Rosemary Feurer is producer of the documentary Mother Jones, America’s Most Dangerous Woman (2007) and is an associate professor of history at Northern Illinois University.
The spirit of Mother Jones came home this month to Cork, Ireland. A festival honoring the Irish-American labor heroine that included the unveiling of a plaque in her honor highlighted her continuing relevance to the global project of social justice.
Mary Harris was baptized in Cork’s North Cathedral 175 years ago. A child of the Irish famine (1845-1849), she lost her children to yellow fever in Memphis, Tenn., in 1867, and her possessions to the great fire in Chicago in 1871. She emerged from all of this as one of a generation of politically active famine survivors who refused to rise on the top of dead bodies, instead seeing in the downtrodden the hope of the world. “I long to see the day when labor will have the destination of the nation in her own hands,” she said in her last public statement in 1930. While she is honored at her burial site in Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Ill., a U.S. National Historic Landmark along Route 66 and Interstate 55, Cork had never formally claimed her as their own. But through a cascade of film, song, lecture and theatrical events, Cork raised Mother Jones' spirit.
When she was condescendingly labeled the “grandmother of all agitators,” in the U.S. Senate, Mother Jones replied that she would someday like to be called “the great-grandmother of all agitators.” The people I met from Cork and from around Ireland suggested to me that many hoped for a renewal of a global transmission of agitation by ordinary people as a project of the labor movement. Labor and environmental agitators warmly greeted the unveiling of her plaque on John Redmond Street and claimed her as their own. Mother Jones deeply believed that the labor movement of her day would replace a “moneyed civilization with a higher and grander civilization for the ages to come.” People reminded me that James Connolly and James Larkin, two of the honored Irish labor agitators of their day, shared this same vision, in a transnational exchange. “Mother Jones, James Connolly, James Larkin, they shared the commitment that we need to own the wealth, not just produce it and get a contract,” one retired worker commented.
“We need her spirit now more than ever, to fight this austerity here in Ireland,” another urged.
Mother Jones believed in the capacity of the workers of the world to unite against a “parasite” ruling class who took the wealth that workers produced for themselves. Joe O’Flynn, a leader of SIPTU, Ireland’s largest union, remarked that:
This generation and generations to come in Ireland are paying a very heavy price for the greed of a chosen few at the top who have virtually bankrupted this country—vital public services are affected, people have lost their livelihoods and, in some cases, even their homes.
In this light, he suggested, it was good that the event might help to “atone” for the “failure to remember their rebel daughter.” Other workers spoke of a need to make the labor movements of the world a powerful fighting force by making the labor project about more than bargaining and gaining recognition—to make it a project that could adequately take on the ruling classes of our day.
For more on the Cork festival, see http://motherjones175.wordpress.com.