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Irish in America: Remembering Three Who Made Their Mark


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. March seventeenth is Saint Patrick's Day, a time to celebrate Irish culture. The Census Bureau says that in two thousand seven, thirty-six and a half million people in the United States claimed Irish ancestry. That was more than ten percent of all Americans -- and more than eight times the number of people in Ireland itself.

This week on our program, we remember three Irish-Americans: the labor activist Mother Jones, the early photographer Matthew Brady and the entertainer Bing Crosby.

That song is called "The Death of Mother Jones." Gene Autry recorded it three months after she died in nineteen thirty.

Mary Harris Jones was one of America's most effective labor organizers. Yet few people knew her real name. She rarely, if ever, used it. She was known as Mother Jones. Those on the other side of the labor struggle called her "The Most Dangerous Woman in America."

That is also the name of a book from two thousand one by Elliott Gorn, a professor now at Brown University in Rhode Island. His research produced new information about Mother Jones.

For example, she said she was born in Ireland in eighteen thirty. She was born in Ireland but Professor Gorn found that the year was eighteen thirty-seven. In other words, she was seven years younger than she claimed.

Mary Harris was a schoolteacher in the state of Tennessee when she married an iron worker named George Jones. They had four children.

But in eighteen sixty-seven her husband and all four children died of yellow fever.

Mary Jones moved to Chicago and became a successful dressmaker. Then everything she had was destroyed again -- this time, in the Great Chicago Fire of eighteen seventy-one.

After that she became involved in the labor movement. Mary Jones seemed to appear whenever and wherever there were labor problems.

She often worked with coal miners. They began calling her "mother," and she started using the name Mother Jones. Sometimes she was called "the Miner's Angel."

Coal was produced mostly in six states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia and Colorado.

In eighteen forty, the United States had seven thousand coal miners. They dug about two million tons of coal from the ground.

By nineteen hundred, the number of miners had reached almost seven hundred thousand. And that year they produced three hundred fifty million tons of coal.

Accidents killed thousands of mine workers. Miners were low paid and generally lived in towns owned and operated by the mine owner. Under this system, the company paid the miners, then the miners paid the money back to the company in return for goods and rent.

Mine workers who attempted to organize met fierce opposition, and sometimes violence. Mother Jones believed that unions represented the best hope for coal miners and other workers to improve their lives.

She spoke out against child labor and unsafe working conditions. "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living," she would say.

She worked for an early union called the Knights of Labor. Later she became an organizer for the United Mine Workers union. She was also a founder of the union known as the Industrial Workers of the World.

And for several years she traveled as a speaker for the Socialist Party. But, in the end, she found that she liked the ideas of Socialism more than the party and its supporters.

Mother Jones led protests to further the cause of unions. Many of the protests involved women and children. She led a march of miners' wives in western Pennsylvania in nineteen hundred. And three years later she led a children's march to President Theodore Roosevelt's New York home to protest child labor.

Mother Jones was arrested many times. In West Virginia in nineteen twelve, violence connected to a miners' strike led to her trial and conviction for conspiracy to murder.

The state governor freed her, but only after the United States Senate ordered an investigation into conditions in the West Virginia coal fields.

In nineteen thirteen, she was kept under house arrest for nine weeks after helping to organize mine workers in Colorado.

Mother Jones died after celebrating, supposedly, her one hundredth birthday in nineteen thirty. Professor Gorn says she was really ninety-three. But her place in labor history is undisputed. Mother Jones is recognized in the National Women's Hall of Fame and the United States Labor Department's Labor Hall of Fame.

Now, we move on to an American whose father was born in Ireland. Matthew Brady documented the American Civil War in pictures. He has been called the father of photojournalism.

He was born near Lake George in New York State around eighteen twenty-two. His father was a farmer.

Matthew Brady moved to New York City where he learned about photography, still a new technology then.

He began taking pictures of famous people in eighteen forty-four. Among his subjects were Abraham Lincoln, John Quincy Adams, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe.

He wanted to photograph more political leaders, so in eighteen forty-nine he moved to Washington, D.C.

The Civil War began in eighteen sixty-one. Matthew Brady decided to document the conflict. Yet he suffered from poor eyesight. So he put together teams of photographers to help him.

Brady took some of the battlefield pictures himself. But he got credit for all the photographs because they were made by his teams.

People could now see battlefield deaths as captured by a camera rather than an artist's pen or paintbrush. But Brady could not sell enough pictures to pay the costs of taking and processing them. He had to sell his offices to pay his debts.

In eighteen seventy-five, Congress bought all of his Civil War pictures for twenty-five thousand dollars. But even that was not enough to save him from financial ruin.

Matthew Brady died a poor man in eighteen ninety-six. But the pictures that he and his photographers made left a wealth of history for all future generations to see.

(MUSIC: "Too Rah Loo Rah Loo Rah")

Bing Crosby was a singer and actor whose mother's family came from Ireland. He was born Harry Lillis Crosby in nineteen hundred and three in the northwestern city of Tacoma, Washington.

There are different stories about how he got his nickname. One version says his friends started calling him Bingo, and later Bing, after characters in a local comic strip, the Bingville Bugle. Another story goes that when he was a boy playing cowboys and Indians, he shouted "bing" instead of "bang" after a make-believe gunshot.

Bing Crosby started to sing professionally in the nineteen twenties. His group the Rhythm Boys joined the famous Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. When the group broke up, Bing started singing alone in nightclubs and on the radio. And he started appearing in movies.

He made more than sixty films. He won an Academy Award for best actor for the nineteen forty-four movie "Going My Way." He played an Irish priest, Father O'Malley. Later, he had his own radio and television shows.

As a singer, Bing Crosby's biggest recording success came from a nineteen forty-two movie. In "Holiday Inn" he sang a new song by Irving Berlin. That recording of "White Christmas" has sold more than one hundred million copies. That puts it among the best-selling singles of all time. Bing Crosby died in nineteen seventy-seven.

(MUSIC: "White Christmas")

Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. You can find our programs with transcripts and MP3s at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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