Remembering Mary Brooksbank

by Siobhan Tolland

I have been thinking about Mary Brooksbank more over the last year, and I can’t help but feel that her work can offer us some great advice and guidance at this moment in our history — the horrendously savage times we are experiencing. I think that is what makes Mary so powerful, though. She experienced deep hardship and pain, and these came on the back of political crisis after crisis after crisis. She witnessed the very first world war, the terrifying dawn of fascism that led us into the cruel Depression. And then, of course, the Second World War.

I think we can connect with those experiences of continuous crises. Brexit shifted us into the extreme right almost overnight, and right on the back of this, of course, came the Covid pandemic — leaving us exhausted and traumatised. This has ultimately led to our economy being wilfully destroyed by these same extreme right-wing ideologues. The consequences of this is we are now standing staring into the brink of punishing austerity imposed upon our most vulnerable. We are literally standing in the vortex of cruel, Conservative-imposed crisis. I think Mary would have understood this part of our history very well.

Mary’s world witnessed hunger and hardship and the horrors of mass death. And the impact of these events was felt on a deeply personal level by Mary, I think. Her own personal grief had a huge impact on how she saw and experienced the world. Her writings about grief and loss show such a tender and deep sadness that I think it makes her one of the most beautiful writers Dundee has ever produced. Poor Mrs Hennessey, standing washing the dishes and crying over her dead son lost in action. Politics became deeply personal for Mary as she saw those she loved die from war and poverty.

But Mary came through these experiences with hope. These moments of grief and crisis became a force for her, and from this she built a better vision. Her politics, like her art, continuously sought a happy ending, and she spent her time, thinking, doing, writing and singing of a better world. From the play and jingo-rings of the Jute Strikers to the hyper-masculine discipline of the Communist Party, to community action, she also experienced hugely different examples of how we can make change possible. A lesson in itself — we sometimes have different paths towards similar visions.

Pauline Bradley performing at the 2022 Mary Brooksbank Commemoration.

But at the centre of this change, I think Mary genuinely never forgot that it was people who lay at the heart of it. It was always people. Mary says in the introduction of her autobiography, that the “most important thing in life is just well, people! Their sorrows are my sorrows. Their poverty I have known and shared… I’ve fought with them, and fought for them. I am THEM!”

I think as we move into this winter then, it is terrifying to think that not only will our most vulnerable suffer, but that this suffering is at the hands of those extreme right-wing decisions pursuing profit over people. But Mary’s vision still resonates with us, and I suspect this is why everyone is here. For sitting at the centre of that vision century ago — and today — is the safety, security, health and collective wellbeing of our people.

In the spirit of women like Mary, then, let us keep fighting, keep building and keep protecting. And, like Mary, let us never give up in the fight for a better society driven by the principles of collective wellbeing.

  • This article is based on a speech written by Siobhan Tolland for the 2022 Mary Brooksbank Commemoration which took place on Lochee High Street on Saturday 10 December 2022.


Siobhan Tolland is an SNP councillor in Dundee. She completed a PhD on Mary Brooksbank at the University of Aberdeen in 2004 and co-edited 'In One Woman's Life: Celebrating Mary Brooksbank', published by Abertay Historical Society in 2022.

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