'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.
Over the next 40 years, she travelled all over the US, organising miners, mill, foundry and railroad workers and others, from Colorado to West Virginia, where her activities earned her the soubriquet “the most dangerous woman in America” from a local district attorney.
In 1903, she organised the Children’s Crusade from Pennsylvania to the home of then president Theodore Roosevelt in New York. Although Roosevelt refused to meet the group, the march highlighted the issue of child labour in mills and other industries.
Mother Jones, who died in 1930, was a close friend of leading American socialist Eugene Debs and also numbered among her friends Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. It’s not known if she met Irish socialists James Connolly and Jim Larkin during their stays in the US.
Mother Jones’s biographer Dr Elliott Gorn will deliver a lecture on the fiery Corkwoman at the Firkin Crane on August 1st. While he points out that she was not in anyway a theorist of the American left, she was, he believes, a truly radical figure within the movement.
“She certainly was not interested in the hair-splitting ideological battles of the left, but she did have a distinctly radical position and was quite sympathetic to syndicalism and was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies,” he says.
Filmmaker Rosemary Feurer describes Mother Jones as “a rock star of her era” and says that while she was primarily an organiser, it would be wrong to underestimate how much “her style of unionism came out of a lot of reading as well as deeply-shaped beliefs and ideologies”.
Marat Moore, a former miner and founder of the Daughters of Mother Jones, says that among her great achievements was her success in bringing “national attention to the plight of child workers”.
A superb orator with a pithy and powerful turn of phrase (witness her catchcry, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living”), Mother Jones was, according to Dr Gorn: “At her best there on the front lines, leading a strike or sending missives from jail or giving speeches.”
She wanted to be remembered as an activist, says Gorn in his biography, noting she cherished her image as fighter: “When introduced to a crowd once as a great humanitarian, she snapped: ‘Get it straight – I’m not a humanitarian. I’m a hell raiser.’”
The Mother Jones Festival runs from July 31st to August 2nd in Cork. motherjones175.wordpress.com