Every summer Cork honours native daughter and American labor leader Mary Harris, known to most of the world as the hell-raising Mother Jones. I get to the workshops, lectures and films whenever I can. For me, this year’s festival was special – for something that wasn’t even on the program.
But first, some background.
As you probably know, Mother Jones was a person before she was a magazine. She fought abusive mine and business owners – and the government officials they owned – for fair pay and decent working conditions for workers as well as getting child labour out of the workforce. Born in Cork, she crossed the Atlantic as a teenage famine refugee. Jones didn’t become active in public life until her 60’s and made up for lost time by raising hell for 30 years after that. Look her up when you get a chance; it’s a hell of a read.
Anyway, back to the festival. As with last year’s event, I found myself surrounded by Irish men and women who know more U.S. history and geography than a lot of Americans, including some candidates I’ve worked with. The first day’s program included a pair of films about Jones. What impressed me was the number of people attending the midday showings. What impressed me more was a woman who’d brought her three daughters, aged from around nine through early teens. While they didn’t participate in the general Q&A, they peppered their mother with questions about the violent police and paramilitary actions against workers, women and children. And would they have to go to work in factories like the girls their age in the film. And why they arrested and jailed that woman who looked like their grandmother.
Their mother gave them good answers – with some reassurance that times have changed somewhat, but life still wasn’t perfect, particularly in other countries. She also warned them that they should never let themselves be bullied and be ready to join their friends to push for what was right. I was impressed by her gentle firmness as much as by the girls’ perceptive questions. She reminded her daughters of a time when she’d changed her mind after the three of them had come together as one to point out what they perceived as an unfair distribution of household chores.
Then the little one spoke up, “Ma, did you ever go to jail like Mother Jones?” You could hear the silence from the couple of rows who’d been observing the interchange. “Yes I did, before any of you were born. And I’d do it again, to make sure that you never have to.” We onlookers raised eyebrows and smiled to each other as she gathered the kids for an ice-cream break.
Their future’s in good hands.
In another, only semi-related, story: At a workshop in North Carolina a few years ago I mentioned that I’d been in a labour union. Some of the people looked at me like I’d just landed from another planet and started questioning me – interrogating might better fit a couple of their approaches. I think I disappointed them when I told them of the safety measures, better working conditions and better pay my membership gave me. The next day I brought in my old IBEW card. It was fun watching them pass it around like a communion wafer. Some seemed afraid to touch it. Whether they were afraid of harming an old piece of paper – or of being contaminated – I’ll never know.