'Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living'
The life of Mother Jones, a labour activist once labelled the ‘most dangerous woman in America’ , is celebrated at a festival in her native Cork next week
‘SHE WAS LIKE a female Roy Keane – a real Norrie.” Corkonian Ger O’Mahony is talking about US labour activist Mother Jones, who is about to be commemorated for the first time in her native Cork with a festival to mark the 175th anniversary of her birth.
O’Mahony is one of the organisers of the Mother Jones Festival. He first learned of Mother Jones when he was working in New York in the 1970s, and an African-American man from Harlem, on hearing he was from Cork, mentioned Mother Jones.
“I was kind of embarrassed, to be honest – here was this man in Harlem whose people had come up from the south and he knew about this pivotal figure in the American labour movement from Cork. And I, coming from Cork, had never even heard of her.”
O’Mahony did some research and subscribed to Mother Jones, a radical San Francisco paper named in her honour. Back in Cork, he discovered he was not the only one interested in finding out about this pivotal figure in the US labour movement.
Local historians Jim Fitzpatrick and Richard T Cooke had begun carrying out their own inquiries into her Cork origins, while Workers’ Party Cllr Ted Tynan had obtained the support of Cork City Council to have a plaque erected in her honour.
The group came together last October, and it was established that Mother Jones was born Mary Harris near Shandon in 1837. With the help of Jim Nolan and the late Joe Sheehan of the Shandon Area Renewal Association, a commemorative festival was born.
Aside from her prominence in the American labour movement, Mother Jones lived a fascinating life which, by virtue of its longevity, saw her live through some of the most dramatic and catastrophic events of the 19th century, in Ireland and the US.
The second child of Richard Harris and Ellen Cotter, Mary Harris survived the Famine and in the early 1850s, with her mother and younger siblings, followed her father and older brother, Richard Jnr, to Toronto.
She later got a teaching job in Michigan but moved first to Chicago and then in 1860 to Memphis, where she married ironworker George Jones and lived through the American Civil War, only to end up burying her husband and four young children when they died from Yellow Fever in 1867.
She returned to Chicago where she set up a dressmaking business, but that was lost in the great fire of 1871. Afterwards, she immersed herself in the fledgling labour movement, becoming an organiser for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers.