Clodagh Finn: Mother Jones’ campaigning spirit is needed now more than ever

There has never been a better time to recall the Cork-born labour activist whose famous catch cry is still invoked: 'Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living'
Clodagh Finn: Mother Jones’ campaigning spirit is needed now more than ever

Originally from Cork, Mary Harris was better known as Mother Jones. Her own story of survival provides a beacon of hope in these challenging times.

The Spirit of Mother Jones Festival begins on Thursday, and there has never been a better time to recall the Cork-born labour activist whose
famous catch cry is still invoked: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living”.

If nothing else, her own story of survival provides a beacon of hope in these challenging times.

Born Mary Harris near Shandon on Cork’s northside in 1837, she survived the Great Famine, the coffins ships, and yellow fever to become a union agitator so powerful that she was once labelled “the most dangerous woman in America”. In her 80s, she also lived through the 1918 flu pandemic.

“In these days of never-ending Covid-19, we could certainly take on board her resilience and courage,” says Gerard O’Mahony, co-ordinator of the festival in Cork which will celebrate her life with a series of events over the next four days.

The depth of that resilience is evident in her autobiography, where she describes the devastating grief of losing her four children and her husband to yellow fever in 1867 while living in Memphis, Tennessee.

“One by one, my four little children sickened and died,” she wrote. “I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as was mine. All day long, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart.”

She picked up the pieces and moved to Chicago, where she set up a seamstress shop, but that too was taken from her: “In October 1871, the great Chicago fire burned up our establishment and everything that we had. The fire made thousands homeless.” It was around then that she joined the labour movement and began a lifelong crusade to improve conditions for workers and to end child labour.

Her life and work are well-documented, although it is not anywhere near as well-known as it deserves to be. I sat down and read her autobiography in a single sitting yesterday, and wondered why this passionate crusader isn’t as widely celebrated nationally.

Is it because she is too fiery, too radical, too much of a hellraiser? And, boy, could this diminutive woman of Cork raise hell.

Your 50-something correspondent was also particularly chuffed to read that she didn’t unleash her full force until she was well into her 50s. To all other women of a similar age, take heart — we haven’t even gotten started yet.

Indeed, Mother Jones had reached her 60s when she organised an “army of women housekeepers” to bring their mops and brooms to scare off the ‘scabs’, five months into a coal strike in Arnot, Pennsylvania, in 1899.

“The day came,” she recounted, “and the women came with the mops and brooms and pails of water. I selected as leader an Irish woman … I said: ‘You lead the army… Take that tin dishpan you have with you and your hammer, and when the scabs and the mules come up, begin to hammer and howl. Then all of you hammer and howl and be ready to chase the scabs with your mops and brooms. Don’t be afraid of anyone.’”

For weeks, the women watched the mines “with brooms or mops in one hand and babies in the other arm wrapped in little blankets”, and eventually the strike was won without bloodshed or riots.

There’s the opening scene of a Netflix series right there.

Episode two might breathe new life into her crusade against child labour. In 1903, she organised a group of child mill workers to march the 145km from Philadelphia to the home of then-president Theodore Roosevelt in New York. He didn’t meet them, but a senator did, and the march raised awareness of child labour. Legislation to ban it was eventually passed.

Mother Jones also displayed a canny knack of getting publicity that would rival any modern PR campaign. Here’s her account of how she got press attention during a mass meeting in Philadelphia: “I put the little boys with their fingers off and hands crushed and maimed on a platform. I held up their mutilated hands and showed them to the crowd and made the statement that Philadelphia’s mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts, and drooping heads of these children.”

If she were alive and living back in her native city today, I wonder what causes she would champion? 

She might be disheartened to find that there are so many worthy of her attention. Those on zero-hour contracts, meat-factory workers, and those without sick pay would certainly have her support.

What would she say about direct provision? Or the ongoing battle for redress by the survivors of mother and baby institutions? Or the social isolation felt by people with disabilities because they don’t have equal access to transport? She’d have much to say about health and housing too, though thankfully we are not short of commentators on both of those urgent issues.

All of those questions — and more — will be thrashed out in the coming days as the spirit of Mother Jones — fiery orator and fearless agitator — is remembered in her native city.

There is also reason to hope that the life and work of this formidable woman will be acknowledged further afield because her story, and those of 49 Irish emigrants who made their mark on the US, are to be told in a new book Irish Lives in America, which will be launched tomorrow.

The book (published by the Royal Irish Academy) and the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival coincidentally come in the same week as the anniversary of the death of that most Irish of American presidents, John F Kennedy; a mantle now taken up by sitting president Joe Biden.

Irish America, though, has a long and varied history.

Liz Evers and Niav Gallagher, Dictionary of Irish Biography researchers, capture a fascinating cross-section of it in this collection of biographies aimed at expanding views of Irish America beyond the familiar tropes.

Challenging stereotypes

In the book’s introduction, Irish ambassador to the US Daniel Mulhall challenges those stereotypes by listing his two favourite entries.

One tells the story of Mary Jemison, who was born on a ship that left Belfast en route to Pennsylvania in the 1740s. She went on to spend most of her life with the Seneca tribe. The other recalls Donegal-born John Wallace Crawford, one of the first cowboy balladeers who toured with Buffalo Bill and helped to create the myth of the western hero.

Add to that the stories of the railroad builders, the civil war soldiers (including that of Albert Cashier, who began life as Jennie Hodgers in Co Louth), the religious leaders and educators, the entertainers and sports stars, the bankers, police officers, and the scientists and engineers. It’s a varied and illuminating mix.

This week, though, I’ll be summoning the spirit of Mother Jones, because we could really do with a reminder to fight like hell for the living during these endless, plodding Covid days?

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