Diasporational: Stories from the Irish Diaspora


a version of this story was originally published in The Irish Times Generation Emigration


By Niall McArdle
      The Union Miners’ Cemetery in the small town of Mount Olive, Illinois is not a place you would expect to find the grave of a hero, still less one with an Irish connection. Yet here, among the simple headstones, there stands an enormous monument to a woman who spent her life waging war against poverty, squalor and injustice. In her lifetime she was known to her devoted followers as “the Miners’ Angel”; her enemies on the other hand branded her “the most dangerous woman in America”. Posterity remembers her simply as Mother Jones, and the American left-wing journal of the same name is named for her. Records indicate she was probably born in July. She chose May 1st as her birthday to inspire the labour movement
            Mary Harris was born in Cork on May 1st, 1830. Five years later the family emigrated to Canada where her father worked on the railroad. Mary trained as a teacher and in 1857 was working at a convent school in Michigan, but she grew tired of “bossing little children”, and her skills as a seamstress led to a job as a dressmaker to the wealthy in Chicago. There, sewing in “the tropical comfort” of the mansions on Lake Shore Drive, she “would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front.”
            In 1861, living in Memphis and teaching again, she met George Jones, an ironworker and union activist. It was he who honed her natural passion for social justice and over the following six years the couple were heavily involved in the Labour movement. But tragedy befell Mary in 1867 when an outbreak of yellow fever robbed her of George and their four children. A widow at thirty-six, she returned to Chicago and dressmaking.
             In 1871 the Chicago Fire left her homeless and without any possessions, but her spirit was unbroken. At a time when industrial unrest in America was at a peak, she joined the newly formed Knights of Labor and became one of its most powerful voices. She spent the next six decades travelling the length of the country from pit to mill to railroad, living in shantytowns, rallying workers, organising strikes, agitating politicians. Someone once asked her where she lived and she replied “wherever there is a fight.” The struggle for better working conditions and the eight-hour day – the original reason for the May Day riots and the hanging of the Haymarket Eight in 1887 – consumed the unions, and she battled fiercely for “her boys”. “‘Work, work, work’ is preached from the pulpit, the newspapers and magazines,” she wrote, “…You never hear from the pulpit, magazine or newspaper the headline, ‘Rest, rest, rest’.”
She stood only five feet tall but was infamous for her “towering rage” and her commanding stage presence at rallies. A masterful orator, she moved audiences to tears or had them rolling in laughter, and “she excelled in invective, pathos and humour ranging from irony to ridicule.” Her voice, it was noted, actually lowered in pitch as she became excited; “the intensity of it was something you could almost feel physically.”
                 In 1903 she led a “children’s crusade”: a hundred-mile march from Philadelphia to New York with hundreds of textile workers, most under 16, to protest at inhuman child labour laws. The sight of these children, urchins really, dressed in rags, many missing fingers due to a careless moment at the loom, shocked the public into outrage. “The Grandmother of all Agitators” was armed with the zeal of a missionary and was in no mood for social niceties, claiming “I’m no humanitarian; I’m a hell-raiser.” She had political leaders on the run, literally. When Senator Thomas Platt heard that she was coming to see him, he bolted out the back of his hotel and on to a tram. Secret Service agents were posted along train lines to keep her from getting to the President. She outwitted them by putting some of the children in Sunday suits and turning up at Roosevelt’s mansion looking like ordinary tourists.
            Ten years later, aged 83, Mary “Mother” Jones was in jail. The coal miners along Paint and Cabin Creeks in West Virginia had been negotiating with the mine operators. The talks had broken down into a shooting match. Mary, who had given speeches on the edge of the creeks so as to avoid even stepping on company property, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. If the charge was ridiculous, the sentence was not: twenty years. One month into her incarceration, however, she got pneumonia. In a stroke of good fortune, her physician, Henry Hatfield, also happened to be the newly elected State Governor. Not wishing to be known as the man who kept an invalid octogenarian in prison, he moved her to a private home and had the conviction quashed.
                 She continued as a public figure in strikes for many years after, often against the wishes of other union leaders who despaired at some of her tactics. “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living” was her motto, and she lived it until she died at the ripe old age of one hundred. Six years after her death 50,000 people attended the dedication of the eighty-ton granite monument above her grave. It depicts Mother Jones flanked by two of her beloved miners, shovels in hand, protecting her in death as she had fought for them in life.


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