Marat Moore’s inspiring address to Cork Mother Jones Festival

Marat Moore on Croagh Patrick

Marat Moore at the summit of Croagh Patrick mountain, Co. Mayo, Ireland.

Cork’s Gift to American Labor:

Thoughts on the Extraordinary Life of Mary Harris Jones

This is a revised and longer version of the inaugural lecture given by Marat Moore at the Mother Jones festival on August 1, 2012, at the Firkin Crane Center, Shandon, Cork.


Go raibh maith agat. Thank you, Ger.  This festival is a landmark event in the history of Mary Harris (“Mother”) Jones—the first time that her life in Ireland and her work in the United States have connected in such a powerful and public way. We owe a debt of gratitude to the organizing committee for bringing her home to Cork.

As a former coal miner, I’m here to talk about how Mother Jones helped build the most powerful union in America in the early 20th century, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). And as a writer working on a novel about her, I will also explore Mary’s childhood in Cork, which in my view was not just the city of her physical birth, but the birthplace of all she came to be. The other story I will share concerns her living legacy and the birth of the Daughters of Mother Jones in the historic Pittston coal strike in the Appalachian coalfields.

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

For Mother Jones, coal miners were her “boys” and the United Mine Workers union was her home in the family of labor—the family she regained years after the tragic loss of her own family from yellow fever in Memphis, Tennessee.

She had a lot to say about the plight of coal miners, including this:

“The story of coal is always the same. It is a dark story. For a second’s more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty—a picture, a new dress, a bit of lace fluttering in the window—for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.”

Let’s look at one moment when she was fighting for coal miners—exactly one hundred years ago today, on August 1, 1912. She had just turned 75—although she told everyone she was in her 80s—and near the peak of her fame. On that day, she lifted her black skirts and climbed in her work boots on the back of a dray wagon beside the Kanawha River near Charleston. She spoke to a crowd of striking miners who doubted they could win against coal operators and the politicians they controlled, and companies’ hired gun thugs. The location was just outside the strike zone, was one of the few places the strikers could safely gather.

But nowhere was really safe. A week earlier, 16 men had died in a battle between mine guards and miners. Because she had been giving speeches in the area, coal operators believed she had incited the violence. So they planted a spy in the crowd to take down her every word in shorthand. She aimed her remarks at the gun thugs and the governor, saying:

 “We are law-abiding citizens, we will destroy no property, we will take no life, but if a fellow comes to my home and outrages my wife, by the Eternal he will pay the penalty. I will send him to his God in the repair shop! The man who doesn’t do it hasn’t got a drop of revolutionary blood in his veins.” 

In the next few months, she faced down machine guns, was arrested and court-martialed under military law on a trumped-up murder charge, and imprisoned.  But she managed to smuggle out a telegram to a U.S. senate committee that turned the tide of the strike, and helped to win it.

Two years later she was in Colorado with more than 1,000 striking miners, mostly immigrants who could not speak English, at the Ludlow tent colony. She was arrested twice during that battle. From a jail where people had died of exposure and disease, in 1914 she smuggled out another blazing message that proved again that she could not be silenced:

“I am being held a prisoner incommunicado in a damp, underground cell in the basement of a military bullpen at Walsenburg, Colorado … I want to say to the public that I am an American citizen, and I claim the right of an American citizen to go where I please so long as I do not violate the law.

To be in prison is no disgrace. In all my strike experiences I have seen no horrors equal to those perpetrated by General Chase and his corps of Baldwin-Felts detectives that are now enlisted in the militia.  My God, when is it to stop? I have only to close my eyes to see the hot tears of the orphans and widows of working men, and hear the mourning of the broken hearts and wailing of the funeral dirge, while the cringing politicians whose sworn duty it is to protect the lives and liberty of the people crawl subserviently before the national burglars of Wall Street who are today plundering and devastating the state of Colorado economically, financially, politically and morally.

Let the nation know that the great United States of America is now holding [me] incommunicado in an underground cell surrounded with sewer rats, tinhorn soldiers and other vermin.”

Signed, Mother Jones.

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

How did Mary Harris, the newborn baptized at the North Cathedral 175 years ago today, become “The Miner’s Angel” and “Labor’s Joan of Arc” in America? How did she find the strength and the courage to become Mother Jones after suffering so much tragedy in her personal life?

We don’t know—in part because she didn’t tell the truth about her past. She must have had her reasons. As a result, we know much more about what she became as Mother Jones than how she got there.

Her story began on these crooked streets of Shandon on the northside of Cork, somewhere near where we gather today. The poet William Blake said the crooked paths are the paths of genius, and that was surely true of Mary Harris Jones.

I believe that Mary got a very strong start in Cork. In fact, her first 10 years here before her father and brother emigrated in 1847, were the most stable decade of her long life. We don’t know the circumstances of the Harris family, and assume it was difficult, but she had the support of an intact family, a home, a parish and a tightly knit community. As a child it is likely she was deeply grounded in the Catholic faith. Never again in her 93 years did she have that solid base of home, family, community and faith for that long a period.

She needed that base. Before she was 35, she endured three personal and social traumas—famine, fever and fire. The famine here in Cork, the yellow fever that killed her family in Tennessee, and the Great Fire of Chicago. And not even making the top three are having babies throughout the Civil War, the race riot in Memphis in 1866.

Research in early childhood development gives a hint about why Mary may have been resilient in later life. Children who are given loving care in their early years—and then endure an adversity that they survive with help and support—are best able to deal with trauma in adulthood. And the largely female Harris family left in Cork through the famine did survive.

Mary, growing into her teens, must have played a major role in caring for the family. In these streets she also witnessed, for the first time, the ravages of economic injustice and heard the grating of the death carts. Living in the highly politicized world of Cork City, she likely understood, even at her young age, the roots of the starvation as she watched butter and meat transported to the docks on the Lee and exported to people who already had enough to eat.

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

There are some tantalizing hints about what she may have learned during her most impressionable years. When Mary was 6 years old, for example, in 1843, Daniel O’Connell staged one of his monster rallies here.

Did she attend the rally with her parents? O’Connell drew hundreds of thousands; everyone went to his rallies. I imagine her at that rally, hoisted on her father’s shoulders, thrilling to the roar of the crowd and O’Connell’s powerful voice and message about Catholic Emancipation. Years later, Mary would hold her own monster rallies, and it was her voice and her message on emancipation of workers that could move coal miners to tears.

Abolition was another theme that surfaced in Cork in the 1840s before the famine. On the day of O’Connell’s Cork rally, a procession moved through the city, led by a float that carried two men, one painted black and one white. According to Thomas Keneally in his book, The Great Shame, the black figure wore a sign that said “Free” and held up his broken chains because England had ended slavery in the West Indies. The white man, representing the Irish, held up his chained fists and wore a sign saying, “Still a Slave!”

Two years later, in 1845, when she was 8, the famous abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass gave four stirring speeches in Cork. Did she hear Douglass speak? Or perhaps hear about Douglass from her parents and neighbors? If she did absorb some of this abolitionist sentiment, it alters the way we see her decision to move to Memphis, Tennessee, on the cusp of the Civil War. She likely was not naïve about the choice of that southern city where she would see American slavery close at hand.

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

Mother Jones has been part of my life for 35 years, since the late 1970s when I worked as an underground miner in Mingo County, West Virginia, near the town of Matewan which was the site of an explosive mine war in 1920. Retired miners in their 80s and 90s told me stories about hearing Mother Jones speak there in 1920. Although she was rather short, one miner said, “She was the biggest woman I ever seen!”

In the mines, you watch out for each other. I remember one day when a buddy and I worked on the coal face when a machine lost its brakes and came barreling down the incline at us with no lights. We couldn’t see it and couldn’t hear it because of the noise at the coal face. A union brother nicknamed Bullhead threw us into the tunnel wall and saved our lives.

Women were first hired as coal miners in the mid-1970s, and by 1979 there were about 5,000 of us nationwide. Women miners were among the union’s most activist members, and we formed a national network that lasted 20 years and built solidarity with workers internationally. Mother Jones inspired us–we held a conference in southern Illinois just so we could make a pilgrimage to her grave.  But women coal miners did much more—they confronted the union on issues of family leave, acid rain pollution caused by coal mining, and sexual harassment in the mines. They become such a force that at our annual conferences, the union president and his staff felt obligated to attend, maybe just to keep an eye on them.

It was the network of women coal miners—known as the Coal Employment Project—that gave birth to the Daughters of Mother Jones in the historic Pittston coal strike in the late 1980s. By that time I was working for the United Mine Workers of America in Washington, DC, but remained active in the women miners’ movement.  My job involved photographing underground in many mines and writing about mine safety, but on the side I organized miners’ wives and children.

In 1988 the Pittston coal company canceled health benefits for pensioners and widows to provoke a strike. Instead the United Mine Workers of America decided to prepare for a strike by building public support and keeping the miners on the job.

Public support meant family support. I proposed organizing a network of family support in southwest Virginia through the Pittston local unions, and union approved the plan and allowed me to hire two laid-off women miners to help. The three of us were the core committee. We hit the ground running and had about a dozen groups formed and they held rallies in their communities and set up a year-long informational picket line at the company headquarters.

The union launched the strike against Pittston in early 1989 and decided that the women should stage a nonviolent occupation as the strike’s first act of civil disobedience. Our committee met secretly with 40 women and they wanted a name. Mother Jones came up immediately, and then someone called out, “We’re the Daughters of Mother Jones.”  The name itself gave us courage. We laughed and shared her history—about earlier strikes when miners’ wives had been jailed with their babies and Mother Jones suggested they sing all night! Finally the jailer freed them because he couldn’t stand the noise!

The women of the Pittston strike were worried about giving their names to media in case the company targeted their husbands for retaliation. So we numbered off: Daughter of Mother Jones #1, Daughter #2, through #40. When CNN brought its cameras into the building for interviews and would ask a woman her name, she’d say, “I’m the Daughter of Mother Jones #14.” CNN had to shut off its cameras and ask, “Who is Mother Jones?” So we had labor history sound bites on Mother Jones in print, and on radio and TV.

Mother Jones said, “An army of mining women makes a spectacular picture.” In the end about 1,000 women and children were actively involved in the Pittston strike. The Daughters engaged in mass arrests and jail vigils and helped run Camp Solidarity, a makeshift camp with bunk beds that drew thousands of supporters from around the country and the world, including a group of Siberian miners.

Then the students walked out of several high schools and marched to the jails where their parents were detained. And the women had their Mother Jones fun. They turned around road signs with route numbers pointing in the wrong direction to confuse the state police and armed guards. Coal operators consider wives no threat and ignore them, a fact that can be used to great advantage.

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

Now a new chapter of Mother Jones history is being written—here, where it all began, in Cork. This is part of a second flowering of interest in her that I have seen. The first was in the 1970s and spawned books, plays, reenactors and Mother Jones magazine. This Mother Jones Rising has also triggered much creative work and her legacy has been linked to the Occupy movement and current economic and union struggles.

What is her message to us today? To organize to confront the current economic and political upheaval, and work for justice. To free ourselves of prejudice and give up our petty differences. She inspired more than half a million coal miners, mostly immigrants, and with thousands of other workers in the United States.  She stayed the course. What inspires me most about Mary Harris Jones is the courage of her soul—which not only predates Mother Jones, but made her possible.

We live in a time as turbulent as hers. Can we carry on her legacy of resistance to powerful corporations who rob the poor and destroy our earth?

Are we up for it? Let us take her brave spirit into our hearts as the sons and daughters of Mother Jones, and fight like hell for the living.


Mother Jones festival “an outstanding success”

The Cork Mother Jones Festival has been called “an outstanding success” by Jim Nolan of the organizing committee.

“The Mother Jones festival was an outstanding success in every way for Shandon and Cork; it achieved massive local national and international publicity for our community”, he declared.

Mr. Nolan continued,

“Mother Jones is now finally back in her native place and we have made up for the failure to honour this brave and courageous woman who was born in this community 175 year ago”.

The festival, organised by a voluntary committee in association with the Shandon Street Festival, concluded recently after three days of celebrations in and around the ancient historical community of Shandon, taking in the North Chapel, St.Anne’s Church, the Firkin Crane Centre and the Maldron Hotel (the old North Infirmary).

The highlight was the unveiling of a plaque designed by Mick Wilkins to commemorate Mother Jones on John Redmond Street on the evening of Wednesday 1st August. Fortunately glorious sunshine arrived for the unveiling event which was performed by Cllr. Ted Tynan and Jim Nolan of the Shandon Street Festival. Music was provided by the Butter Exchange Band and Norman O’Rourke and the American and Irish National Anthems were played.

Capacity crowds were present for all events. Professor Rosemary Feurer’s film Mother Jones, the Most Dangerous Woman in America was shown three times during the festival to cater for the number of people wishing to see it. The ground-breaking Andy Irvine concert at St.Anne’s Shandon was performed before a sell out crowd of almost 300 people.

The festival was opened by Lord Mayor John Buttimer at the Firkin Crane on Wednesday morning 1st. The Lord Mayor praised the work of the voluntary committee who had constructed a highly interesting series of events, talks, music, concerts and an exhibition on the life of Mother Jones by Jim Fitzpatrick. A concert organized by Richard T Cooke featuring a host of Cork talent attracted a capacity attendance to the Firkin.

The inaugural Mother Jones lectures provided a focus for some stirring debates on the afternoon with Joe O’Flynn, General Secretary of SIPTU, Professor Elliott Gorn of Brown University and Marat Moore, author and founder of the Daughters of Mother Jones. This event also featured a wondeful re-creation of the speeches of Mother Jones performed by internationally renowned actress Kaiulani Lee.

The festival, which attracted huge publicity for Shandon featured on TV3 and most of the national media, also attracted international media attention with even a front page story on the Mount Olive Herald and in the widely read Mother Jones Magazine as well as numerous labour and history websites throughout North America.

A host of Cork artists and musicians appeared at the festival, including Two Time Polka, Hank Wedel, Jim Williamson, Cork Memory Lane Group, Hugh Moynihan, the Cork Singers Club, Richard T Cooke, traditional musicians, while Andy Irvine played at a sell out concert at St.Anne’s Shandon.

Following a recent meeting of the organising committee, it was decided to hold the annual Mother Jones festival in 2013 in Shandon from Tuesday 30th July to Thursday 1st August. Further announcements will be made in relation to the events as they are confirmed.

Mother Jones – A True Cork Rebel

Our sincere thanks to Catherine M. Courtney for this professionally produced short video of the unveiling of the Mother Jones plaque on 1st August 2012.  The opening music is the Cork Butter Exchange Band playing “She’ll be coming round the mountain”, a song believed to be about Mother Jones.  The song which follows is “Mother Jones – A True Cork Rebel”, newly composed and sung by Richard. T. Cooke, member of the Cork Mother Jones Commemorative Committee.

A new Cork Song about Mother Jones

On Tuesday evening 31st July at the “gathering” for the Mother Jones Festival at the Maldron Hotel, the Cork Singers Club were singing songs to honour Mary Harris/Mother Jones.
Among the contributors was Teresa Ní Chárthaigh who sang her own composition which she had worked on for some time after reading about the life of Mother Jones.
Teresa received a standing ovation for this very first performance of “The Ballad of Mother Jones”.
Mother Jones had come home to Cork’s northside!
The first 5 verses may be sung to the air of “She  Lived Beside the Anner”; the last verse is sung to the air of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic (aka Glory Hallelujah”
Here are the words of Teresa’s stirring new song:

The Ballad of Mother Jones

In the northside of Cork city, in Blarney Lane was Mary bred,

Of humble folk, who e’er perchance could have foretold or said,

That a workers revolution in America would be

Led by Mary Ellen Harris from the north side of the Lee.

‘Twas in the North Cathedral Mary Harris was baptized,

Two brothers and two sisters, the dread famine they survived.

Survived the coffin ships to Canada as they fled from Ireland’s strife.

Toronto was their destination, where they hoped for a new life.

Mary first trained as a teacher, but a seamstress too was she,

Wed George Jones in 1860, down in Memphis Tennessee,

Catherine, Lizbeth, Terence, Mary, were the children that she bore,

Just two years old the youngest, when from Mary they were torn.

Yellow fever struck in Memphis, her husband died, her children too,

So she set up as a seamstress, there was nothing else to do.

But in the great fire of Chicago Mary’s little shop burned down,

Once again cruel fate had lent a hand, and her destiny laid down.

She set out to change the miners’ lives, so piteous and forlorn,

And thus it was the legend true of Mother Jones was born.

Wherever strife and conflict was, there Mother Jones would be;

First to face the foe, the last to leave the battle field was she.

She said that she was a hell-raiser, no humanitarian she;

But that was not true, for the miners knew, she shared their misery.

Lived among them, ministered to them, gave them all she had to give,

But the greatest gift she gave them was to fight that they might live.

The history she made is not a history approved;

I will tell you of a President whose heart would not be moved

By the children of the mines and mills, she led to Roosevelt’s home.

Those little slaves he would not see in his fine grand summer home.

Why should he hear their grievances and Mother Jones’ tirade?

When it was well known his family’s wealth from mines and mills was made.

And the State’s Militia was the private army of this breed,

Whose brutal ways were meant to bring the starving workers to their knees.

The coal-field war in Colorado, where the workers were all thrown

From their mine-owned houses, had to live in a tent city forlorn;

ON the 20th of April in the year nineteen and four,

The Miliitia did attack those tents, and the workers down were mown.

Two women and nine children perished in a trench that day,

In a fire the Militia made, to make the workers pay.

But this, the Ludlow massacre, set the nation in a rage,

And a truce was made, and the workers rights began on history’s page.

And “Rise up and strike ‘til the last of you

Shall drop into your graves.”

These were the words that Mother Jones repeatedly had said.

“We are going to stand together, ‘no surrender’ you must sing,

For if you don’t have a union, boys,

You ain’t got a damn thing.”

Glory, glory, Mother Jones,

Freedom lies there with her bones;

She fought to give the workers hope and the Unions liberty

Mother Jones, born Mary Harris,

From the northside of the Lee


Teresa Ni Charthaigh

(May be sung to the air of “She Lived beside the Anner”; the last verse is sung to the air of “The Ballad Hymn of the Republic”)

Mother Jones plaque unveiled

The City of Cork, Ireland has finally given recognition to its rebel daughter Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones) with the unveiling of a plaque on the 175th anniversary of her birth / baptism in the historic Shandon area of the city.

The event was the highlight of a three day festival commemorating the Cork woman, once dubbed “the most dangerous woman in America” because of her activities on behalf of workers and the poor and her role in exposing the evils of child labour in the United States and having it declared illegal.

The plaque was unveiled jointly by committee members Councillor Ted Tynan and Jim Nolan on behalf of the committee and in addition to the large attendance were a number of people associated with the histocial and social legacy in the United States.

Mother Jones plaque unveiling in Cork

Mother Jones plaque unveiled in Cork’s historic Shandon area

Rosemary Feurer at Cork Mother Jones plaque unveiling

Prof. Rosemary Feurer, US labor activist,  writer / director and maker of the documentary film “Mother Jones, the Most Dangerous Woman in America”, addresses the crowd after the unveiling of the plaque to Mother Jones. Also in photo (L-R) are committee members Jim Fitzpatrick, Michael Lally (Manager of Maldron Hotel Cork) and Richard Cooke.

A complete set of photos from the event will be uploaded over the next 48 hours and can be viewed on our photo page at Flickr

Big turnout Mother Jones festival opening events

There was a full house at the Maldron Hotel in Cork last night (Tuesday) for the opening events of the Cork Mother Jones Festival.  The meeting room was full to overflowing for the showing of Rosemary Feurer’s film Mother Jones, the Most Dangerous Woman in America, so much so that a second showing had to be held later to ensure that all those who wished to see the film and participate in the discussion could do so.
Mother Jones 1

The festival continues today with a series of events in and around the Shandon area, the highlight will be the unveiling of the commemorative plaque to Mother Jones at John Redmond Street, Cork with events starting at 6.15 this evening. See programme full full details.

Mother Jones Festival starts today

Mother Jones comes home to Cork

The Cork Mother Jones Festival opens in the Shandon area of the city today (Tuesday), marking the 175th anniversary of the birth of Mary Harris who was better known in her adopted home of America as Mother Jones.  The festival will kick off at 7.00pm this evening at the Maldron Hotel, John Redmond Street, with a showing of the Irish premiere of the documentary film Mother Jones, America’s Most Dangerous Woman.  In attendance to present and discuss the film will be Rosemary Feurer, producer and director.   This will be followed, at 9.30pm by an evening of music and songs at the Maldron Hotel to celebrate Mother Jones, with the Cork Singers Club.

Mother Jones was an uncompromising fighter against the appalling conditions in which workers and particularly mine and mill workers toiled.  She played a major role in highlighting the use of child labour in American mines and factories and often clashed with America’s wealthiest industrialists including John D. Rockefeller.  She continued her activity into her 80s and 90s, until her death, aged 93 in 1930.

The Mother Jones Festival 2012 is the very first commemoration of Cork woman, Mary Harris outside of America and the first in Cork. The highlight of the event will be the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Mother Jones in John Redmond Street on Wednesday evening.

All events will take place on the north side of Cork City, in the historic Shandon area, in association with Shandon Street Festival. The locations of events such as the North Cathedral (“North Chapel”), St. Anne’s Church (“Shandon Bells”), the Firkin Crane, and the Maldron Hotel ( formerly the North Infirmary) are all a few minutes walk from each other and about 5 minutes walk from the Christy Ring Bridge over the River Lee.

The Festival’s organisers, the Cork Mother Jones Commemorative Committee, have said that there has been huge interest in the event, particularly from the United States where Mother Jones is a national icon for trade unionists and working people.

The full programme of events can be downloaded in PDF format here

Ken Loach expresses delight at Cork Mother Jones plans

Ken Loach at Cannes in 2006

Ken Loach at Cannes in 2006

In a message to the organisers of the Cork Mother Jones Festival, film director Ken Loach expressed his “delight” that the committee are “planning to celebrate Mother Jones , – what a formidable woman”.

Loach, who won the coveted Palm D’or award at Cannes in 2006 for his film West The Wind that Shakes the Barley,which was set in West Cork during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, wrote to our committee recently and praised its plans to remember Mother Jones.

He went on to say “So remembering our heroes, and heroines, is very important. I’m sure there are contemporary battles that can be connected to the ones Mother Jones fought”.
He concluded by stating that the festival was “a brilliant idea”.