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.

The Walking Dead?

Seven years earlier, John was in a small regiment of Washington’s army assigned to harass royal forces and maybe capture supply wagons as the British approached  Philadelphia, the revolutionary capitol.

The British caught wind of the guerrilla unit’s location and quietly swept into the camp late one night. What happened next was debated by war propagandists.

Infuriated revolutionaries said the British thrust bayonets into sleeping and fleeing men and offered them no chance to surrender. It became yet another rallying point for the Revolution and was named the Paoli Massacre. After the war, it became known as the Paoli Battle, providing more creds to American participants.

How did John survive? He credited military record keeping.

In his breast pocket the lieutenant  carried all the orders received from commanding officers and all those issued. As he lay among the dead and dying, a British soldier saw he was still alive and thrust a bayonet into his heart — or so he thought. The orders apparently deflected the blade enough to spare his life.

John was found barely alive the next morning and eventually transported to Washington’s headquarters to heal. Four years later,  he was still in the Army when the fighting stopped.

Some Enchanted Evening

Mary listened to it all, stepped toward John, now a major, and away from her betrothed, the doctor.

Mary is reputed to have been very attractive. Yet she was no spring chicken.

She was 30 years old, an old maid for that time. Or, was she a widow? We don’t know.

Was Mary too strong-willed and independent to marry sooner? The traits demonstrated in Pittsburgh, and for which she is being honored two centuries later, would seem to support that.

Did Mary look like this? This is one of her granddaughters, Ida Irwin Jones.

Whatever prompted her to be unmarried at 30, Mary moved decisively after meeting John. Poor guy didn’t stand a chance.

Descendants say they were married immediately after the ball and sailed for America. John had land coming to him, payment for his service in the Revolution.

The land was Indian territory around Pittsburgh taken by the government for white people. The successful revolt negated treaties England had signed with Indian nations.

It would have taken a couple of months to sail across the Atlantic, plenty of time to share cramped quarters and to learn if sharing their lives was going to be a good idea.  Mary must have been satisfied because she didn’t board another ship when they arrived in  America and head back to Ireland.

They set up homes close to where he nearly died. Philadelphia was the most populated region of North America.

The Irwins spent a year in that city and another in Chester before they set out on the unpleasant monthlong experience of crossing the mountains and swamps of Pennsylvania.

This table, a George III mahogany, bird cage tilt table made in Britain around 1760. is evidence that the Irwins carried some of their wealth here. It now resides with a descendant.

They Crossed Pennsylvania Then Started Walking Backwards 

They arrived in the village of Pittsburgh in 1787.

It was booming because it was the jumping off point for the wholesale distribution of Indian land and its development.

Records show the Irwins established the first ropewalk west of the Allegheny mountains seven years later, in 1794. It was along the Monongahela River, near where the Smithfield Street bridge is today.

Don’t think, as I initially did, that a ropewalk was some sort of dangly way to cross the river.

It was a long straight path that allowed people to walk backwards as they twisted and wrapped hemp into rope.

Before the Irwins could do that, though, they needed an ample supply of cannabis. It’s likely they spent their first years clearing what had been Indian land and planting marijuana. The borough of Irwin, east of Pittsburgh, is said to have been established on their land.

It was noted in an earlier post on,  Pittsburgh’s Pot Past, that the cannabis used for rope is hybridized to be stalky and fibrous with few leaves and flowers.

That’s good for rope, but not for smoking. The bales that lined the river at the ropewalk would have attracted settlers hoping to expand their farms and factories, not their minds.

John Had Tied the Knot With Another

Thinking of John’s disabilities and how Mary would have had to step up when he could not, I should note he had been wounded even before Paoli. He had other scars. And, Mary was not the first woman to fall in love with John of Many Wounds.

His descendants found records indicating a would-be nun — a novice — fell for John as she tended to his wounds in a Quebec prison camp.

He was there after being among those who made the brutal march through the winter wilds of Maine to grab the relatively undefended cities of Quebec and Montreal from the English.

They took the cities, but didn’t fare well when the British Army came to get them back. Irwin was wounded and captured.

When he was released in a prisoner exchange,  the mademoiselle decided vows of matrimony were better than those of celibacy. She went with him.

Colin Firth is considered by many modern women to be the ideal 18th Century romantic figure. Mary would not have agreed.

When Hunks Were Slight

Now, are you thinking John looked like Colin Firth, the British actor with square jaw and broad shoulders?

According to a recent article in the New York Times , if John was fawned over by well-bred women, he likely had a pointy chin,  sloping shoulders and nary a chest. Otherwise, he would be taken as a laborer.

John, who was not yet 20, and his young wife went to  Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of Lake Champlain in New York State. She applied her nursing skills to American soldiers suffering from smallpox. The disease could be horribly disfiguring and fatal — and infectious.

It took her away from John.

The romantic tragedy has an added surprise to those in the Irwin clan, which includes diehard Irish Protestants. She was Catholic.

We don’t know if Mary knew anything of John’s French-speaking wife. Just to be safe, I wouldn’t say anything if you visit them at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

John’s monument at Allegheny Cemetery makes Mary’s look all the smaller. That makes Gloria Forouzan “grumpy.” She is Mary’s main advocate for modern recognition.

Her Grave Barely Visible

She may be peeved enough. He rests under a large slab honoring his heroics while she has only a small tablet the size of a smartphone. It says simply “Mary.” She died at 74.

John’s limited ability to work, and her willingness to do so, is suggested by records showing the ropewalk was in the name of John Irwin and Wife.

His wounds finally took him away from Mary in 1808. He was 56.

After John died, the rope operation was listed under the name of Mary Irwin and Son. John Jr. was 12 years old.

She already had earned a reputation among the hard-boiled settlers as a remarkable businesswoman. Everyone needed rope in the growing nation and she was the one they could rely on to supply it.

Did Mary look like this when she supplied rope for the future Commodore Perry?  This is her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, who lives in Maine. She’ll be attending as Pittsburghers honor her ancestor.

The previous Now Then, Pittsburgh post on Irwin goes into details of her operation, including her contract with the fledgling U.S. Navy to supply ship rigging for the War of 1812.

Mayor’s History Detective

Seeks Recognition for Mary

Gloria Forouzan, office Manager for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, read

This is not Gloria Forouzan. It is Miss Marple, the fictional detective. Gloria says this is how she wants to be seen.

that post and became infatuated with Mary.

“I was fascinated and delved into her life.  I found her to be an inspiration,” she said.

“A few months ago Cribs for Kids contacted me about something and in the course of our conversation told me about their Women of Achievement Awards.

“I suggested they include a woman in Pittsburgh history among the awardees, and proposed Mary Irwin.

“Well, they liked the idea and are honoring Mary this year! They plan to make ‘historical’ awardees an annual feature.”

Gloria tracked down Mary’s descendants to invite them here for that.

She had plenty of practice playing history detective last year when she found descendants of 56 mayors to march in the city’s bicentennial parade.

Gloria thinks Mary’s rope may well have gone into the Lewis & Clark expedition, which was outfitted in Pittsburgh in 1803.

She notes Irwin is the only rope maker listed in that year’s business directory.

“Even if she were living today .  . .  as virtually a single mother to four children  who had built up an enterprise from a cottage industry to a factory that made three generations of her family very, very wealthy, she would be drawing praise and adulation. That she did this in the 1700s leaves me in awe.”


Video of  Paoli Massacre site today.

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