I'm your twin, you're my twin,
We stick together through thick and thin.
No matter what I do,
I'm always stuck with you.
And if trouble comes our way,
I know my twin will save the day.
Wherever you may be
Mary Fox was not a woman I ever got to know particularly well. I knew her through her twin sister, Theresa, whom I had known much longer and whose friendship and advice in the most difficult of times I had come to value. I was well aware of her reputation for being one of the most progressive and committed educationalists in West Belfast, held in high esteem by many who worked with her or were taught by her.
Her achievement was no mean feat. Born in 1958, she hailed from the St James area which bordered the MI and stretched up to the Falls Road. She attended St Kevin’s Primary School before going on to St Louise’s Comprehensive, which she left while still a teen without the requisite qualifications to succeed in what are referred to as the professions. In spite of that she returned to education, put the effort in, showed enormous drive, graduated from Jordanstown in 1984 and ended up teaching computer courses in Conway Education Centre, housed in a disused linen mill in West Belfast’s Conway Street.
The Mill as it continued to be called had been opened for educational purposes in 1982, its mission to help local people attain the education their ability made it natural for them to achieve were it not for a disparity in life’s chances, underscored by deep structural discrimination and chronic underfunding. A lot of her work was devoted to people with learning difficulties, where she is said to have had a particular skill set and patience.
Unfortunately, things other than ability are what often get rewarded in the highly stratified and nepotistic community sector in West Belfast, where knowing the right person is often more advantageous than knowing the right thing. In the end Mary’s face came not to fit, and she lost the job she loved. Not one to lie down in the face of adversity she took her employer to a workplace Tribunal and won her case.
She was also a moving spirit in the Women’s Footprints Centre in Poleglass, where she was first a systems management tutor and then a training and education coordinator, bringing the same passion and commitment to the task at hand that that she became known for. From all accounts hers was not a top-down lecturing style from teacher to pupil but one more in line with the perspective of Brazilian educationalist - much beloved by republican prisoners – Paolo Freire:
Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.
Perhaps not how Mary would have expressed it, being too down to earth, but it is how she is reputed to have applied her ability.
A mother of four children and grandmother to nine, she was not without her vices, as they tend to be called. We call them treats: she loved a smoke and would often say to nephews, when staying with her twin, not to be telling their mum that she was going out the back for a sneaky puff. Then there was the glass of wine. And why not? As Woody Allen was inclined to say we could all live to be 100 if we gave up everything that would make it worthwhile living to be 100.
Two friends who knew her quite well said “we both remember Mary as a bubbly lovely woman. She was a joy to know as is her twin Theresa.” That was pretty much how she struck me on those occasions I would meet her, which were for the most part around Conway Mill.
I would stop for a chat when we were in the premises for conferences, lectures, book launches and whatever else the attention of ne'er-do-wells like myself would be drawn to. I guess that was always how I differentiated between her and her identical twin. They did look that alike, particularly to the unfamiliar eye. And despite knowing Theresa fairly well, there were occasions on which I addressed Mary as Treasa if I met her away from the Mill.
I learned she had died some time after she had passed. But immersed in my own medical issues, mild by comparison, and thrown off track by the disruption of Covid, my attention to detail, limited as it is, fell through the cracks and I failed to get in touch with her twin who I had last saw at my own brother's funeral three years ago in Belfast. I promised myself that I would do it shortly. And then the year had passed. Only at the weekend did I begin to put pen to paper and reach out to Theresa.
Over the festive season, I looked back over my Facebook messages where I had a few conversations with Mary – well, sometimes it was her and on others it was Theresa. That’s twins for you. As Chelsi Welch said about sisters and twins:
They’re not just sisters and twins. They’re best friends, and they care genuinely about each other.
⏩Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.