27 Jul 2012
Kieran’s Our City, Our Town, 28 July 2012, Mother Jones Festival
Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 26 July 2012
Mother Jones Commemoration, 31 July-2 August 2012
“My people were poor. For generations they had fought for Ireland’s freedom. Many of my folks have died in that struggle. My father, Richard Harris, came to America in 1835, and as soon as he had become an American citizen he sent for his family. His work as a laborer with railway construction crews took him to Toronto, Canada. Here I was brought up but always as the child of an American citizen. Of that citizenship I have ever been proud” (The Autobiography of Mother Jones, 1925).
Next week sees the start of a commemoration of the life and times of Cork born woman Mary Harris or Mother Jones. She, according to our autobiography, which can be accessed online as well as some of her speeches and some filmed speeches, was an American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a prominent labour and community organiser, who helped co-ordinate major strikes and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World.
As a city, I think sometimes we are slow to commemorate the lives of those that left this city, to forge a life elsewhere. I think the story of our Irish emigrants abroad is for the most part absent from the traditional narrative of Irish national history. The remembering of the life and work of Mary Harris is driven by several people who have the Shandon area at heart and who along with others have been delivering great and positive community projects in the form of the Shandon Street Festival and the Dragon of Shandon over several years. I mention both as they reach into the wider city and further afield and draw a focus back on the heart of a great historical area and its multiple histories.
Mary Harris worked as a teacher and dressmaker but after her husband and four children all died of yellow fever and her workshop was destroyed in a fire in 1871 she began working as an organiser for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union. She was a very effective speaker, punctuating her speeches with stories, audience participation, humor and dramatic stunts. From 1897 (when she was 60) she was known as Mother Jones and in 1902 she was called “the most dangerous woman in America” for her success in organizing mine workers and their families against the mine owners. In 1903, upset about the lax enforcement of the child labour laws in the Pennsylvania mines and silk mills, she organised a Children’s March from Philadelphia to the home of then president Theodore Roosevelt in New York. The publicity arising from this march, which became a large scale media event led eventually to the banning of young children from the mines and mills, where thousands worked in appalling conditions.
Studying such a woman broadens the importance of local history to connecting into a wider narrative, whether in this case Irish emigration history or the history of worker’s rights to an inspiring story. Mary Harris was born in Cork in 1837 and was baptised at the North Cathedral on 1 August 1837, by Fr. John O’Mahony. Her parents were Ellen Cotter, a native of Inchigeela and Richard Harris. Mary’s older brother Richard was born in 1835 in Inchigeela, her sister Catherine was baptized on 29 March 1840 and her brother William was also baptised in the North Cathedral on 28 February 1846. The baptism font in the North Cathedral today may be the one in which Mary Harris was baptised.
Mother Jones was one of the best and most active union organizers ever seen in America. She became a legend among the coalminers of West Virginia and Pennsylvania; Mother Jones was fearless and faced down the guns and court threats of the mine bosses. In 1905 she was the only woman to attend the inaugural meeting of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies). Later she became an organiser for the Socialist Party and continued her defence of workers in industrial disputes across America. She was arrested and jailed in West Virginia for her activities during the Paint Creek, Cabin Creek strikes, but later released following large demonstrations of her supporters. Between 1912 and 1914 she was involved in the “coal wars” of Colorado which led to the infamous Ludlow Massacre, where 19 miners and members of their families were killed. She was imprisoned many times but always released quickly due to huge local support for her activities.
On 1 August 2012, 175 years to the day since she was baptised in Cork, Mother Jones, will be honoured in her native city, when a festival will take place to celebrate her life. The Cork Mother Jones Commemorative Committee in conjunction with the Shandon Street Festival will unveil a plaque, on John Redmond Street at 7.30pm on 1 August. This will form the centerpiece in a series of concerts, exhibitions, lectures, films and music from 31 July to 2 August in Shandon. Speakers will include Professor Elliott Gorn who has written the seminal work on Mother Jones
For more information click on www.motherjones175.wordpress.com; also check out the extensive songs and videos through searching “Mother Jones” on YouTube.