An Irishman's Diary

Thu, May 17, 2012, 01:00

IN the old folk song, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain When She Comes, the person so eagerly awaited is never identified. But if one US historian is correct, the “she” in question was a Cork woman. And while her imminent arrival in pink pyjamas is still cheerfully predicted by child singers the world over, she’s been dead now for 81 years.

On the plus side, her immortality is assured, and not just by the song. Her life’s work is widely honoured in the US, where an influential news magazine is named after her. She has been contrastingly uncelebrated in Ireland, a fact all the more odd because her native city is not famous for modesty about its high-achieving citizens. But that too is about to be rectified.

The 175th anniversary of her birth, later this summer, will be marked by a series of events in and around her presumed place of origin. Although her home address is unknown, she was baptised in Cork’s North Cathedral, on August 1st, 1837. So, pending the emergence of further evidence, the anniversary will be marked by erection of a plaque at a compromise location near the Butter Market, in the heart of historic Shandon.

It was as Mary Harris that she entered Cork and the world. But it was as “Mother Jones” – the combined result of marriage and a nickname – and in America that she would achieve fame. En route, she had to survive a litany of disasters, all of which must have helped make her what she became.

First there was the Famine. She lived through that in full before, as a teenager, emigrating to Canada. There, for a period, she was a teacher. Then she moved south to Memphis, Tennessee just in time for the civil war. And it was while in Memphis that – by now a Mrs Jones and the mother of the four young children – she saw her entire family, husband included, wiped out by yellow fever.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, she then moved to Chicago, only for the great fire of 1871 (blamed famously – and wrongly – on another Irish emigrant, Mrs O’Leary) to destroy her dress-making business.

It was this last event that radicalised her, or at any rate completed the process. Soon afterwards she embarked on a new career: as a union organiser, first with the Knights of Labor and later the United Mine Workers. It was to be her defining role. In an era of murderous industrial relations, she became a fierce and fearless strike leader, her hell-raising speeches a source of inspiration to protesters, and of endless annoyance to bosses.

Much of her activism, as it happened, was in mountain areas: the mining camps of the Appalachians and Rockies. Much of it also involved children. In 1903, for example, she led a famous “crusade” against the use of child workers in mills and mines.

Hence, it’s suggested, the naive celebration in the song, of a charismatic figure coming to liberate the poor and strike fear in the hearts of the powerful. At least that was the theory of Carl Sandberg, a poet and singer himself, who in a 1927 history of folk song, suggested that the lyrics of Comin’ Round the Mountain had been imposed on an older negro spiritual to celebrate the Mother Jones cult.

That nickname first appeared in print in 1897, when the former Mary Harris was 60 but still only getting into her stride. A few years later, in 1902, she was promoted to the title “most dangerous woman in America” after flouting of an injunction against strike meetings. The speaker, a prosecuting attorney, elaborated: “She crooks her finger [and] 20,000 contented men lay down their tools.” Had she been male, such a reputation might have earned a death sentence. During a strike in Montana a few years later, for example, a similarly outspoken union activist was taken from his boarding house bed one night by persons unknown, tied to a car, dragged through the streets for a while, and hanged.

But even though she seemed at times to court martyrdom, Jones’s motherly – indeed grandmotherly – image probably made her untouchable. It wasn’t entirely an accident, either. To some extent, she cultivated the identity: dressing in old-fashioned widow’s weeds. She is also one of the few women ever recorded as exaggerating their age. Indeed, part of the reason she went uncommemorated in Cork for so long is the red herring she threw historians by claiming to have been born in 1830.

She was a paradox in other ways too. Her status as a hero to feminists is somewhat undermined by the fact that she didn’t see why women should want the vote. She once told an audience of suffragettes: “You don’t need a vote to raise hell”. As for women having “careers”, she was ambivalent. Their most important work, she insisted, was the “training of children”.

In any case, Mother Jones lived to celebrate her 100th birthday (although it’s now known she was only 93 at the time). In 1930. And she died soon afterwards, a hero to millions. A measure of the reverence in which workers held her was that when she was buried in a miners’ cemetery in Illinois, 30,000 union members marched past the grave.

The aforementioned song is not her only musical tribute. The “singing cowboy”, Gene Autry recorded another. Woody Guthrie wrote one too. So, more recently, did Andy Irvine. Indeed, Irvine will be performing his in Shandon on August 1st. And having failed for so long to make a noise about one of its most famous daughters, the Cork neighbourhood will make up for it then with three days of celebrations, including local brass ensemble, the Butter Exchange Band.

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