Mary Harris

Mary Harris was born in Cork city in late July 1837 and was baptised on 1st August by Father John O’ Mahony in the local Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne (known to generations of Cork people as the North Chapel), which stands on the north side of Cork city, close by the historical Shandon area. The cathedral archives contain her baptism details in the baptism registry books. These archives date back to 1731 for baptism details.

It was a busy morning for baptisms, as Mary Harris was just one of five on that day. Mary’s baptism is listed as the third on the registry for 1st August 1837. The beautiful baptism font in which Mary Harris was baptised, remains in everyday use to this day, it has been relocated close to the western entrance and can be seen by visitors to the Cathedral. The southern entrance water font dates from 1799.

Very little remains of the original North Chapel, construction of which began in 1799 and which was eventually dedicated in 1808. This church stood for just over a decade when in 1820 it was very extensively damaged by fire as a result of arson. Only a shell remained after the fire, but it was completely refurbished by architect George Pain and was reopened again in 1828. This was the church in which Mary Harris was baptised just 9 years later.

( Baptism registry entry of Mary Harris: August 1st 1830) Photo: Jim Fitzpatrick.

Although the beautiful imposing and impressive Cathedral structure with towers today is far removed from the church of Mary Harris in 1837, it stands on the same site and that 19th century church has been incorporated into the present day structure. 

Mary’s parents were Ellen Cotter and Richard Harris. Ellen was born in Inchigeelagh about 1811, she was nine years younger than Richard and they had been married on the 9th February 1834 in Ellen’s local Catholic church, which was then located in the centre of the village, to the rear of the present day Creedon’s Hotel. Her baptism sponsors were Ellen Leary and Richard Hennessy, (Inchigeelagh is in the barony of Uíbh Laoghaire….or land of the O’Leary’s), in West Muskerry. Hennessy is also a Cork family name.

(Marriage cert of Richard and Ellen Harris in 1834)

The present day Catholic Church in Inchigeelagh dates from 1842 and there are many Cotter headstones in the attached graveyard. Local historian Joe Creedon believes Ellen Cotter was born in the local townland of Carrignacurra, which is a hilly rural area comprising about 445 acres to the south of the village.

Little is known of Richard Harris, although the baptismal records at the North Chapel show that a Richard Harris was baptised there on September 7th 1802 which corresponds to the 1861 Toronto Census where his age is given as 58.

Mary was the second born child in the Harris family, Richard was her older brother (b.1835) and he was baptised in Inchigeelagh, sisters Catherine (baptised at North Chapel on the 29th March 1840), Ellen (b.1845) and brother William (baptised at the North Chapel on 28th February 1846) followed.

As with the story of hundreds of thousands of the poor in Ireland at the time, very little is known about Mary’s life in Cork, in her autobiography she simply says “my people were poor”. . There are few if any civil state records available from this period, few church records and given the upheaval and uprooting of families arising from the Famine period, it is unlikely that other records have survived. The poor leave few recorded traces of their lives…

Baptism Archive 1833-1853 North Cathedral.

Curiously in the third sentence of her autobiography she mentions her ancestors and says “For generations they had fought for Ireland’s freedom. Many of my folk have died in that struggle”.  

During the previous generation, Ireland had witnessed the rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798, including some incidents in West Cork such as the Battle of the Big Cross near Shannonvale, close to Clonakilty in West Cork. The site of this battle is just 41 kilometres (25 miles) to the south-west of Inchigeelagh. However, far more widespread in the early 1800s across rural parts of Munster, in the south west of Ireland, were the “agrarian outrages” against landlords by the Whiteboys and the Rockites, both secret organisations. Terror, shootings, burning of property and hangings were common as planter and dispossessed fought each other. 

Diarmuid Ō Murchadha in an article on Uíbh Laoghaire in the Seventeen Century, contained in the publication of Cork, History & Society commented,

“It is hardly a coincidence that from this one remote upland parish emanated some of the most notable of what might be termed anti-establishment personages and events throughout succeeding generations, incidents which in Gaelic folk-memory have always had a symbolic impact far above and beyond their historical significance.”

Diarmuid Ō Murchadha

The death of local folk-hero, Art Ō Laoghaire in 1773 at the hands of English soldiers left the legacy of a poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire and the Battle of Keimaneigh in Jan 1822 when a large battle took place at a nearby pass between Whiteboys and the Yeomen. A plaque lists the names of four Whiteboys killed during and after this affray as well as a Yeoman. Some reports say the legendary Captain Rock was present. It is remembered today in a song the Battle of Keimaneigh, Cath Chēim An Fhia.

There is a further Inchigeelagh connection in relation to Irish nationalism. An tAthair Peadar Ō Laoghaire (1839-1920), who was one of the most prolific writers in the Irish language, a Land League activist and a noted Gaelic Nationalist scholar, claimed descent from the Ō Laoghaire’s of Carrignacurra Castle.

Cotter is an old Norse name. A famous case involved a James Cotter of an Old Catholic Jacobite family of Anngrove was hanged in Cork City following a conviction for rape back in 1720, which led to rioting on a national scale due to what many people considered to be discrimination against Catholics. Many Cotters from East Cork moved west to the Inchigeelagh area. However a more likely Cotter connection may relate to blacksmith James Cotter, a Whiteboy from Brosna in Kerry who was hanged at Shinnagh Cross in 1822 for the murder of an English officer Brereton near Rathmore. This would have been about 48 kilometres (30 miles) north of Inchigeelagh. Were her “folk” any of these ancestors?

Harris on the other hand is probably of English origin. In the 1851-53 per Irish Ancestry there were 62 Harris families in Cork. St Anne’s Shandon had six families and interestingly there were two Harris families in Inchigeelagh. However available records suggest that many Harris families in Co. Cork were reasonably prosperous Protestant families. Richard seems to have been a poor Catholic. There are no immediate records available of Harris patriots for the late 1700s, early 1800s.

Historians, Rosemary Feurer & Joe Creedon in Inchigeelagh 2018.

Mary would have learned and spoken the Irish language (Gaelic) in everyday life as a young girl, certainly Ellen Cotter who came from the Gaelic speaking Inchigeelagh was a native speaker and the Irish language (caint na ndaoine) was known among many ordinary people in Cork at the time. Had the children visited relations in Inchigeelagh, Irish was then the everyday spoken language in the rural areas.

Illiteracy and use of the Irish language were synonymous in the 1840s. In 1841, it is estimated that 52% of the Irish population could neither read nor write. Thousands of local ‘hedge schools’ run by teachers and men of wisdom and a growing number of private schools had originally operated all over Ireland, the Irish language was then used in many of these schools which were attended by upwards of 500,000 children.

However with the establishment of the State National School system in 1831, which used only the English language and did not teach Irish, ensured the language went into decline especially in urban areas, and with only emigration in prospect for many, knowing, speaking and writing in English became essential skills for survival in their new countries. The 1861 Toronto census, indicated that neither Richard Snr nor Ellen Harris, could read or write. On the other hand, Mary in Ireland and Canada and William in Canada and probably the other siblings received good schooling through Catholic Church run schools.

1.1 Early Life.   

Mary must have lived locally amidst the tenements in the narrow lanes which dotted the hills of the Shandon area. Most likely she would have also spent time with her mother’s relations in rural Inchigeelagh. Her schooling may have been in the local Presentation Sisters convent school, founded by Nano Nagle which dates back to 1813 and is located less than a hundred metres from the Cathedral. This school provided free education for those children living in the crowded streets and laneways nearby. Unfortunately no school records have been traced to date for that period.

Although times were hard in Cork, the entire local Shandon area was a busy place and depended economically on the influx of farmers and their families with their firkins of butter (56lbs barrels) from Cork County and Kerry to the west. The world renowned, Shandon Butter Exchange became a major centre for the butter trade, took in their farm produce and sold it all over Ireland, as well as exporting it to Britain, some European countries and the West Indies. Richard Harris Jnr was to later become involved in supplying milk in Toronto so he may have gained some farming experience in Ireland, as a young boy.

(North Cathedral, Cork City, January 2021)

Aside from the main butter road from Killarney, Co. Kerry, in the west, a number of market roads, from Macroom, stretched eastwards towards Cork City, and were used by farmers to bring their agricultural produce and animals to the market epicentre at Shandon. These would have linked Inchigeelagh to Shandon just over 48 kilometres (30 miles) away while facilitating the connections between the then Cork based Harris family and their Inchigeelagh relations.

Animals were sold at nearby fairs and markets, slaughtered locally at various shambles and exported through the nearby port of Cork. Local shops, pubs and stores benefitted from the general commerce and the trading. The nearby Shandon Street with its warren of smaller streets had almost twenty pubs, ten bakeries, many shops and provision stores, wool merchants and victuallers, while even today, local streets in the area such as Cattle Market Street, Cattle Market Square, Fair Hill and Fair Lane resonate of a major bygone agricultural market activity, it was a very busy place at this time!

1.2 The Great Famine 1845-1852.

The Act of Union 1801, had transferred all major political and economic decision making, affecting Ireland from Dublin to London. The political, social, land and economic structures in Ireland had become even more dysfunctional.

The landlords, most of whom were descended from earlier planters in previous centuries had further consolidated their large holdings, the larger farmers were comfortable. Below them, small tenant farmers were struggling as their holdings of marginal land grew smaller, being sub-divided within families (A legacy of the anti-Catholic Penal Laws), with the growth in population, while many thousands of cottiers and labourers were dependent on tiny holdings for food to live on and for work on the larger estates and farms to pay their rent to the landlords. Emigration had already commenced.

In the urban areas, a prosperous Protestant gentry, military officers and a professional class ran the administrations, the middle classes and professions serviced their needs, while the poor lived in various stages of survival and destitution.

This precarious economic structure and relationships depended on the potato crop to feed the struggling classes. The partial failure of the crop in 1845, triggered terror among the people, who were dependent on the potato crop. The ongoing potato blight in the autumn of 1846 and 1847 smashed all their fragile, unfair and unequal economic and social relationships.

(Memorial to famine victims in Abbeystrowry).

In spite of some exceptions, many absentee landlords began evicting the starving tenants who could no longer pay rents, the poor and destitute either died of fever in their hovels and ditches or of starvation and those who could walk headed for the cities or emigration.

The political policy makers in London became the source of a massive governmental failure and inertia which insisted on the pre-eminence and maintenance of market forces over the needs of human beings, so “relief” consisted of soup kitchens, the provision of workhouses and paying pennies to starving men to construct high walls around landlords estates and often useless infrastructure, such as roads leading nowhere.

Britain’s armed forces in Ireland were used to assist in the mass evictions by landlords and their agents or to control urban disorder by the starving people.  At some of the Irish ports, food products and cereals, produced in Ireland filled the export ships heading east to Britain at the same time as destitute families packed the coffin ships heading west to America. While aid, did eventually arrive from Britain and elsewhere including America, it was often too little and too late.        

The countryside grew silent, deserted, conservative, land obsessive and emotionally stagnant. Many landlords prospered, some larger farmers consolidated their farms in the empty and abandoned countryside, the urban elites with the exception of some brave doctors and nurses, remained largely as before and oblivious to the suffering if they avoided the fever.

In this class based fallout, many labourers, small farmers and the cottiers disappeared from rural Ireland and in urban Ireland, hundreds of thousands of poor working class died or emigrated. In earlier Cromwellian times (1641 to 1653 during which almost forty percent of the Irish population had died in the wars, plantations, starved or from disease) it was either “to hell or to Connaught,” two hundred years later in these Famine times it was either “to the workhouse or the coffin ship”.

Famine in Skibbereen. Sad funeral. Skibbereen Heritage

Post Famine, the Catholic hierarchy asserted control and the clergy grew in numbers and influence and in the absence of cohesive political intervention their religious structures, gradually took control, over the social, educational and community infrastructures of Ireland which lasted for over 150 years.

The Famine changed Ireland forever. By 1891, four out of every ten people born in Ireland were living abroad, seventy percent of whom had gone to America or Canada. Many carried a bitterness in their hearts and souls towards their British rulers which flowed in the Irish folklore through the generations. In America, they faced discrimination and exploitation, but they had survived to get there, yet for many of them their new lives were spent servicing the American Industrial revolution in the mines, mills and railroads.      

1.3 The Great Famine: Impact on Cork.

By the winter of 1845, the ominous signs of the impending failures of the potato crop, on which many Irish people were dependent, resulted in an influx of starving country people to what were then the outskirts of Cork city and led to major social problems. By 1846, thousands of starving and fever infected country people, were roaming the local streets and the contagion spread all around the distressed city.

Richard Harris and his son, also decided like so many others to emigrate to Canada. sometime in the late 1840s, probably 1847, leaving Ellen and the rest of the children to follow, once they were established to enable remittances to be sent to bring the entire family across the Atlantic.  

During the Irish Famine, Cork experienced the death from hunger, disease, epidemics and illnesses of many thousands of its residents who passed away in the slums and tenements and bothāns of the city and county. Many bodies were simply collected on the streets by death carts and taken from the small rooms where they died to be buried in mass graves in city cemeteries such as St. Josephs in Ballyphehane on the south side and the newly opened Carr’s Hill just outside the city on the Carrigaline road.

Roscommon, Ireland — Undated illustration entitled “BOG-TROTTER’S CABIN, BALLINTOBER BOG, ROSCOMMON,” depicting Irish crofters at the time of the famine. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Thousands were buried in these mass graves, some ten thousand alone in St Joseph’s during the first nine months of ‘Black 47’. These famine mounds can be seen to this day. The newspaper accounts of the shocking state of the Carr’s Hill cemetery in 1847 tell of packs of dogs rooting up bodies. Thousands of labourers and their families filled the infamous workhouses, known as death houses, where many died of infectious diseases, such as cholera, typhus and relapsing fever, as well as small pox and Tuberculosis.

The countryside reeked of death and smelled of sulphuric acid from the rotting fields of potatoes. Whole families perished in freezing cabins across the countryside, their bodies loaded onto horse drawn carts for burial in communal graves late at night. Such was the fear and hopelessness, that many of those tiny cabins where families died, remained untouched as stark monuments and reminders of the tragedy for many decades, until they just collapsed and disappeared. No one would go near them for generations. Rotten potato drills and ridges remain in rural Ireland to this day on land abandoned over 180 years ago. The horror of the Famine remains ever present.  

Medical doctors such as Dr. Popham who operated from the North Infirmary in Shandon, ( the present day Maldron Hotel) did their best and published reports, detailing the extent of the problem. Medics clearly blamed the endemic poverty which caused hunger, deficient clothes and inadequate accommodation, for the spread of fever epidemics which were exacerbated by dysentery and cholera. The Poor Law Guardians, responsible for the workhouses were slow in challenging the bureaucratic ethos and culture of the Poor Relief Commissioners and law makers far removed from the people.     

The suffering of many people in Cork city and county during 1846 to 1852 is indescribable. At one stage almost six thousand people, were housed at the workhouse in Cork City (present day St. Finbarr’s Hospital), which only had a capacity of two thousand. A visit to the Famine Museum in the West Cork town of Skibbereen and the nearby grave yard of Abbeystrowry, where up to ten thousand victims lie buried in a mass grave, engraves the impact of the Great Irish Famine on one’s mind.

(Festival speaker, Marat Moore at the Famine Graveyard in Skibbereen, Cork)

Likewise a trip to the Heritage Centre in the Cork Harbour town of Cobh (originally Cove, later called Queenstown, and now Cobh) will show one, the conditions faced by emigrants on the coffin ships, during their journeys. This Centre lies close to the very site in the port, from where over a million Irish people emigrated.  

The Famine forced hundreds of thousands to take to these coffin ships and travel to the cities of Britain and America. In turn, with their remittances, arriving back from those who had emigrated earlier, it led to a larger permanent and ongoing exodus of the Irish from their country for the next century and more. 

The most plausible estimate of the Irish Famine’s demographic toll between 1846 and 1852 is of over one million dead and over one and half million emigrants. Estimates put the population of the county of Cork at 854,000 in 1841, by 1851 it was back to around 650,000. The City’s population increased slightly to 85,000 as a result mainly of the huge influx from the rural areas.

The emigrants suffered appalling deprivations before, during and after their journeys. At least 20,000 people from Cork emigrated in 1847. Thousands also died of fever in cities such as Liverpool, London and Glasgow. Many went to Canada, especially in “Black 47” when some 80,000 Irish arrived in Quebec. It is estimated that as many as one in five emigrants died either at sea or in the fever sheds along the St. Lawrence River, especially at the quarantine station at Grosse Ile, where thousands died of typhus.

Typhus was also known as “ship fever”, it was also referred to as “gaol fever” and was thought originally to be caused by foul air (miasma). However, it was in fact spread by human body lice, which is the result of poor hygiene. The export of humans was entirely unregulated at the time and the hygiene conditions on board many of the vessels was not a priority for the owners. 

In just one corner of this small island at Grosse Ile, over 5,000 people are buried in mass graves testament to the absolute horror experienced by many poor Irish emigrants.

1.4 The Harris Family… the story of the Irish Diaspora.

It is likely that the Harris men, travelled about 1847, probably from Cove near the mouth of Cork Harbour on one of the 441 ships which departed from Ireland and overcrowded British cities, where many Irish had gathered as the initial step on their journey to enter Canada via the St Lawrence River. Cork and Limerick were the direct routes to Quebec, Canada and thirty three ships left Cork (Cove) during the sailing season of 1847.

Richard senior and junior can be found living and boarding with a local family in Burlington in Vermont in the US Census of 1850. Many Irish emigrants used entry to Canada as a backdoor to the USA and moved onward soon after they were cleared to proceed in Canada. In her autobiography, Mary speaking of her father states that “as soon as he had become an American citizen he sent for his family”

The Harris family were described as labourers, it appears they got contract work, building the railroads and later moved onto Toronto, then a town of about 20,000, most likely following the new railroad connections and finding a large Irish Catholic population already in place, decided to stay there probably to await the arrival of the remainder of their family, including Mary.

Ellen and the children then left Ireland around 1852 and eventually arrived in Toronto where they settled within the local community. By the mid-1850s, they lived in a modest rented house and garden at 210 Bathurst Street of the growing city, part of the large working class Irish community.

In June 2007, the then President of Ireland, Mary McAleese opened Ireland Park on the shores of Lake Ontario at Eireann Quay. By coincidence this famine memorial made of blocks of Kilkenny limestone is located at the foot of Bathurst Street and Rees’ Wharf, where thousands of Irish immigrants first landed. It features five live sized bronze statues of gaunt emaciated Irish figures known as the Arrival, which is a companion famine piece to the Departure on Dublin’s Custom House Quay.

Two Catholic religious orders, the Loreto nuns and the Christian Brothers had established schools in the City and the Harris family received a decent education along with other Irish Catholic children. Toronto was then a city riven with sectarian tension as the city had a large population of pre-famine Northern Irish Protestants who had emigrated from the 1790s onward and who controlled municipal civil affairs through the Orange Order by the mid-19th Century.

The girls went to St Mary’s school, while Mary’s “baby brother” William was taught by the Brothers and continued to St Michael’s Seminary, from where he was eventually ordained as a priest in 1870. He became Dean of St Catherine’s, travelled extensively and wrote many books about Catholicism over the next 40 years before passing away in 1923. Richard senior, after a life of work died in 1869, aged about 67. No record has to date been found of Ellen’s death.

1.5 Mary Harris in Canada and America. 

Mary had a normal family life in Toronto, and by the age of 20 had decided to become a teacher. Through her family’s Catholic Church connections, she qualified to attend Toronto Normal School for a while, before securing a teaching post in August 1859 at St Mary’s Convent School at Monroe in Michigan, near Lake Erie. By then, she had left her family home in Toronto, and there is no further record of her ever making contact again with her family. We may never know what the cause of this apparent family rupture was.

Mary did not like the school and she claimed to prefer “sowing to bossing little children”, so rather than going back to Toronto she soon departed Michigan and travelled to Chicago, where she worked briefly as a seamstress and then onwards to Memphis in Tennessee. She was listed as “absent” in the Canadian census for the Harris household in 1861.

Mary Harris had also learned the art of dress making and had become a very skilled and competent seamstress, an occupation that enabled her to retain her independence and survive economically wherever she travelled when times were tough.

(The Arrivals into Toronto)

She rarely mentions Cork again or indeed her life in Ireland. In fact Mary seems to have deliberately obscured her origins in Cork giving 1830 as the year of her birth, leading to confusion for many decades as to her true age and her origins.

If she wished to forget and obliterate her Cork life, and later her Canadian life and later still her early American life, it is understandable, but it seems as if she wanted to ignore almost completely the childhood of Mary Harris, her family and the later tragedy of Mary Jones and its impact on her later life and work.  The Autobiography of Mother Jones would be her story of her new persona.