Mary’s message: Don’t Mourn. Organise!

It is with great sadness that we record the death of Mary. She served as treasurer of the Tyneside Irish Cultural Society, however, this is a mere trifle in the huge amount she gave to the Irish community.

She was born Mary Shanley to a family from County Leitrim and raised in Shieldfield on the Eastern edge of Newcastle city centre near to St Dominic’s Church. She was schooled in the parish and at the Convent of the Sacred Heart and maintained her devotion to that church right to the end. Her burning desire for social justice owed much to her friend Father Herbert McCabe who established the Young Christian Workers (YCW) there in the 1950’s. By then she was a worker at the Ministry of Pensions in Longbenton but she was also an Irish dancer. Her love of Ireland came especially from her father who she was fond of quoting: Ireland was Ireland when England was a pup, and Ireland will be Ireland when England’s all done up!

Irish dancing was to remain Mary’s passion for over 70 years: She competed with distinction as a girl, she met her husband, Peter, at the feis, and toured Europe with the Tyneside Irish troupe on many occasions and won prizes at the Welsh Eistedfodd. She ran her own dance school at St.Teresa’s in Heaton and qualified as an adjudicator. She was a tireless worker and organiser with St. Patrick’s Feis and the North East Council of the Dance Commission (CLRG). Her work there led inevitably to her election to the Commission in Dublin and to international trips to World Championships and Feisanna in weird and wonderful places.

Somehow Mary found time to raise a wonderful and loving family – Tara, Sineád and Peter. She was equally proud of them all and of her grandchildren too. Aisling was an heroic help to her grandmother in her last days at home and Mary marvelled at Calem’s mastery of languages even Chinese! Although she never said so she must have been especially happy when one of them, Caoimhe, became a champion dancer.

Later in life she became school secretary at Wharrier Street Primary in Walker where Margaret Carter was the esteemed headteacher and a doughty campaigner in the NUT union for equal opportunities in education. Always keen to fly to foreign parts, she had visited Asia and the USA with Peter before he passed away. Now, as she and Margaret became firm friends the lure of far horizons was irresistible. Together they travelled to the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Egypt and Syria. Not for them Benidorm or Majorca: they were explorers not tourists. This gave Mary something of an advantage when discussing foreign affairs. For example, if you mentioned Aleppo she could simply enquire: Have you been there?

Mary’s last regular job was a difficult one in Newcastle Council’s “recovery team”. Faced with so many problem cases her social conscience kicked in again. Instead of sending in the bailiffs immediately to evict or collect the hated “poll tax” she formed an effective network with good Samaritans especially the legendary Fr. Tom Cass to save people’s houses and rescue them from debt and despair.

Just a final note on her contribution to Irish music on Tyneside. Her husband, Peter, was founder and lead singer with the Beggarmen who played all over the region in the 1973 to 1995 era. He was renowned for his vast repertoire of Irish folk and songs of the republican struggle. The band recorded, performed on regional TV and even won the band contest at the Rose of Tralee festival in Kerry. Peter learned most of his material from his wife!

Mary worked on right to the end when the dreaded cancer returned. A fortnight before she died, she was still signing cheques and questioning expenditure. She faced death with equanimity but raged against it because she had so much more to do. With your help, Mary, your friends will rally round to see your mission is fulfilled.

Mary’s crowning glory must be three days in September 2003 when Mary MacAleese became the first President of Ireland to visit her beloved city. With Margar et Carter, Lord Mayor, she as Lady Mayoress was able to welcome her to the Cathedral, the Mansion House and the Irish Centre of course. A sort of poetic justice for an Irish woman who never compromised her principles.

“I hope you’re dancing in the sky

And I hope you’re singing in the angels’ choir

I’ll bet it’s so nice up in Heaven since you arrived”

Dani and Lizzy 2015

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