County Cork-born labor activist Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones), one of the most extraordinary women to ever be born on Irish shores, died today on November 30, 1930, aged 93. Once described as “the most dangerous woman in America,” Mother Jones was a leading labor activist born in Shandon in the “Rebel County” (Cork) in 1837. The most famous female labor leader of the 19th century, Jones battled throughout her 100 years for children’s and workers' rights. Back in September 2015, she was named among the world’s top ten revolutionaries, alongside Ernesto Ché Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi and 1916 Easter Rising leader, James Connolly, and today on the anniversary of her death, we remember this firebrand of an Irish woman and her life-long fight for workers' rights.
When she was named as one of the world’s top ten revolutionaries by the Observer in 2015 it was applauded as a welcome recognition of Mother Jones’ contribution to the world by Ger O’Mahony, organizer of the Cork Spirit of Mother Jones Festival, an annual event held in her home place of Shandon each August to celebrate her wide range of achievements as a labor activist.
“As one of just two women and the only person born in Ireland named in The Observer list, it is clear that she is emerging forcefully from the shadows of history to take her rightful place alongside James Connolly as an inspirational figure in the international labor movement,” he said.
Mother Jones initially moved from Cork to Canada before making her way to the US. Despite losing her husband and her four children to the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1867, and then losing everything she owned in the great Chicago fire of 1871, Jones turned to the Knights of Labor and dedicated her life to improving life for working people.
From 1871, and for over a 40-year period, she immersed herself in righting the wrongs faced by American miners and campaigning for the abolition of child labor under her mantra, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living”.
Jones was involved in the great railroad strike of 1877 in Pittsburgh and the strikes that led to the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886. She also wrote “The New Right” in 1899 and the two-volume “Letter of Love and Labor” in 1900 and 1901, before concentrating her efforts on miners. She became an organizer for the United Mine Workers’ Union of America and marched in Coxey’s unemployed army in 1894.
At a remarkable 83 years of age, she was imprisoned and sentenced to 20 years in jail (although eventually pardoned) for her roles in strikes in West Virginia and continued to actively organize miners right into her 90s, before her death in 1930.
Determined and strong to the last, when once introduced as a “humanitarian,” Jones argued, “I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser.”
“Her fiery oratory, her leadership qualities, her passion for labor rights, her opposition to child labor and her utter fearlessness against oppression mark out Mother Jones as a true rebel and an exciting and colorful woman in whom all Cork people and Irish people can be extremely proud,” continued O’Mahony.
Jones was also a major influence on Irish republican and socialist leader James Connolly, another entry to the list of the world’s top ten revolutionaries. The pair met in the early 20th century while they were both actively campaigning for labor rights in the US.
As well as being remembered for his role throughout the Easter Rising, and as one of the leaders executed in its aftermath, Connolly, born in Edinburgh, Scotland, was involved in the Irish Socialist Republican Party and was the co-founder of the Irish Citizen Army, leading the 1913 Lockout in Dublin.
Although heralded for his pioneering campaigning in Ireland, the Observer feel she is often forgotten about as one of “the great European revolutionaries of all time.”
“No one has entwined the politics of labor and of national liberation like Connolly.”
Who would you put on the list of top ten Irish revolutionaries? Leave your thoughts in the comments section, below.
* Originally published in September 2015.