Mary McGregor recalls Mary Brooksbank in this speech delivered in Dundee at the Republican Socialist Platform’s commemoration of the 124th anniversary of her birth.
Mary Brooksbank: mill worker, writer, poet, musician, class fighter, trade unionist, revolutionary! How wonderful to be holding a commemoration for this inspirational woman.
Now I’m not in favour of the cult of the individual but there are some people who should be remembered for what they have done and what they represent in the struggle to liberate humanity. Mary Brooksbank is one such individual.
So many members of our class have been airbrushed out of history. So many women who have stolidly and bravely laid their colours to the mast have been made invisible or sanitised or silenced to fit in with a bourgeois narrative. It is our duty to make sure that our children and their children know about the lives of these folk, our folk.
There are people here like Siobhan [Tolland] who have researched and documented Mary’s life and who can relate the details and historical context of it but I feel very fortunate that, because of my age, I was breathing the same air and walking the same streets at the same time as this remarkable woman.
I came to Dundee in 1975 and it has been my home since then. Mary dies in 1978. We could have passed in the street, met in the shops – we could have been comrades. But I knew nothing of her at that time. And despite being the only woman with an inscription on the walls of the Scottish parliament building – a disgrace in itself by the way – and despite having a centre named after her, she still does not have the recognition she deserves in our city and beyond.
On Tuesday, Bernadette [Malone] and I were in the McManus Galleries and we asked what they had about Mary Brooksbank. The only exhibit on display is her violin which is currently unattributed in the mock up pawn shop part of the old Dundee streets exhibition. It doesnae seem right to me.
Like many others, my first encounter with Mary Brooksbank came through learning socialist songs and of course The Jute Mill Song, which we will sing together in a wee bit. As I learned more about Dundee’s working class history, Mary Brooksbank became a real beacon for hope in the class struggle.
For me, her breadth of political understanding, her internationalism, her unwavering courage as a communist and her belief in collective action was significant. She knew change did not come about through individuals but through unions, through movements, and class consciousness and class action. Remarkable as she was, she knew that we get our strength from each other – from support and solidarity.
Listen to this extract from a poem of hers called Courage, where she shows the power of class solidarity:
Courage I’ll show in the face of adversity,
Tho’ traitors surround me I’ll still remain true;
What tho’ our enemies hate and revile me,
I’ll keep my ideals fresh as the dew.
Freedom from want and from life’s insecurity,
Freedom from fear of the world’s privileged few;
Freedom from those who would shackle all reason,
Freedom to fashion world friendships anew.
Courage we need for our foes they are powerful,
Millionaire, Press Magnate, Lord, Baron and Peer;
Scream thro’ their Yellow Press, vituperation,
Their tirades the measure, now great is their fear.
This woman, through her songs and poems, has touched the hearts of many. And it is her humanity that shines through in her work. Despite the suffering she and her family clearly experienced, she refused to be brutalised, dehumanised. She displays empathy and love and humour. She values music and art and our culture.
Until the end of her days, she sees herself as part of a worldwide movement to liberate humankind. At 73 she is not taking an ‘och well, there’s nothing to be done’ attitude. Instead, she is in Hanoi! Helping to rebuild after incessant pounding by B52 bombers and finding the experience one of the most satisfying of her life.
Well comrades and friends, there’s plenty still to be done. The best way we can commemorate Mary Brooksbank is through our collective action against injustice, poverty and prejudice. She dedicated her life to the overthrow of capitalism.
So whether we are 14, the age Mary was when she took part in her first strike, or 84, we can do the same.
Happy birthday, our Mary, and thank you.
Mary McGregor is a political activist and the convener of the Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association (DNTA), writing here in a personal capacity.