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The Spirit of Two Irish Rebelwomen, 1918 & 2018

One hundred years ago,   Mother Jones and Irish feminist rebel Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington spoke at a what was considered a subversive meeting in San Francisco, on a mission to free an Irish-American labor activist. War had created revolutionary stirrings across the globe. These women, both born in County Cork, carried on in a rebel tradition.

This year their memories will be joined in two events in Ireland.

It was my pleasure to meet Hanna’s granddaughter Micheline at the Chicago Irish American Heritage Center last fall, and see how much the rebel spirit of her grandmother is with her. Micheline is a retired Galway botanist who took on university discrimination against women; she sees it as her duty to pass the torch along.

Micheline was touring the U.S. in a whirlwind retracing of Hanna’s campaign for Ireland’s independence a century ago. She brought a small film crew with her; you can learn a little more about that project here. Earlier this year, Micheline sought to put women back into the celebration of the Irish independence by reenacting one of the more dramatic moments of her mother’s activism in the suffrage campaign.

Left: : Micheline studies some of the exhibit displays from Cork at the Irish American Heritage Center, Chicago, Illinois, October 2017. “I wonder if Hanna and Mother Jones met,” she asked. Credit: Eddie Mullarkey

One of the first questions Micheline asked me, on seeing the exhibit on Mother Jones at the Irish American Heritage center, was, “did they meet?” I didn’t know but speculated that the campaign to free Tom Mooney would have been one way they would have met up. I did a bit of research and checked my archive of materials, and sure enough, found at least this instance.

First, a little information about how Mother and Hanna shared the stage. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was on a tour of the U.S. to publicize the cause of free Ireland. She spoke to packed audiences across the United States. Two years before, her pacifist husband had been brutally assassinated in the Easter Rising. Hanna and her husband Frank were also close friends of Mother Jones’ friend, James Connolly, and they had participated in the 1913 Dublin workers lockout/uprising. Like Connolly, she connected workers issues with the struggle for a republic. And Connolly was influenced by her and her husband to include women’s suffrage in the proposed constitution for the new republic.

But in this case, she sought to join the cause of labor’s political prisoners who were also Mother Jones’ special cause.

Above: Tom Mooney, 1882-1942. Photo ca. 1910, from Wikipedia commons.

Tom Mooney’s name isn’t well known today, but in the period from World War I to World War II, he was a household name to labor activists. He was the most famous political prisoner in the U.S.  Mother Jones had always liked this Irish-American socialist labor militant, very much indeed. Mooney, like her, sought to use labor organizing to take on entrenched power structures. He had organized the International Workers Defense League to help workers with legal assistance when arrested during strikes; Mother Jones loved the idea, and thought it held a key to a more militant labor movement.

Above: Beating the Drums of War. Here is a war preparedness ad during WWI.  “Only the strong are safe.”'

Mooney’s talent as a labor organizer made him the target of the power structure of San Francisco. After a bomb exploded and killed 10 people and injured 40 more during a 1916 war preparedness parade, business leaders saw an opportunity to get rid of the most effective labor organizer in the area and helped to frame him for the deaths with perjured testimony.

San Francisco preparedness parade. A bomb killed 10 people and injured more than 40 when it was thrown at the parade.

Above: San Francisco preparedness parade. A bomb killed 10 people and injured more than 40 when it was thrown at the parade.

By 1918, Jones, Eugene Debs, and others were fighting to save Mooney from the hangman’s noose. Official labor leaders were slow to take up the fight. The American Federation of Labor decision to go all out for war fever meant they sought distance from radicals. Mother Jones had shifted from a strong anti-militarism to mild endorsement of the war effort, but she supported the cause of labor militants like Mooney, and constantly was condemned for stirring up strikes in wartime. She was one of the most tireless speakers on Mooney’s behalf after he was sentenced.

Above: Handbill for the Mooney meeting. Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington was a heroine of Irish suffrage movement and the Irish rebellion. Credit: Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington

The meeting at which Mother and Hanna spoke, in fact, was part of a huge international outcry that likely saved Mooney’s life, but failed to win his release. Mooney languished in jail until 1939, when another World War was underway. He was so sick from his prison experience that he never recovered and dies in 1942. A massive funeral for him was held at the same auditorium where Mother and Hanna spoke.

Above: Meeting Advertisement, Oakland Tribune, April 15, 1918.

Drawing wartime patriotism to their cause, the meeting sponsors sought make it seem as though they were patriotic by supporting the President’s judgment that condemned labor leader Tom Mooney should be given a new trial. Wilson was pressured by labor to show that the country was not an autocratic government that used repression to send labor activists to their death. But while he saved Mooney from hanging, Wilson’s government was sending intelligence agents to track the speakers.

The meeting at San Francisco Auditorium featured two County Cork women together in defense of Tom Mooney, Irish American labor activist who faced the death penalty. President Wilson, facing a public outcry, had actually publicly questioned the fairness of the trial. Wilson was trying to keep labor in his pro-war camp. It wasn’t working too well. Wilson, in a highly unusual intervention, soon helped to get the sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The goal of the meeting, though, was a new trial, which was denied.

The newspaper reports on this 1918 meeting seem designed to diminish both Mother and Hanna. Wars are sometimes the handmaiden of revolutions, but they are also the justification for terrific suppression of dissent. Both were occurring in the cauldron of the professed war for democracy; fear of real democracy was the main concern of business and government.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Hanna refused to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner, and that people left when they couldn’t hear Mother’s voice, a voice renowned for decades as carrying across large crowds.  You can see the article here.

Above: Newspaper account of the April 16, 2018 event differs from a military intelligence report account. Comparing the two makes it doubtful that Mother had lost her voice.

Credit: San Francisco Chronicle, April 17, 1918

Standing in stunned observation at the meeting, however, was a War Department Military Intelligence Division surveillance agent, who reported another version of that meeting. Lieutenant Rolin G. Watkins wrote back to Washington D. C. that Mother Jones spoke for a very long time to an audience that was as captivated as ever by her, until she took on the subject of the military and its use against U.S. workers. Watkins recommended that the U.S. government and local authorities prevent Jones from ever speaking again.*

The April 1918 Mooney meeting led U.S. security forces to escalate their efforts to derailing both women’s effectiveness.

Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington strongly doubts that her grandmother refused to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. After all, her tour was meant to gain U.S. support for Irish independence. Micheline writes, “I think it was support for the Mooney that resulted in Hanna losing favour in the city.” Micheline notes that “the day after the event, Hanna again filled the huge Dreamland Auditorium where she had drawn huge crowds in 1917. But a week later, she was arrested for speaking against the British plan for conscription in Ireland and shortly after, the Dreamland Auditorium was refused her.”

Above: Dr. Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium location of the great Tom Mooney meeting April 2018. Credit: Donagh McKeown

Above: Undated photo of the interior of the Civic Auditorium, which was filled for the Tom Mooney event in 1918. Mooney’s memorial in 1942 filled the auditorium again. He had languished in prison for 2 decades.

We don’t know whether this was the only meeting of these two women.  But we do know that others joined them together in their memory.  Mother Jones was joined with Hanna in R.M. Fox’s 1935 book, Rebel Irishwomen. While most people knew little of Mother Jones before the Cork festival revived her memory, R. M. Fox, a historian of the Irish left, collected the stories of Irish woman who he believed merited the designation of “rebel.”   Fox was married to Cork-born children’s author Patricia Lynch.  Fox’s depiction of Hanna emphasizes her bravery, her steely determination, both characteristics that he also associated with Mother Jones.  Hanna  faced down soldiers and bayonets, just like Mother did, with that Cork rebel spirit.

This year, Mother Jones and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington will be joined again when Dublin’s GPO Witness History Museum is hosting a series of lectures on the Irish Women who were included in R. M. Fox’s book. I am proud to represent Mother in this series, though I don’t know if I’ll be able to deliver it in person.

This year, the Cork Spirit of Mother Jones Festival has invited Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington to be a speaker at their event.  I am proud to have done my part in bringing Micheline to Cork.

* Thanks to Ger O’Mahony and Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington for information used in this blog. Ger pointed me back to Elliott Gorn’s book on Mother Jones for the military surveillance record. As always Gorn’s book is packed with goodies.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington’s chapter in Rebel Irishwomen

Mother Jones chapter in R.M. Fox’s Rebel Irishwomen


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