There Was Something About Mary
If you mentioned ‘Mary’ in Leith everyone knew you meant, Mary Moriarty. “I bumped into Mary the other day.” “Mary was there.” And she was. She was here, there and everywhere. If there was anything good going on, Mary was part of it. I first met her while working at the Leith Agency on The Shore. I joined a motley crew of Leithers in a big room above The Granary to come up with an idea for the Leith Festival that would steal a bit of limelight from Edinburgh.
Someone asked, “Mary, the Port o’ Leith bar is party central but where’s the best party in the world?” A mischievous twinkle appeared in her eyes, “the carnival in Rio de Janiero of course!” Three days later we sent two Brazilian dancers whose modesty was concealed by some sequins and a feather, up Leith Walk parading an official-looking street sign bearing the legend: Leith: Twinned with Rio De Janeiro.
The story was splashed across the middle of the Evening News and outrage followed in some quarters of Edinburgh - how dare Leith councillors swan off on junkets to Brazil at the taxpayer’s expense. Job done!
Mary’s sense of humour was only matched by her sense of civic pride. When my wife Zsuzsa and I helped Zero Waste Leith to run an anti-flytipping campaign Mary was quick to volunteer When I asked why she was keen to get involved she said: “Simple, most of us don’t want to live in a midden.”
That became the headline for our poster and Euan Myles took the best portrait I’ve ever seen of Mary… Standing proud, looking up Leith walk, defying anyone to dump anything on her streets.
& Liz Polson
Honouring someone’s death is more about honouring their life and what made them so special and unforgettable.
Having Mary in our life for 20 years means many words come to mind; caring, funny, kind, thoughtful, generous, honest, dependable, hardworking - the list goes on. And it was our privilege to experience all of this, especially when working together for Leith Festival.
Through the good times and some hard ones, Mary was a steady presence and support. She’d always go the extra mile and gave of her wide knowledge and expertise without a second’s thought, especially when problems cropped up.
We were so happy to be present at the City Chambers when Mary was rewarded for her dedication, receiving a well-deserved British Empire Medal.
Mary, we are better for having known you dear friend, and so grateful that you were part of our lives. We are lucky to be gifted with so many memories to treasure.
Mary was punk. She embodied the true DIY spirit of the punk ethos á la Vivienne Westwood. ‘If you want to do it right, do it yersel’, was the motto she lived by. We first met properly when I interviewed her at her kitchen table in 2017 for The Leither
First lesson. Don’t call her the Queen of Leith! “It’s bloody embarrassing, I don’t know why people call me that”. When I pointed out it might have something to do with her being awarded the British Empire Medal in 2014, Mary’s swift reply? “The award was for Leith Festival, so if that’s why people call me that, then we’re ALL Queens!”
I was so inspired by the concept ‘of us all being Queens’ that I joined Leith Festival Board. That was the first of many mornings in her kitchen, learning the ropes. In 2019, Mary effectively did a ‘brain dump’ of her knowledge on to me and I, gladly, wrote a manual on how to (hopefully) future-proof this wonderful, unique event.
I was proud to be her latter day apprentice, admiring her business acumen. Sometimes impulsive, her methods weren’t always orthodox, but she knew.
Two examples: The time we were having a meeting and she was rummaging in a cupboard, “I’ve just got to find that BLOODY BANNER! Where is it?” I’m not sure why it was so urgent at that precise moment, but it was what Mary did. On another occasion, she strong-armed a young man out of a Board meeting for being ‘a glaikit fool’!
For many Leithers fond memories of Mary, her warmth, her wicked sense of humour, her irreverence, will only grow.
Punk as Fuck.
I first met Mary outside The Port 40 years ago, with her hand up, like a policeman halting traffic. In front of her, a group of youths of questionable age and manner were trying to gain entry, she waved them past. Surprisingly they went meekly obviously having previous experience of her remarkable ability to stop a situation escalating. Not many spoilt her reign in Leith.
She loved travelling in her younger days and we were good companions on a number of occasions. On a trip to delightful Bruges aboard the old Rosyth ferry we made for the lounge bar, where Mary let her voluminous hair well and truly down as we danced the night away. Once there we explored the many lovely canals and Mary (quite contrary!!) eschewed the local moules et frites, opting instead for the bouillabaisse of far flung Marseille. She was tickled pink that the café we ate in was called Tante Marie (Aunt Mary).
Another memorable trip was our visit to Morocco. She loved the seaside atmosphere of Agadir, but mostly she loved Marrakech. Revelling in the fabulous night life on Jamaa Elfna square with its myriad lit-up stalls; bustling stall owner and helpers, waiters scurrying around carrying plates of aromatic meats and sizzling fried fishes along with platters of sheep’s heads gazing at you mournfully. “What a sight for sore eyes.” She’d cry.
In those days, teenagers would target gullible tourists, directing them to shopkeepers who would give the boys commission before fleecing the tourists concerned.
A few of these youths gathered around Mary who was, of course, beautifully attired and attractively made over:
“Where do you come from madam?”
“Leith in Edinburgh.”
“Are you looking for fish n chips madam?”
“YES! And when you come to Edinburgh you’ll get fish n chips too and you’ll meet some lovely Scottish girls in my pub.”
For obvious reasons this struck a chord.
“Will we meet them?”
“Of course you will, they’ll take you for a fish n chips and if you’re good boys they might take you home for cocoa.
“What’s Coco Mary?”
“You’ll find that out when you come to Edinburgh but you can be sure you’ll enjoy it.”
Then Mary shouted “bye bye boys” and they roared from up the street “come back soon Mary.”
That was our Mary - God bless her.
Thirty years ago, when my brother moved to Leith, he parked his motorbike outside the Port O’ Leith bar. Where he was immediately asked by Mary, “would you like a cup of tea, young man?” She gained a loyal customer that day.
I also met Mary in her bar. She created an ambiance which, to this day, is unmatched anywhere. As a famous review put it: ‘The Port O Leith bar after midnight resembles the Star Wars bar’. And it is clearly true. There was nowhere else you could go to find such an eclectic, mismatched, joyful bunch of people. Ranging from lawyers, teachers, plumbers, sailors, musicians and the occasional actor or author.
Ahead of her time in many ways, she employed a DJ (me!) at weekends, long before it became fashionable. And Mary, of course, could be seen with her tambourine encouraging customers to dance and sing along to the music. Many’s the time people would take to dancing on the bar, while Mary and her staff calmly served drinks through their legs.
In an industry that is notorious for its high staff turnover, Mary’s bar had many staff who worked there for years. I worked in the Port O’ Leith for nearly 20 years and I feel honoured to have done so. I made lifelong friends there and am blessed to include Mary as one of them.
She created an unrivalled, inclusive and welcoming atmosphere during her reign. She had a manner which ranged from maternal to dictatorial. 365 days a year, her bar was open for business.
A haven for people searching for friendship, companionship and, above all, fun and laughter.
Over recent weeks I’ve read various tributes to Mary and realised she meant so much to so many people. I have loved seeing my friend through other people’s eyes, and listening to them speak about the Mary they knew.
The last time I saw her, a few weeks before her death, was one of those impromptu things. Odd, but somehow inevitable (Leith being Leith).
I was in the Kirkgate. My dog Bear off the lead and looking for new friends. He found an old one, and headed over to say hello, realising it was Mary. Beautifully dressed - suited and booted, as they say.
But she was hanging on to the wall, looking rather unsteady. I headed over, took her arm and asked if she was okay.
“Oh, I’m fine, Tom. I’m on some new pills is all.”
We chatted for a while. I can’t remember what we talked about, which is sad. When we finished, I offered to walk her home. After cavilling a bit, she accepted and we walked back to her house, Bear on her side, keeping a close eye. Perhaps he knew something. Who knows? I made sure she got in safely and thought nothing more of it until my email was flooded with the sad news.
I’m a believer these days in serendipity and randomness. Mary was one of the first people I met when I came back to Edinburgh a decade or so ago. She took me under her wing a bit, heaven knows why. I was in need of a mother figure at that stage, but it really boils down to this…
She was a good friend, and if I was able to take her arm and get her home safely, it was entirely my privilege. The very least I could do for her.
And Bear has taken to guarding her door every time we walk past. I have to wait for a few minutes till he’s ready to move on. Like Mary, he’s a pretty good judge of character and rather feels the need to pay his respects too.
Mary was such a wonderful lady and I will never forget about the times when I bumped into her in the street, I could honestly be feeling at my very worst or not looking my best or just going through a hard time and Mary would compliment me and make me feel like a million dollars. She had such a kind, caring, heart of gold. A true diamond. ■
Painting of Mary by Roland D Willis 1990
The very moment Tracy Griffen was charmed into Mary’s inner circle