Mary Harris “Mother” Jones to be honoured this summer in Shandon, Cork


Mother Jones was “the most dangerous woman in America” according to Reese Blizzard, a West Virginia District Attorney. Born around 1837, Mary Harris Jones was an Irish woman who became one of the most important revolutionary trade union organisers in the history of the USA. Her courage in standing up to mine owners, politicians and their armed thugs (who often killed striking workers) is legendary.

For more than half a century she led strikers in picketing and encouraged the workers to stay on strike when management brought in strikebreakers and militias. She was often thrown into jail and was demonised by the press for fighting for the cause of coal miners and other workers. She organized miners’ wives into teams armed with mops and brooms to guard the mines against scabs.

Mother Jones will be honoured this summer in the Shandon area of Cork City, where she was born 175 years ago. The centrepiece of the celebrations will be the unveiling of a bronze plaque bearing her image and one of her most famous sayings: “Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.” She also said that “I have never had a vote, and I have raised hell all over this country. You don’t need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!”

The proposal to erect the plaque was passed by Cork City Council on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2010, on foot of a motion by Workers Party Councillor, Ted Tynan. There will also be concerts, public lectures and discussions held in the Maldron Hotel and the Firkin Crane centre as well as an exhibition in the Firkin on the life and times of Mother Jones.

The celebrations will be around August 1st, the most probable date of her birth, although during her lifetime she claimed May 1st as her birthday - because May Day is International Workers’ Day (in memory of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre when Chicago police fired on workers during a general strike for the eight hour working day.)

Mother Jones, along with anarchist Lucy Parsons, and two hundred other socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists, was one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an international union which argues that all workers should be united as a class and that the wage system should be abolished. The IWW’s goal is to promote worker solidarity in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the employing class. Its motto is: “An injury to one is an injury to all”.

By the age of sixty, she’d created a grandmotherly image for herself, “Mother Jones”, which she found useful as a propaganda tool. She claimed to be older than she actually was, wore old-fashioned black clothes (usually a black dress, a lace collar and black hat) and talked about the mineworkers as ‘her boys’.

Wherever there were miners on strike, that’s where Mother Jones would be, giving them inspiration and advice. She supported black and white miners in Birmingham, Alabama during a nationwide coal strike. She was involved in the Lattimer strike in Pennsylvania in 1897, the Ludlow strike in Colorado in 1913 and the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek strikes in West Virginia in 1920.

Carl Sandburg, editor of the 1927 collection of folk songs ”American Songbag”, suggested that the song “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” is about Mother Jones travelling the Appalachian Mountains, working to build up the miners union. Woodie Guthrie wrote a song about her called “Union Maid”, calling on women to fight for women’s rights and trade union rights.

At 72 Mother Jones was held under house arrest for weeks in West Virginia. Aged 83 she spoke in Chicago in support of striking dressmakers in 1924. She died in 1931. Her politics around the role of women were questionable, she seems to have believed that women shouldn’t work outside the home, but she provided a great example in her own life that women are capable of taking on any work they choose. She wasn’t an anarchist, although she worked with anarchists. But she is a working class hero that all anarchists can take inspiration from.

From Issue 127 of Ireland's anarchist paper Workers Solidarity  May / June 2012.