The Radical Irish Diaspora.
The Rebel Girl.
Born in 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was of solid Irish roots. Indeed she claimed that all four of her great grandfathers, Gurley, Flynn, Ryan and Conneran, were United Irishmen and had helped the French Army which landed at Killalla Bay in 1798. Her mother Anne Gurley, a native Irish speaker was brought up in Loughrea, Co Galway, while Thomas Flynn, her father had strong Mayo roots. Elizabeth refers also in her autobiography to her mother’s family connections to George Bernard Shaw and the Larkins.
The family moved to New York in 1900 to live in the South Bronx, her early youth was blighted by poverty, yet she availed of educational opportunities and her independent spirit (she was an early vegetarian) was encouraged by her socialist parents. In the radical ferment of New York City she learned of the Molly Maguires, the Haymarket Massacre, she read William Morris, Edward Bellamy, Frederick Douglass and Upton Sinclair. Her first public speech in Times Square at the age of 16 was on the rights of women.
The teenage Flynn became a sensation in New York. When approached by theatrical producer David Belasco who wanted her to star in “a labour play”……..she responded “I don’t want to be an actress. I want to speak my own words and not say over and over again what somebody else has written for me. I’m in the labour movement and I speak my own piece”. She always wrote her own speeches.
Elizabeth crossed paths with some of the seminal figures in the Irish labour struggle. She first met James Connolly in 1907 and they became firm friends. He was a frequent visitor to her parents’ home before eventually returning to Ireland in 1910. Accompanied by Connolly, who was then also an IWW organizer in New York, she attended a meeting addressed by a fiery Mother Jones in the Bronx in the summer of 1908, Flynn was so overcome at the sight of Mother Jones that she collapsed.
She later saw Mother Jones passionately defending a Jewish man against deportation at a meeting in Chicago. Describing Mother Jones as “the Greatest woman agitator of our time”, she also admitted that she was afraid of “her sharp tongue” yet Elizabeth found Mother Jones to be very sympathetic and kind to her when told of how Elizabeth had lost her first child.
Later Elizabeth became well acquainted with James Larkin when he came to the United States after the Dublin lockout. He called around to her house many times. “He was very poor and while in New York he lived in a small alley in Greenwich Village.” She also commented that “he was a magnificent orator and an agitator without equal.”
Anne, her mother regularly babysat Owen Sheehy Skeffington when Hannah had to speak at meetings in New York. Among other visitors were Liam Mellows and Dr. Patrick McCarten, the then Irish envoy to the US.
While Mother Jones played a prominent role in the founding in Chicago in 1905 of the International Workers of the World (IWW), she did not conduct union organizing campaigns under its auspices. However, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, became one of the IWW‘s most celebrated and tireless leaders, having joined in 1906. Her efforts to organize the most oppressed workers over several decades took her from Massachusetts, to Minnesota, to Washington on the west coast.
A few hours before he was executed in 1915, Joe Hill wrote to his friend Elizabeth to tell her that she was indeed the inspiration for his song The Rebel Girl.
Flynn spent her entire life working for the labour movement and was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She was dedicated to free speech and campaigned actively for women’s rights and was especially critical of the male leadership of the IWW and the unions and attacked their failure to practice equality for their female members.
Her valiant efforts to save Sacco and Vanzetti failed and they were executed in 1927. Her beloved only son Fred Flynn died in 1940 at the age of just 29. Arrested many times, and under surveillance by the FBI, she suffered bouts of illness. Eventually Elizabeth was jailed for over two years (Jan 1955-May 1957) when caught up in the red-scare campaign under the Smith Act by the American government. She became national chairperson of the Communist Party of the United States of America in 1961.
While on a visit to the Soviet Union in September 1964, she died unexpectedly at age 74. According to her wishes, a portion of her ashes was sent back to the United States, where they were buried in Chicago. Rebellious to the end she donated her papers, a few possessions and her books to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker house in New York City.
In a tribute in 1926, Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party of America, stated that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn has “espoused and championed the cause of the weakest, lowliest, most despised and persecuted, even when she stood almost alone”
Lorraine Starsky will describe the life and significance of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in a talk entitled: “In the footsteps of Mother Jones – the Life and legacy of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn”
This will be held at the Cathedral Visitor Centre on Thursday 1st August at 11am as part of the Spirit of Mother Jones summer school 2019.
Lorraine is a long-time labor union and social justice activist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. As a young adult she became involved in the campaign to end the Vietnam War, fighting against racism, and for womens’ rights, labour and union causes. Labour history is her lifelong passion and she has studied Irish women activists such as Mother Jones and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She is a Public Health nurse and has herself Irish roots.
The Rebel Girl…..an Autobiography. My First Life (1906-1926) by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Published in 1955.
There is Power In A Union….The Epic Story of Labour in America, by Philip Dray. 2010 Doubleday.
James Connolly and the United States. Carl and Ann Barton Reeve. Humanities Press.