Sunday 15 September 2019

Lay of the Land: Remembering the mother of matriarchs


'Mother Jones'
'Mother Jones'

Fiona O'Connell

This cold November wind is a far cry from the balmy breeze that blew me into a West Cork shop last summer, where a piece by artist Etain Hickey caught my eye. "Pray for the dead. Fight like hell for the living" was inscribed above an image of a middle-aged woman, stoutly dressed in dark coat and hat, wearing round glasses and carrying the sort of handbag that old ladies use to bash hooligans in comic skits.

But it made sense when I saw it was Mother Jones, who played a key role in the man's world of union and mining politics of turn-of-the-century America.

Barely five foot tall, she controlled "her boys" with a glance of her sharp, steel-grey eyes.

"My father was an Irish refugee," she used to say, referring to the Famine that forced her family to emigrate from Cork in the early 1850s, "and I think some of his rebellious blood must linger in my veins."

Along with the many contradictions that led Freud to say the Irish could not be psychoanalysed. Like the fact that she stood up for the rights of men, but believed a woman's place was in the home. And was childless, yet famously known as a mother.

Though horrendous suffering lay behind that latter riddle. For Mary Harris Jones was indeed a mother - until yellow fever struck in 1867.

"One by one, my four little children sickened and died," she later wrote. "I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone through nights of grief."

But within four years, she was back on her feet and had built up a dressmaking business - only to lose everything in the 1871 Great Fire of Chicago.

Leading her to epitomise what doesn't kill you makes you stronger - and become a thorn in the side of the establishment in the process. For she reinvented herself to become a mighty matriarch of the American labour movement

Nor could age wither this lethal weapon of a woman, who was in her 70s when she was dubbed the "most dangerous woman in America".

So it's ironic that the so-called "great grandchildren of Mother Jones" became Donald Trump's most staunch supporters.

Though she was fond of utilising the fake news that has come to characterise his presidency. She was born in August 1837 but claimed her birthday was seven years earlier on Labour Day, apparently to enhance her radical credentials. While she donned old-fashioned dresses and whitened her hair to add to her image as a wise old woman.

Which is how Mary Harris Jones managed to pass away next Friday in 1830 at the age of 93 - six months after celebrating her 100th birthday.

"My address is like my shoes. It travels with me," this formidable female once declared. "I abide where there is a fight against wrong."

Trump had better hope an east wind doesn't blow this Mary Poppins of the proletariat into the White House.

Sunday Independent

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