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First Word: Mother Courage

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
June / July 2004

As we look at the stories in this issue, we see that the strength of our nation comes from different places.

In Lynn Tierney’s “Mothers United,” a tale of quiet courage and hope, we come to understand that the heroes are not just those who were lost, but those who survived. Reading how four women — three of whom lost their firefighter husbands in the Father’s Day Fire of June 2001, and the fourth, who lost her husband on 9/11 — have found the strength to carry on and focus on their children’s future, is truly inspiring.

In person, Tara, Mary, Anne and Denise are warm, funny, passionate, and attractive women who don’t consider themselves to be heroes. As Tara asks, “How don’t you go on?”

Perhaps some of that tenacity is Irish. I’d like to believe it is. The ancient mythology of Ireland features many powerful women and there’s a fair amount of Maeve and Deirdre that gets carried down. Irish and Irish-American women have become leaders in health care, education, unions, public service (Denise was recently elected to the legislature), and of course, the arts. Often forgotten is the contribution actress Maureen O’Hara made to the advancement of women. She is strong and outspoken in everything she does, not only in her performances, but also as an advocate for the rights of women.

“The Old Irish Neighborhood,” by Michael Scanlon is another of our stories that features a strong Irish woman and brings to mind the many sacrifices Irish servant girls made for their families over the years. Michael’s mother arrived in New York City as a teenager. She had ambitions of becoming a nurse, but instead, like so many other women of that era, she struggled just to survive. Whatever meager money she made went to support her family at home and bring over her brother and sister to America.

The “strong Irish mother” is a recurring theme in Irish America. Many of those interviewed over the past 20 years credit their mother or grandmother with being the primary influence in their lives. Corporate titan Jack Welch said of his mother, “She was everything. She taught me `play to win, but know how to lose.'” Writer Pete Hamill also credits his mother and said, “The key thing in my life was my mother. She understood that there was a wider world out there. I had the sense that everything was possible.” Gregory Peck spoke lovingly to Irish America of his Irish immigrant grandmother who was widowed when his father was just an infant: “She had a lot of courage. She traveled as a saleslady, sold lady’s underthings, corsets and such, and made a success of it…she was able to help put my father through college.” NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw said, “My toughness comes from my mother’s side. It’s the Irish in me.”

And it’s not just “the boys” ruminating about their mothers. Best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark, who took to writing as a means to support her five young children when her husband died, wrote of her mother (a Bungalow girl — Rockaway Beach circa 1912): “All her life she was to personify the best of her Irish heritage — a warm and generous heart, undauntable faith in her God, unswerving allegiance to the Democratic Party, heroic resiliency in trouble and always, always, an unquenchable sense of humor.”

I’ve been privileged to know many such women in my life, especially my own mother. And certainly, during the course of our “Mothers United” story I witnessed firsthand the quiet, determined courage and unquenchable love of life that is embodied in Tara, Mary, Denise, and Anne. In sharing their stories with us, they give us hope, and prove, as Pete Hamill said of the extraordinary resilience shown by people after 9/11, “It’s not the knocking down. It’s the getting up.”

Happy Mother’s Day. ♦

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