A 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, yet 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. By doing so, they have dramatically improved equality and social justice in wider society.

The girl born Mary Harris in Cork back in 1837, has by any measure contributed to this unique story. Her very personal survival during the Great Famine in Cork, her survival during the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1867 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. But that was not all!

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

To continue agitating to help others after losing her entire family was courageous. To do so in such a fearless manner by entering a totally male orientated world of mining and heavy industry was extremely brave. By standing up to arrogant armed militias and unaccountable detective agencies, she displayed a rare and raw courage. To defiantly challenge the State and legal authorities, controlled in many places by the wealthy capitalist owners of industry was heroic.

For Mother Jones to support, embrace and contribute positively to the workplace struggles of children, women and men for almost forty years at an age when many people begin to consider retirement is unusual in the real world. But she also provided true leadership, clear analysis and articulated the voice of millions of people locked in economic slavery. This was a huge achievement. She raged against unfairness in labour relations and she showed working people how to fight back. Yes, she made mistakes and we will look at them too.

Mother Jones has made a fine contribution towards improving the lives, hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary Irish emigrants (and millions from other nations too), across America, arguably more so than any Irish person in history. She was the instigator of change.

She was one of hundreds of largely forgotten Irishwomen and men who created the proud achievements of the American trade union movement. Perhaps we can celebrate all their heroic struggles through examining her life.

The Cork Mother Jones Committee was formed in 2011 to tell her story to people. In the city of her birth, most had never even heard of her. How and why did that happen? This voluntary committee 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 aim.

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

This account is not set in stone. It is not an academic document. We hope it becomes a living ongoing work. We urge people to seek her out. There is so much information still out there waiting to be discovered. Not alone about Mother Jones but about hundreds of working class union activists who made a difference. We need to reclaim what the late Boston historian Jim Green has called “public history”.

For many people born in poverty in Ireland in the early 1800s or in Famine times, any records of birthdates, marriage dates and dates of death in the period can be uncertain.  Inter-generational usage of family Christian names, and the everyday use of different Christian names, as well as “pet names’ render precise research very difficult in the absence of internal family written records. Due to the lack of records we have lost track of so many of them.

Thanks to the painstaking efforts of Church authorities, which in often difficult practical circumstances, collated the baptismal records of their local congregations, we have a starting point. Without their invaluable data even this basic information which we do have would not exist. There are no Irish census records for the period and the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths did not begin in Ireland until 1864.

Most people at that time lived invisible lives, remembered for a while after their deaths in their families’ oral tradition, before disappearing forever in time.

In the case of Mary Harris, was it the impact of the deep personal trauma in her young life and the hurt which she experienced during the Great Famine contributed to her failure to mention it? The personal impact and trauma of the tragedy in Memphis probably accounts for the missing years from 1871 to the 1890s as she tried to survive and cope with her loss.

Her creation of the colourful background stories for the media and her attempts to construct her legend by telling the story only of Mother Jones in her book, ensures one is faced with added uncertainty. So there is a lot to do to try to fill the gaps in her life.

In many ways, these uncertainties are not too important, as her inspiring actions over the final three decades of her life remain the principal reasons for publishing a story of Mother Jones.    

This story places Mother Jones in the wider context of the contribution of Irishmen and women to the foundation and the history of the American Labour movement. Mary Harris was not on her own, she was just one of a river of Irish emigrants who embraced and fought for the cause of labour to improve the lot of their community and nation. They are sadly forgotten today in Ireland for the most part, we will recall a few of them as we tell a story of Mother Jones.         

No Irish publication to our knowledge tells the story. So we will continue to update our available information and revise this story as more information becomes available. We urge people to assist us with their views and ideas, photographs and stories and we will make the results available to everyone who wishes to learn about Mother Jones and her comrades.

Gerard O’Mahony

Coordinator SMJF. March 2021.

Cork Mother Jones Committee.

Updated 9th June 2021

Table of Contents

On the Trail of Mary Harris/Mother Jones.

 1.0     Mary Harris.

 1.1     Early Years.

 1.2     The Great Irish Famine 1845-1852.

1.3      The Great Famine: Impact on Cork.

1.4     The Harris Family……the Story of the Irish Diaspora.

1.5      Mary Harris in Canada and America.

2.0      Mary Jones.

2.1      Tragedy of Memphis.

2.2      Onwards to Chicago.

3.0      Becoming Mother Jones ……The Survival Years.

3.1      The Knights of Labour.

3.2      Growing Militancy of Labour

3.3      The Molly Maguires.

3.4      The Haymarket.

3.5      Where Was Mary?

4.0      The Arrival of Mother Jones.

4.1      The Persona of Mother Jones.

4.2      Further Influences.

4.3      “The Most Dangerous Woman In America”

4.4      Mother Jones in Action.

4.5      The March of the Mill Children.

4.6      Attacks on Mother Jones.

4.7      The Founding of the Wobblies (IWW).

4.8      Mother Jones is Everywhere

4.9      The Mine Wars.

4.10 Mother Jones Arrested Again.

4.11 And Then Came Ludlow and the Nation heard!

4.12 Mother Jones… The Oxygen of Publicity.

4.13 Mother Jones Continues to Agitate.

4.14 The Battle of Blair Mountain.

5.0     Mother Jones……the Declining Years

5.1      The Autobiography of Mother Jones.

5.2      With a Little Help from Her Friends.

5.3      Mother Jones Dies

5.4      The Funeral Oration.

5.5      The Mount Olive Monument.

6.0      Mother Jones Remembered and Celebrated 

6.1      Some Tributes to Mother Jones.

6.2      Quotes from Mother Jones.

6.3      How Did Mother Jones Wish to be Remembered?

7.0      Mother Jones……Observations.

7.1      “A Catalyst For Positive Change”

8.0      Publications.

8.1      Articles.

8.2      Mother Jones is Remembered in Song, Story and Theatre

8.3      Cork Sings of Mother Jones.

8.4      Documentaries.

8.5      Plays, Novels and even a Magazine.

8.6      Books for Younger Readers.

8.7      Further Reading.


On the trail of Mary Harris/Mother Jones.

1837. July 30/31, Mary Harris born in Cork city. Parents were Ellen Cotter and Richard Harris.

         August 1st. Baptised by Fr. John O’Mahony at the North Cathedral in Cork. The actual baptism font remains in everyday use in the Cathedral.

1840s. Probably received education at the nearby North Presentation School on Gerald Griffin Street.

1845-1849. The Irish Famine. Many thousands die in Cork.

1847. Her father Richard and brother Richard junior travelled to Canada.

1850-52. Ellen Harris, Mary and her siblings travel to Toronto.

1850s. Mary attends Toronto public school, eventually becomes a teacher.

1859/60. Works as a teacher in St Mary’s Convent in Monroe, Michigan.

1860. Works as a seamstress in Chicago, later teaches again in Memphis.

1861. Marries George Jones, settles in Memphis.

1860-1867. Mary and George have four children.

1867. September/October. George and her children die in yellow fever epidemic. Mary works as a nurse.

1868. Mary returns to Chicago and goes into the dressmaking business.

1871. Large section of Chicago burned down along with Mary’s business.

1872-1890. This period in her life remains undocumented. All we can deduce is that she claims to have been increasingly involved with the growing American Labour movement. This became her new ‘family’. By its nature a Labour activist attends numerous meetings, discussions, debates, pickets and organising. All of which were taking place in the growing ferment that was America labour relations in that period, with rapid industrialisation and the influx of millions of immigrants. Chicago and San Francisco were at the heart of the union and labour agitation.

Mary refers to the Pittsburgh Railway strike of 1877 and the Haymarket Incident of 1886, the former constituted the defeat of the first American nationwide Labour uprising and the latter was followed by the State executions which became a symbol for further radical trade union formation. There is no evidence that she was physically present.

Some writers have suggested that she travelled extensively including to Europe and Ireland. One does note that later travelling never fazed her as she travelled all over America, as far south as Mexico and north to Canada! Her dressmaking skills would have enabled her to survive economically where ever she was. Later in the early 1900, smear tactics claimed she was involved in prostitution in Denver. There is a possibility that she helped her fellow County Corkman, Denis Kearney in his anti-Chinese worker campaign in California. She has left little if any documentation of her activities during this period.

1890. United Mineworkers of America formed. Mary is taken on as a paid organiser. Clearly she had a track record of organising in mining circles to be appointed a union organiser.

1894. Pullman Strike by Railwaymen. Was in Birmingham, Alabama organising miners.

1895. Active with selling subscriptions for radical newspaper, Appeal to Reason.

1896. Works with Eugene Debs.

1897. Present at founding of Social Democracy of America. Works on the ground at the Turtle Creek coal-miners’ strike in Pittsburgh. Tries to organise union in West Virginia. In July, she visits US President William McKinley to discuss jailing’s of union strikers following the Pullman Strike. Visits socialist community experiment in Pushkin, Tennessee.

1899. Arrives in Arnot, Pennsylvania on 1st October and organises women, children and men and mobilises the entire mining communities in support of strikers. She ensures a faltering miners’ strike became successful by early 1900.

1900. Writes ‘Civilization in Southern Mills’ for the International Socialist Review on exploitation of children at work. John Mitchell, President of the UMWA appointed Mother Jones as international organiser reporting directly to him. Very active in Coleraine, Beaver Meadows, Panther Creek and leads a march of women on Lattimer to encourage the men to strike.

1901. Organises miners in Pennsylvania. Organises strike of silk weavers in Scranton, organises union for domestic servants also in the town. Attends a miners strike at Norton West, Virginia.

1902. Organised in southern and northern West Virginia. Arrested there on 20th June, imprisoned and bailed. Named as “the most dangerous woman in America by District Attorney Reese Blizzard at the subsequent court hearing in front of Judge Jackson on 24th July. He refused to jail her, so she had to leave her fellow union organisers facing 60-day jail sentences and returned to the anthracite strike.

1903. Failed to achieve union recognition in West Virginia, strike settled. Organises March of the Mill Children July/August. Speaks at Mount Olive. Works undercover in mills and mines in Colorado and later deported from the state. Arrives back again. Later resigns from UMWA.

1904. Attacked in a Denver weekly known as Polly Pry. Works for more radical Western Federation of Miners (WFM). Spent time in New York.

1905. Active initially in the planning and founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Spent time in Chicago. Supports various strikes around the country and spoke at Butte several times and in Helena, Montana and also Coaldale in Schuylkill and heads east to New York for several months.    

1906. Worked very hard for the defence campaign of the IWW/WFM defendants William Haywood, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone who were wrongly charged with murder. Once again James McParland of the Pinkertons agency played a large role in trying to get convictions but the prosecution case fell apart against Haywood and Moyer and the case was dropped against Pettibone. She fund raised for the legal defence.

1907. Organises copper miners in Alabama. Campaigns actively for the release of the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) radicals seeking the overthrow of Mexican dictator Portfirio Diaz, who had worked hand in hand with the American mine and oil barons. Four were arrested and jailed in America. The radicals wanted to ensure Mexican miners did not undercut wages in American coalfields so they attracted the support of the WFM and the IWW activists. Travels to Mesabi Range in Minnesota and Westmoreland County in Pennsylvania.

1908. Continues campaign for the Mexican radicals who remained in jail. Returns to Alabama and organises in the cotton mills.

1909. Raised thousands of dollars for the PLM defence fund and spoke all over America on their behalf. Met President William Taft to plead for the release of the Mexican radicals. Continued speaking for the Socialist Party.

1910. Helped women working in the Milwaukee Breweries to organise. Mexican radicals released from prison, they returned to Mexico and assisted in the overthrow of Diaz. Embroiled in Socialist Party in fighting.

1911. Left the Socialist party.  Madero, the new 38 year old Mexican president invites Mother Jones to Mexico City along with leaders of the UMWA and the WFM.  Meets Francisco “Pancho” Villa and became friends. Both Mexican leaders were later assassinated.

1912-1914. The Mine Wars in West Virginia and Colorado.

1914. Heads to Seattle and travels north to British Columbia to support Canadian miners. On 19th October, she visited President Woodrow Wilson and asked him to keep federal troops in Colorado to protect striking miners. Mother Jones advocated the Federal takeover of the mines. Eventually she supported his plan and although the strike failed, mine conditions eventually improved.

1915. Supports the strikers in Colorado. Goes to New York and Washington. Hears John D Rockefeller give testimony to the Commission on Industrial Relations (CIR). Met Rockefeller at his office. Gave testimony to CIR in May and June. Travels to Butte, Montana and later to Missouri to organise miners, then on to assist steel workers in Ohio. Worked for the release of Kaplan and Schmidt following the bombing of the Los Angeles Times earlier in 1910. Took on many cases of those she believed were innocent.

1916. Attended UMWA convention in Indianapolis, Indiana. Brokered a temporary peace between factions within a financially broke union following the costs of the Mine Wars. Works to free imprisoned miners such as Belk, Zancanelli and Ulich in Colorado. Spoke in support of Democratic Party Governor George Hunt and Senator John Kern, both standing for election.  Helps streetcar workers in El Paso, Texas, and supports them also in New York along with garment workers. Supports the case of Tom Mooney.

1917. Spent most of the year in “feudal” West Virginia working out of the UMWA offices in Charleston while trying to organise the New River minefield. She spoke at meetings of miners at many pits as part of a unionization campaign by the union District 29, led by Lawrence Dwyer. She had limited success.

1918. Spoke at the UMWA Conference in January 1918. Again urged unity within the union. Supported President Woodrow Wilson in the war effort hoping to get full union recognition and full organising rights later. Her view were opposed by activists in the IWW and the Socialist Party. Many miners had joined the US Army.

1919. Supported Steel workers on strike in Pittsburgh, arrested several times for speaking without a permit. She spoke in Pittsburgh, New York, Ohio, Indiana, Cleveland and Illinois. Strike was eventually lost but she stayed with it. However she missed out on the simultaneous coal strike. Campaigned for Tom Mooney.

1920. Was in California to stay with friends as she was worn out and tired. Once recovered she went back to organising in southern West Virginia at the Williamson Field, in Mingo County.

1921. Went to Mexico where she was regarded as a hero by workers. Her old friend Antonio Villarreal whose release she had campaigned for in 1908-1911 was now Minister for Agriculture in the Obregon government and she was treated very well. Spoke at the Pan-American Federation of Labour. Returned to West Virginia in August to help the miners’ strike. She opposed the miners march on Logan County. This caused to bitter disagreements within the UMWA. The violent Battle of Blair Mountain followed, which led to a huge setback for the UMWA. Over 500 miners arrested afterwards.  

1922.  Very ill early in the year but later speaks at UMWA convention. Pleads for unity but openly opposes John L. Lewis and was not reappointed as a UMWA organiser. Major rift with miners’ leaders in West Virginia. Media reports she had a nervous breakdown in July. She refuses, or is unable to appear in court as a witness for the miner leaders. Supports release of miners, eventually just three are convicted.

1923. Spends time in Springfield, speaks at Fort Wayne, Indiana. Travels to Chicago and stays for several months. Turmoil within UMWA as Lewis consolidates his control. She works to free miners jailed following Blair Mountain and contacts Governor Morgan in West Virginia. Most miners are freed. She begins writing her book. Travels to California to try to secure the release of Matthew Schmidt. Suffers several attacks of rheumatism.

1924. Met with Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce and Governor of Pennsylvania early in January. Does some work with Mary Field Parton on her autobiography.  Heads for Chicago and onto Los Angeles where she spends the summer in the warm climate. Her “faithful friend” of 45 years, Terence V Powderly dies. Returns to Washington and stays with Emma Powderly. Meeting with President Calvin Coolidge to support his re-election.

1925.  Very ill for some time. In August, the Autobiography of Mother Jones published.

1926. Spent some time in Los Angeles again. Not very happy with the book. “The book is not printed as I wrote it anyway, and I have never been satisfied with it”. Now living at 3700-5th Street in Washington with Emma Powderly and writes to her many union friends and continually expresses sadness at the state of the UMWA. She seems to have travelled to Ohio and stayed with her friend Susana De Wolfe and her brother Samuel Steiner for health reasons. She celebrated Labor Day and spoke at the gathering in Alliance, Ohio. Headed back to Washington through Chicago

1927. However she took ill and later stated that she “had been quite sick and was in the Garfield Hospital hanging between life and death”. Looked after by the Manning family, strong trade unionists. Remained concerned if somewhat exasperated that Tom Mooney would not accept parole.

1928. In May she moves about 8 miles (13kms) from Emma Powderly’s house to the farmhouse of Lily Burgess in Hyattsville in Maryland.

1929. Stays with the Burgess family. Entertained many union friends who called to see her. Gradually her strength was failing.

1930. Receives a box of roses from Tom Mooney and the IWW prisoners in California. She made her will on 28th April and appointed Ed Nockles and John Fitzpatrick as executors.  On 1st May, a one hundred birthday party held in honour of Mother Jones. She leaves her bed and sits under the apple tree near the porch and talks, poses for photographs and gives an interview to camera. Mother Jones dies on 30th November. She is buried in Mount Olive, Union Cemetery on 8th December.