The Story of Mother Jones

From the Great Famine in Cork to America


The long active life of Mother Jones is one of the great stories in the history of the labour movement, a movement which itself, remains one of the greatest forces for improving social and labour justice across the world. Often attacked and denigrated, generation after generation of trade unionists have carried on seeking to improve working conditions for millions, campaigning for decent remuneration, safe working environments and fair play for women and men and by doing so, they have dramatically improved equality and social justice in society.

The girl born Mary Harris here in Cork back in 1837, has by any measure contributed to this unique story in an extraordinary manner. Her very survival during the Great Famine in Cork, her survival during the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis and her survival during the flu pandemic of 1919 as well as coping with regular health problems brought on by sheer exhaustion is in itself a testament to this resilient woman.

By the age of 35 “she had survived famine, fever and fire” (Marat Moore)

To continue agitating to help others after losing her entire family was courageous. To do so in such a brave manner in a macho male orientated world of mining and heavy industry, to stand up to arrogant armed militias and unaccountable detective agencies and to defiantly challenge the State and legal authorities controlled by the wealthy capitalist owners of industry displays a very rare courage.

For Mother Jones to support, embrace and contribute positively to the workplace struggles of children, women and men for almost four decades at an age when most people retire and to then provide fearless leadership, analysis and a give a voice to millions of people locked in economic slavery was a huge achievement.

Mother Jones has made a huge contribution in America to improving the lives, hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary Irish emigrants (and millions from other nations too), arguably more so than anyone else in Irish history. She was one of hundreds of largely forgotten Irishwomen and men who created and built the proud achievements of the American trade union movement, In many ways we can celebrate all their heroic struggles through her life.

The Cork Mother Jones Committee was formed in 2011 to tell her story to a public, many of whom had never even heard of her and it continues to work to ensure that those who carry on actively campaigning in the defiant and rebel “Spirit of Mother Jones” today are supported and encouraged to keep on going. We feel Mother Jones would empathise with that.

What follows is a very brief outline of the very full, complex and often hidden life of Mary Harris, based on various source materials which we have listed. In this account we are walking on the paths of those labour writers, activists and historians, who have researched her sometimes elusive and hidden life.

No single Irish publication to our knowledge tells the story of her extraordinary life. So we will continue to update her story and revise this research as more information, records and analysis, becomes available and we ask people to assist us with their views, ideas and information, in order to make it available to everyone, who wishes to learn about her.

Gerard O’Mahony

Coordinator SMJF. March 2021.

Cork Mother Jones Committee.