Irish born activist Mother Jones remains ‘an inspiration’

Portraits of Mother Jones unveiled at Irish Embassy in Washington and Irish Consulate in Chicago

Irish-born trade unionist and children's rights activist Mother Jones is an inspiration to modern female labour activists in America, a virtual ceremony has heard.

Labour activists Sheila Gaynor, Pat Meade and Deborah Cosey Lane told the ceremony, hosted by the Irish Consulate General in Chicago and involving the Irish Embassy in Washington, that Mother Jones remained an important figure for US activists.

The ceremony saw the unveiling of two paintings of Mother Jones by Lindsay Hand.

Irish Ambassador, Dan Mulhall recalled how Mother Jones, born Mary Harris in Cork in 1837, became one of the most famous women in America through her campaigning for proper wages for miners and other workers.


“Mother Jones was a remarkable woman - she crossed the Atlantic as a young girl and made a huge contribution to her adopted home through her union work after she lost her husband and four children in the Yellow Fever in 1867.

“She re-emerged in the early 20th century as an activist and union organiser and became one of the most famous, some would say most notorious, women in America because of her work as advocate for workers and child labourers.”

Ms Gaynor of the Unite Here union, which supports those in the hospitality sector, recalled being at a protest where someone had a sign with Mother Jones’s famous quote, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

“It was electrifying for me as a young woman in the labour movement to read Mother Jones’ story because she had none of the hallmarks of power, she was a woman, she was an immigrant, she was poor, she was older,” she said.

“And yet, armed with nothing more than a fierce moral compass and a dogged determination, she changed lives for hundreds of thousands of people for generations and it had a huge impact on me what one woman could achieve.”

Patricia Meade of Illinois Nurses Association recalled how Mother Jones travelled the length and breadth of American on behalf of working men, women and children, campaigning for proper pay and work conditions.

“Mother Jones, less than five feet tall, was just an icon of what caring for your fellow man looks like - she walked the walk, she lost everything, her family, her belongings in the Chicago fire but she didn’t lie down, she rose back up.

“And she made her life’s work protecting others to make sure that you were able to do your job you in a way that was safe and were paid a decent wage - the unions were so blessed to have her because she was the union.”

Deborah Cosey Lane of the Amalgamated Transit Union described Mother Jones as "a real giant" who represented women in the American Labour Movement in a way that paved the way for later generations of activists.

“When I first heard of Mother Jones and the sacrifices she made for working class people to make all men and women to be created equal in the workplace, it just blew my mind - I equated her to the abolitionist, Harriet Tubman

“They were tough women but they understood what humanity was all about - to make people feel like human beings at their workplace and not to have this slave mentality and to educate people to their worth in the workplace.

“So I stand on their shoulders as an organiser…. I like Mother Jones saying ‘I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell raiser’ - for me, being a hell raiser is a good thing - it’s about ensuring equality for all people.”

The two portraits of Mother Jones by Lindsay Hand are part of an initiative entitled by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs entitled "If Walls Could Talk" telling the story of contributions made by the Irish diaspora to the United States.

The virtual ceremony to honour Mother Jones can beviewed here.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times