Women

Dead Two Centuries, Mary Irwin Inspires Today’s Women

Are you a feminist? A lover of bodice-ripping romantic novels? Maybe you are a patriot. Or, maybe marijuana turns you on.

Everyone of you should get to know Mary Pattison Irwin.

She’s been dead and forgotten nearly 200 years, but memory of her life is once again flickering  in Pittsburgh.

Mary is to be honored March 2 by civic leaders who are holding her up as an example for aspiring Pittsburgh women to follow.

The short story is that she — a woman — was among the first industrialists in Pittsburgh, manufacturing rope when fewer than 2,000 people lived here.

Oh, and she managed the operation while raising four kids without her husband, a disabled Revolutionary War hero.

The longer story begins at Dublin Castle in Ireland. That’s where Mary met the dashing, if greatly perforated, hero.

The castle had been the center of English rule over Ireland for centuries. The ruling class — royalty and gentry — held lavish state balls there on St. Patrick’s Day.

The first St. Patty’s extravaganza there, and perhaps the most lavish, happens to have been in 1784, the year our future Pittsburghers attended.

It culminated weeks of formal receptions. The elegant festivities kept the working classes employed fashioning gowns and laying out sumptuous dinners.

It reminded members of the ruling class of their status and ensured continuation through controlled and proper mating. But matters of the heart cannot always be orchestrated.

Etching of a ball at Dublin Castle where Mary Pattison met John Irwin and quickly dumped her fiancé. Unfortunately, this is not them. We don’t know what they looked like.

Already Spoken for, but No One Spoke for Mary

Mary’s descendants say her father was a surgeon in the British Army, and she was already engaged to a doctor when she went to the ball.

It is worth noting something about the British Army. War was considered to be an unfortunate but inconsequential part of army life.

The most important thing about the army, according to 19th century writers, was that it created gentlemen. Not only that, it certified them as such.

That was very important to aristocratic women looking to mate. So, most of the men at the ball would have been wearing military uniforms, gentlemen all.

Even so, John Irwin grabbed Mary’s attention. He likely was the center of everyone’s interest. The 32-year-old had such tales to tell.

First of all, he was a local man who was now an American.  Americans had just managed to do something dear to the hearts of Irishmen — unyoke themselves from English rule.

Journals of the time show the Irish eagerly awaited any news from ships coming from the fledgling United States. All had friends and relatives who had moved there. They particularly wanted to hear about George Washington. Trouble in the states? No problem. George Washington would take care of it.

So here was John Irwin, who knew the general. He was with him at Yorktown, VA, when the English surrendered, essentially ending the war.

Gen. George Washington accepts surrender of British troops at Yorktown by Gen. Charles Cornwallis. The English were outmaneuvered by the Americans (with help from the French Navy) more than they were outfought. It didn’t help that people in England were tired of the war. Washington always maintained his job was not to win the war but to not lose it, meaning he had to outlast English patience. He did.

It was something of a miracle that John stood before people at the ball at all. They knew he bore 32 bayonet scars  under the stiff fabric of his splendid dress uniform.

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