Instead of a well-trodden pathway whereby she could have kept her head down and along with many former unionist families who simply blended into the new Free State then in its birth pangs through violent revolution, Muriel took a different path and boldly embraced the early Republican cause and later married Cork Volunteer leader Terence MacSwiney in 1917.
It was the ultimate love story of the beautiful girl sacrificing everything for a poor imprisoned playwright, poet and revolutionary. Her small wedding at Bromyard in Herefordshire on 9th June 1917, on her twenty fifth birthday was conducted through the Irish language at an open prison where the groom wore his military uniform was highly unusual.
Her forty months of married life was interrupted regularly by the absence of her husband either through his organizing work for the Irish Volunteers or as a result of his harassment or imprisonment by the British authorities. Terence’s later role as Teachta Dāla (TD) in the new Dāil Eireann or his position as Lord Mayor of Cork City could not save him from the harsh treatment of the British which in effect also victimised their families.
Terence was in jail when Muriel gave birth to Māire and his first meeting with their two month old baby daughter, involved Muriel making the long journey to a prison in Belfast in August 1918 and staying in that city for several weeks. The newly married couple had just a few months of normality together in places such as Ballingeary and Youghal in Co Cork.
Muriel too endured the pain of the ceaseless attempts to break her husband’s spirit. She did not agree with hunger strikes, but supported her husband to the very end of his strike. In the full glare of worldwide publicity on 25th October 1920, Cork Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney died. His death caused a massive growth of support for the Irish Republican cause, but it also mortally wounded the resolve of the British establishment to enforce it’s rule in Ireland.
Very few observers subsequently considered the human trauma, stress and acute loneliness of the young widow with responsibility for a baby. Nor did they empathise with her personal reaction to her husband’s slow painful death over 74 days, the enormous impact of which was such that Muriel collapsed from sheer exhaustion and grief and was unable to attend her Terence’s funeral in Cork.
Yet exactly a month later, Muriel boarded the Celtic in Cobh (Queenstown) along with her sister in law Mary MacSwiney and arrived in New York on 5th December to a huge welcome from thousands of supporters including some 300 women who ignoring formalities simply mobbed her.
She provided searingly honest evidence at an American Commission On Conditions In Ireland hearing in Washington on 9th December.
The New York Times front page article referred in patronising terms to her as “a mere girl, with brilliant eyes and a quick engaging smile”. ‘A perfect picture of Irish beauty” gushed the New York Evening World.
Muriel spent the entire Christmas holiday period being introduced to hundreds of Irish people in political and business circles. Later on New Years Eve, New York Mayor Hylan presented her with the formal Freedom of the City at a ceremony in City Hall, the first woman to receive this honour.
Muriel was followed by huge crowds and by today’s terms was a media poster girl for the Irish Revolution. She was serenaded by the “Fighting Sixty Ninth” regimental band that night and the band turned up again to accompany Muriel to the New York quay as she sailed for home on New Year’s Day 1921. Sister in law, Mary MacSwiney stayed on in America until after the truce. One must wonder whether Muriel’s media role as the grieving widow of a Republican martyr was exploited by some within the increasingly powerful movement for independence.
Soon after returning from America, she headed briefly to Germany for medical treatment.
Displaying great courage and resilience, she worked ceaselessly for the Republic in spite of health difficulties. She witnessed at close quarters the murder and mayhem around the transfer of power to her comrades and then experienced the growing bitterness between those former friends. As some revolutionaries conformed, others were marginalised. The old unity and loyalty disappeared. Muriel took the Republican side and was present at the heart of the initial fighting during the first days of the Civil War madness.
She returned to the USA in September 1922 and stayed for almost a year trying to gather financial support for the anti-treaty side. Her daughter Māire was looked after by Madame O’Rahilly as part of the O’Rahilly family in their home in Dublin. Māire in her memoir History’sDaughter (2005) described this period as “one of the happiest years of my childhood and the longest period that I spent in a family situation.”
The book covers in great detail the relationship between mother and daughter. They spent the early summer of 1924 together at the old Murphy family home at Carrigmore which seems to have been their last period together in Cork before their emigration to Germany. Māire discusses in some detail her various German schools and the long absences of Muriel in this memoir. However as Muriel gave birth in 1926 to her second daughter Alix may well have contributed to these long absences from Máire.
One may never know the full circumstances behind the sudden appearance of Māire back in Cork in the summer of 1932. Māire describes her return from Germany as voluntary if somewhat unorthodox. Muriel always contended that it was a well-planned kidnap by Mary MacSwiney and her friends in the Church and State. Her poignant description of her desperate efforts to get support in Dublin, are very raw. She spoke with Jim Larkin, Linda Kearns and many other friends and she describes how she cried tears for her child in front of Ēamon De Valera.
Māire was made a ward of court in Ireland after informing the judge that she wished to stay with her aunts in Ireland. It was argued that her aunt Mary was already her legal co-guardian. It remains unclear to this day if this legal paperwork was actually produced as the full court papers and decision have remained sealed. Maire was then raised and educated by the MacSwiney sisters, Mary and Annie at their Scoil Íte school located off Wellington Road in Cork City.
The end result was the 50 year long tragic family estrangement of Muriel and Māire who never spoke or met again. Muriel felt deeply wounded by what she felt was a total betrayal by the MacSwiney family and its cover up by the State. An immediate result was that she became quite ill with flu and pneumonia and was depressed for a period after her vain attempts to get back her daughter failed.
In her BMH statement Muriel states how she left the Catholic Church as early as the outbreak of the Civil War. The Church emerged from the War of Independence as the most powerful institution in the new State (similar to the earlier post Famine period), however Muriel was beginning her break from its influence. “I consider everyone has the right to whatever religious beliefs they think right or to the freethinker ideal which is mine”. Ironically two of her sisters, Nora and Edith joined convents. A third sister Mabel married her second cousin James Murphy and lived at Ringmahon House, near Blackrock in Cork.
Muriel seems to have embraced European communism and socialist ideas from the mid-20s onwards and moved freely in the German and Parisian left wing circles. Her second daughter Alix was born in May 1926 following a relationship with Pierre Kaan, a writer and independent communist intellectual. Very little is known about this relationship as there is no available reference to Muriel discussing it.
Later, Kaan became a Liberation Sud Resistance leader operating in the town of Montlucon in Central France during the Nazi occupation of nearby areas. Following betrayal in 1943, he was imprisoned, tortured and locked up concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Gleina. He died soon after liberation by the Czech resistance on 18th May 1945.
Muriel left Germany in 1933, as the Nazi takeover of Germany got underway.
She initially lived in France, spent the Second World War in the UK and then moved between Brittany and the UK. Her house in Brittany was named Ty Connolly.
Muriel kept some contact with Ireland and came and went and had extensive correspondence with the Sheehy Skeffington family, while she said she had met Tom Hales in 1953/54. Earlier Māire had married Ruairí Brugha in July 1945 and Ruairi had made great efforts to build bridges to no avail.
She was very friendly with Mrs. Kathleen McDonnell of Bandon, who had German connections, knew all the parties including Mrs. Stockley and Mary MacSwiney and who attempted to organise a reconciliation between Māire and Muriel. Muriel would not agree to any meeting.
Muriel campaigned against homelessness in Dublin and actively supported the Dublin Housing Action Committee especially praising the activities of housing activist Dennis Dennehy. She expressed “complete confidence” in Dr. Noel Browne.
Her letters and writings clearly display expressions of her socialist views and she was somewhat involved in the complicated discussions and rows within the Left during that period. Her available correspondence demonstrates her sympathy on the side of the underdogs in society to the very end of her days. Muriel not alone fought bravely for the Irish Republic, but also fought against international fascism and the control of the Catholic Church in Ireland throughout her life.
Utterly fearless, she challenged the Bishop of Southwark in 1957 when he tried to raise ten thousand pounds for a MacSwiney Chapel in the cathedral where Terence’s body reposed after his death….she told the Guardian newspaper that the money would be better spent in Ireland “where children are suffering from bad conditions caused by unemployment and lack of proper health services”. This may refer to the present Chapel of St. Patrick, which lies on the southside of the cathedral and was rededicated in 1958. There is reference to the cathedral receiving with honour, the body of Terence MacSwiney, “which rested here on the 27th and 28th October 1920”.
In a prescient comment about Muriel, her daughter Māire contended that “one of the main reasons for her falling out with the Roman Catholic Church was its attitude to and treatment of unmarried mothers”. However, it took a further century for the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Home reports to be published in the Republic of Ireland. These reports exposed to some degree in stark detail the treatment experienced by at least one hundred thousand Irish women who either gave birth to children in these institutions or who worked unpaid in the Magdalene laundries in the new State which Muriel witnessed being created in 1922. Thousands of children died in the institutions and the whereabouts of their burial continues to be a source of controversy to the present day.
Ruairí Brugha died on 20th January 2006, while Māire MacSwiney Brugha died in May 2012. They were married for over 60 years.
Muriel later lived in England with her daughter Alix Blakelock (1926-2009), and her family at Tonbridge in Kent. Members of the family including Alix’s son Adrian (1948-2014) were active in Labour politics and Adrian supported the miners in the 1984/5 strike. On the 25th October 2020, at the commemoration outside of Brixton Prison, of the 100th anniversary of the death of Terence MacSwiney, among those who gathered were members of the Brugha family and Nigel Blakelock, grandson of Muriel MacSwiney.
Muriel died in the Oakwood Hospital Maidstone on 26th October 1982 almost 62 years to the day after Terence MacSwiney.
Angela Clifford who met and corresponded with Muriel regarded her as “a free spirit”. Cork journalist and author Mary Leyland in An Irishwoman’s Diary in the Irish Times September 2012 considered her to “have been charismatic in her own way, purposeful, original and fearless”.
From the few holidays she spent with her mother, Máire remembered her as “a warm and loving mother and I dearly loved her”. Terence MacSwiney himself, long resigned to bachelor hood expressed his intense love for this unusual, wealthy young lady who had innocently entered a closed circle of conspirators in Cork and took a shine to him.
In a chapter of Letters to Angela Clifford in 1996, Ms Clifford deals in chapter four with what she terms the “Character Assassination” of Muriel. Certainly, as Muriel had refused to play the grieving republican widow, she appears to have been largely removed from republican history and was rarely discussed openly in her native Cork. She was disappeared into the knowing silence of the new establishment.
Her refusal to bring up her child as a Catholic, her antipathy to the Church as an institution (Māire referred to it as “an obsession”) and her association with communists did not fit well with the prevailing conservative orthodoxy and double standards applied to her as a woman.
What is very apparent is that Muriel as an activist revolutionary woman/widow/ patriot was not allowed the same freedom or latitude in relation to her personal family life decisions as her male revolutionary counterparts. Nor were the doctrinaire positions of some in her republican circles commented on to the same degree as the conventional wisdom of Muriel’s perceived obduracy.
Muirgheal, (muir gheal…Irish for “bright sea”), the name by which she preferred to be known and with which she signed letters, is worthy of full inclusion as a serious Irish and international patriot, not solely as the wife/widow of Terence MacSwiney, but in her own right as a woman who took her own difficult path in a long revolutionary life.
In Principles of Freedom, originally a series of articles written in 1911, Terence MacSwiney considered womanhood; his heroic ideal woman was Matilda Tone, wife of Wolfe Tone because of her bravery. He also advised that “a man should learn to let his wife and children suffer rather than make of them willing slaves and cowards”.
In his poem The Path he acknowledged that the life of a revolutionary would place a harsh demand on any woman whom he wished to marry.
“I dreaded asking thee to take my hand lest on a path regretted it should lead, And lest thy heart in after years should bleed, if then ‘mid scenes unwelcome thou shouldn’t stand, And thou shouldst think: “It is a harsh demand this path makes on my labour””.
Muriel bravely survived these harsh demands.
Gerard O’Mahony of the Cork Mother Jones Committee.
The interview with Anne Twomey will be shown on Cork Community TV on Thursday November 25th at 8:00 pm followed by a Q&A with Anne at the Maldron Hotel.
Anne is a member of the Shandon Area History Group which recently published “Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times”
Manus O’Riordan wrote of meeting Muriel in Dublin when she visited his family home and they later exchanged correspondence. In his last visit to the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival in August 2019, his parting words were “Never forget Muriel”. His assistance is very much appreciated.
Muriel MacSwiney: Letters To Angela Clifford, by Angela Clifford Athol Books 1995.
History’s Daughter: A Memoir From The Only Child of Terence MacSwiney, by Māire MacSwiney Brugha.
Enduring The Most: The Life and Death of Terence MacSwiney (1995) by Fergus J Costello.
Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times. The Shandon Area History Group.
An Irishwoman’s Diary, Irish Times, September 18th 2012 by Mary Leyland
Muriel MacSwiney On Ballingeary, and Her Letters To A Grandson of Ballingeary. Ballingeary & Inchigeela Historical Society 2016 by Manus O’Riordan.
The 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones will present an interview with local historian and teacher Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group, in which we explore the life of Muriel MacSwiney from the available information. The interview will be shown on Cork Community TV on Thursday evening 25th November at 8:00 pm.