Mother Jones: Some Observations

Mary Jones overcame personal adversity and tragedy, she could have disappeared after 1871. She did not!

The memory of her exploits did however almost disappear after a few years following her death, yet her folk memory always lived on in Appalachia and in the communities in which she had operated. Biographer, Elliott Gorn offered a serious explanation, “Mother Jones fell victim to what the English historian E. P. Thompson has called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”” After all, she was just an old woman campaigning in remote areas and raging against the brutal machine of capitalism. (“Moneyed civilization”)

Dale Fetherling in his wide ranging, thoughtful if frustrating efforts to analyse the ideology of Mother Jones mentions that some regarded her politics as those of an “ideological butterfly” and were damning of her ill-defined socialism and her “shallow often contradictory ideology”. And at times in utter despair at the lack of support, she had derided some socialists as squabbling over doctrinal purity while women and children were starving in the mining camps.

Attempts in general to define an individual activists total philosophy in relation to the cohesion of class struggle in the practical complexity of real social and community conflict are at best incomplete. Mother Jones was above all, a doer, a woman of action, she overcame impossible problems to educate and organise men, women and children to agitate in the real life exploitative and explosive world of industrial conflicts where many of the protagonists were armed. She dealt with the nuts and bolts stuff instead of pontificating in ivory towers. Her final recorded wise comments detailed above in section 6.3, before her death are probably very close to the truth.

Not only that, but by utilising fiery oratory, direct language, passion, pathos, humour, theatre and a fearless energy, she simplified the causes of the actual work conflict, she then aroused hope, created wonder by her sheer audacity, raised the lost spirits of worn out people and showed them how to fight back. And she made sure their stories gained a wider and more influential audience, than just those working in the hills and mines and out of the way places.

Mother Jones in pensive mood.

For a moment, life weary workers rose from their knees, saw the potential for “a higher and grander civilisation”, and were willing to fight and die to attain it. A dream maybe, but millions of workers and their families could embrace it and many still feel it today. That is the real legacy of Mother Jones, she dreamed of visions and beauty and roses and for that she lives on in workers dreams.

“Small art and love and beauty,

Their drudging spirits knew,

Yes, it is bread we fight for

But we fight for roses, too.” 

A verse from Bread and Roses (James Oppenheim) sung at the Lawrence strike 1912. 

She talked of mining men fighting as beasts in the jungle for the privilege of seeing the colour in their children’s eyes, by the light of the sun. In her autobiography, she visualises the sun, “that life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.”

As a woman, Mary was virtually excluded from the inner workings of the Labour Union movement, she had not sought elective office so her achievements as a respected and feared female union leader have to be taken in this context. She organised the workers, female, male, children and every nationality, race and religion rather than taken up with union office politics.

Drawings from the life of Mother Jones by Ine.

She was an outsider and had to demonstrate her leadership abilities by working on the ground with the workers in the factories, mills and mines across America, she gained their respect by leading through example and action.

Her power came directly from the workers. As a union organiser, she was certainly the most fearless of all the organisers on the ground and went literally, where no man had ever gone before.

The problem was that men controlled the unions, they made the decisions and ran the place. It did not matter that Mother Jones could put her life at risk, face down thuggish gunmen, spend time in jail, build up the membership and power of the union, inspire thousands of men with her earthy oratory yet male union leaderships decided matters often leading to the utter frustration of Mother Jones and “her boys”. Her battles with John Mitchell and John L. Lewis were examples of her inability to bring that leadership to account. 

Her loyalty was to the workers and their families, she was a socialist, she was loyal to socialist values and philosophy, she regularly excoriated the robber barons and pirates and the bruising impacts of capitalism on her boys and presciently she warned of its growing malign impact on the world. Her detractors mention her failure to maintain support for political parties, but one suspects that after her time in the Socialist Party, building a political party or narrow ideology became for her a distraction from her practical work on the ground.

Mother Jones was too independent minded to become attached to one political party for very long time and she reserved the right to change her mind. Her no nonsense approach to problems often got her into trouble, yet she could be very reflective and kind. She could be difficult, occasionally economical with the truth, wandering and rambling in her long speeches, yet so real and human.

In a letter dated May 24th 1907 to her friend Powderly, she writes of visiting the grave of Martin Irons in Brownsville, Texas, an iron molder strike leader and member of the Knights of Labour, who was blacklisted, could not find employment and died at a young age. 

“No tender hand seemed to care for it, but the wild flowers did not forget to plant their perfume around his grave. One thing struck me in the early morning, and that was that the birds had not forgotten that he was resting there, they had awakened from their slumbers and were calling their mates to enjoy God’s sunshine.”

Her simple words on a summer’s morning, her awareness of nature is in contrast to the firebrand portrayed generally or did she realise that all involved in the labour battles without solidarity would lie one day in lonely graves. A monument was erected over Irons grave in 1910.

She regarded the solidarity of trade union activism as being her main goal, and was not willing to give allegiance to a rigid political party, she simply wanted to be where the fight was. The cause of labour would continue on, so that workers will win “leisure to read and to think”. They will have “some of the good and beautiful things of the world”, and “slowly those who create the wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor’s strong rough hands.”   

A powerful and eloquent orator, she held thousands of tough miners spellbound for hours. Poet and singer, Carl Sandburg once described her voice as “a singing voice”, which should endear Mother Jones and her oratory to the inhabitants of her native Cork city whose local dialect has long been described as a ‘sing song’ accent.

She claimed that she was not a lady, and some commentators argue she was not a feminist in today’s terms as she did not pay much attention to the suffrage movement.  Mother Jones questioned giving the right to vote to affluent women at one stage as she said it would change little if they voted like their husbands! Her view was that you don’t need the vote to raise hell!  She complained that women might not use their vote to achieve social justice and some were voting against their own best interests.

Today she remains a huge inspiration to many people, not just union members. In spite of personal tragedy and official indifference, she worked on regardless. She appears to almost transcend the world wide trade union movement due to her real emotional appeal to workers everywhere. By carrying on fighting for social justice and labour and human rights, by providing leadership and support when others failed, she earns respect and is entitled to that respect.

Yet after 1936, she was almost forgotten by historians, ignored by most educational institutions, regarded as not relevant to the modern trade union movement and union establishments, even here in her native city of Cork there was no official recognition.

Was she ignored due to the massive misogyny of official history writers or was it an unfortunate failure of academic learning much too occupied with ideological analysis? She did not easily tick the political boxes. The poor rarely write serious memoirs of their lives, they are far too busy with trying to survive unless they become millionaires or attain high office. Mother Jones attained neither of these trappings of life, yet her simple image adorned the walls of her battles grounds in Appalachia and she remained in the hearts of those she fought for, even if their opinions rarely counted where it matters. 

A hero to the millions who created the wealth of America by working under the ground and out of sight and ignored by most, except for Mother Jones who worked with these grass roots communities and shouted out the injustices they experienced to a wider world!

Is she still relevant? Former miner, Marat Moore posed this important question at the inaugural Cork Mother Jones festival in 2012

“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?”

Marat Moore

For years in Irish educational institutions, universities, schools and libraries, the contribution of Mother Jones towards labour justice and human rights was ignored. Indeed the contributions of the wider Irish diaspora who became an essential foundation blocks of the American labour movement and its fine achievements of human solidarity and social justice also remain largely ignored in Ireland.

One could argue that many public institutions prefer in a somewhat myopic manner to concentrate on well recognised and famous Irish diaspora, mostly male figures, who were usually politicians, or financially successful in the business world.

From the four “Silver Kings” (John Mackay, James Flood, Slippery Jim Fair and William O’Brien) of Nevada’s Big Bonanza gold mine in the 1870s, to James Doyle of the Cripple Creek gold mine, from Thomas Walsh from Tipperary at Leadville to Michael Hickey and Marcus Daly of Anaconda Copper in Butte, a few lucky Irish miners were numbered among the richest people in the world.

A far more impressive case can be made that the practical actions of some Irish emigrants, women and men, in organising the trade unions and radical movements which contributed enormously to the well-being, freedom and democratic culture of America merits better attention for what was a far more important achievement of our people. Irish emigrant women and men who built trade unions and fought for social justice may be Ireland’s greatest gift to America!

Hundreds of Irish names appear across the records of dozens of American trade unions. Some may have been inside trackers and achieved little of note, many deserve to be remembered for their sacrifices to achieve labour justice for their comrades.

As an example of their influence, Labor Day is a major public holiday in America. While there is some dispute as to who exactly instituted it initially, many contend that it was an Irish carpenter Peter McGuire who organised the first labor day march through New York in September 1882. Matthew Maguire, a union machinist, also claims he was involved. Either way, both were Irish.

US President, Grover Cleveland passed it into law in 1894 as a gesture of reconciliation to unions following the massacre of workers in June of that year during the Pullman strike. (keen readers may remember that Mother Jones proposed having her army of Mill Children sleep on his private lawn in Princeton in 1903!)     

Should Ireland not analyse and embrace the real working and living experiences of most of those impoverished people who fled the country and discuss the actions of all those who worked to give them a voice, better their lives and improve their conditions at their destinations.

Or is it that Mother Jones and her comrades remain largely ignored in this country because of the Irish establishment’s deeply ingrained embarrassment at the regular large emigration waves from a country, where for many years after we achieved freedom and independence, we still failed to provide work and decent life for many of our sons and daughters in their own place?

Or perhaps it it simply that the memory of the resilience and the passion for social justice of Mother Jones, long after her death, remains even now too dangerous for some to contemplate and encourage?

7. 1 “A Catalyst for Positive Change”

A few days before the 2020 online Spirit of Mother Jones festival in Cork, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins in a message to its organisers, praised her contribution to the labour movement and described Mother Jones as an “emancipatory figure” and “a catalyst for positive change”.

President Michael D Higgins.

Like many others over the years, in his message the President invoked her cry to Remember the dead, but fight like hell for the living when praising the contribution of Ireland’s front line workers and unions towards the fight against Covid-19 at a conference held in conjunction with the 2020 Spirit of Mother Jones festival by University College Cork Civic Engagement Dept.

The links to the festival and the President of Ireland’s letter can be found on the Festival Facebook page and

2. On 1st May 2021, the Irish Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall unveiled a new portrait of Mother Jones commissioned from artist Lindsay Hand which will adorn the walls of the Irish Embassy in Washington. The Consul General of Ireland in Chicago, Robert Byrne also unveiled a second portrait of Mother Jones also by Lindsay Hand for his office.

“We recognise Mother Jones in these fine portraits by Lindsay Hand and thank her for bringing Mother Jones to life in these portraits. These are part of a series we are doing to celebrate with paintings and works of art the remarkable connections between Ireland and America epitomised by the people like Mother Mary Jones.”

Mother Jones by Lindsay Hand, Irish Embassy in Washington DC.
Mother Jones by Lindsay Hand in the Irish Consulate in Chicago.

3. In a letter dated 25th July 2014 from Martin J Walsh, then Mayor of Boston to the organisers of the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival 2014, he stated,

“Securing justice takes a hard, complex, and constant struggle. It takes collective action that is only accomplished through the kind of community building you are doing this weekend in Cork.

I know, as you do, that this struggle takes place the world over. Like Mother Jones, we must “abide wherever there is a fight against wrong”. So I thank you for honouring her powerful legacy. And I thank you for shining a modern light on the timeless struggles of working people to defend their dignity and secure their rights.” 

Martin J Walsh resigned as Mayor of Boston in 2021 and has been appointed US Secretary of Labor since 23rd March 2021.

Martin J. Walsh, United States Secretary of Labor (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).

4. On the 30th August 2015, the Observer newspaper in the UK selected the 10 best Revolutionaries as chosen by Ed Vulliamy.

Mother Jones was selected and her citation was as follows;

“It’s strange to think that a century ago, the US was a hotbed of radical syndicalism. Mother Jones known as the most dangerous woman in America” was a teacher and dressmaker, driven from County Cork by famine to Canada, later moving to Chicago. She lost her husband and four children to yellow fever and became an organiser of the United Mine Workers union, before co-founding the group Industrial Workers of the World. An irrepressible firebrand, she fought against child labour and co-ordinated strikes by miners and silk workers.”

The Observer Newspaper 30th August 2015.

Among her fellow revolutionaries selected were her friend James Connolly, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Luxemburg, Frantz Fanon, Leon Trotsky and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

5.     In 2010 Mother Jones was inducted into the US Department of Labor’s Hall of Fame. Her citation is interesting.

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Irish-born, Mother Jones was a champion of the country’s weakest and neediest during the period of America’s great industrial growth. For countless workers she was both goad and inspiration in their struggles to organize for mutual protection. Her flaming rhetoric and fearless campaigning helped swell the ranks of the United Mine Workers, who called her the Miners’ Angel. With the look of an angel and the tongue of a mule skinner, she tramped the land, venting her searing invective against the shame of child labour and worker exploitation. A magnificent scold, she was a ringing voice on behalf of miners’ colossal struggles in West Virginia, Colorado and Pennsylvania. Jones suffered imprisonment, personal attacks and unbelievable hardships for her efforts to ease impoverished lives.

An iconic poster was also issued on 2010 by the US Dept of Labor. 

US Department of Labor Poster, April 28th 2010.

6.    The Spirit of Mother Jones festival.

A small group of Cork people who shared a common interest in the story of Mother Jones came together in 2011 and agreed to erect a monument to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the birth/baptism of Mary Harris/Mother Jones on 1st August 2012.

It was also agreed that this new Cork Mother Jones Committee would organise a festival to encourage people to learn about the life of this Cork woman, who had been forgotten in her native place.

Having obtained the support of the Shandon community and the Shandon Street Festival, Cork City Council and SIPTU as well as other unions, a plaque was commissioned from sculptor Mick Wilkins. It was agreed we would place it near Shandon as the actual place of the birth of Mary Harris remains uncertain. Both Blarney Street and Blackpool have claims.

With the support and active participation of a number of American friends of Mother Jones such as Rosemary Feurer, Elliott Gorn, Marat Moore and Kaiulani Lee , the festival was an outstanding success, with thousands attending.

So much so that it was decided to hold an annual festival and summer school, called the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival, “a festival dedicated to the memory of Mary Harris/Mother Jones and inspirational people everywhere who fight for social justice.”

We try to make the festival content relevant, challenging and interesting. Integral to each festival is music, theatre, dance, songs, talk and debate. The Cork Mother Jones Committee remains community based, independent and voluntary. The festivals have always taken place around the 1st August each year. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020 the ninth annual festival took place online in late November to commemorate  the 90th year of the death of Mother Jones.

For 2021, the festival takes place on 25th-28th November to enable elements of a real festival to take place.