“Mother Jones – Sinner and Saint”

Prof. Simon Cordery

S. Cordery

Professor Simon Cordery

Professor Simon Cordery will be the main speaker on the final day of our festival this year, Thursday 1st August (Mother Jones Day). Simon is Chair of the History Department at West Illinois University and Author of “Mother Jones, raising cain and consciousness” Below is a short article by Simon and a taster for his contribution to on August 1 at the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival at the Firkin Crane theatre, Cork

To challenge the status quo, to threaten those in power, to demand justice for the sake of the downtrodden invites retribution. Only a woman of spirit—with courage to spare and a sense of righteousness—would dare to confront mega-corporations and the state. In the late nineteenth century, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones made herself into that person.

Mary Harris became Mother Jones. In her late sixties she developed the persona of a white-haired grandmother who stormed the coal mines to remind the robber barons—the “pirates,” as she called them—of their duty to workers. Armed only with a quick wit and the labor theory of value she forced Americans to confront crucial questions about the nature and direction of capitalism. For people who accepted the world as it was, this was her sin: she was the conscience the nation lacked.

But to those who suffered in the mining villages and along the coal seams she was a saint. Jubilant cries went up when “Mother” was coming to help them. She made them see how they could save themselves through collective action. She drew a clear distinction between “her” boys and the owners and politicians destroying the promise of republicanism. Mother Jones could be saucy and she could be blunt, using the language of working men and questioning their manhood whenever they cowed before the bosses, but she fought for her boys and they loved her for it.

Mother Jones could also be tender. Even as she directed her caustic speeches and ferocious anger at the corrupt and the powerful she demonstrated her concern for the plight of children. She tried to help child workers in the rope factories and the cotton mills of the South. She led striking families on a “Crusade” to berate President Theodore Roosevelt on the front porch of his vacation home. She organized “mop and broom” brigades to bring mothers into the fight and engage the children in strikes. Her struggle included the oppressed of all ages.

The spirit of Mother Jones was born in Catholic Cork and her understanding of Jesus as a radical advocate of fairness and equality. It was fertilized by lessons of her revolutionary Irish forbears. The spirit of Mother Jones took shape in the private sorrows of her young adulthood and then bore fiery fruit across the picket lines where she helped to re-shape labor’s demands and victories and bring about a new, better future.

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