Achievements Of Deaf Pupils In Scotland

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Eulogies and the homily given at Dr. Mary Brennan's funeral on the 30th June 2005 are reproduced below.

These may be quoted in whole or in part without seeking the permission of the authors. It is requested that if they are quoted, appropriate acknowledgement is made including reference to the fact that they were given at Mary's funeral service.

David Brien worked with Mary at the Universities of Durham and Edinburgh; Michael Brennan is Mary's brother; Joe Conn is Mary's cousin; Fr. Peter McDonough was a postgraduate student at the Deaf Studies Research Unit, Durham University and attended courses taught by Mary.


David Brien

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I feel certain Mary's spirit is present with us at this service today. What is she thinking? At this precise moment I believe she is wondering: "Why is David wearing a tie?" I am unable to recall the last time I wore a tie, and Mary never expected me to wear one no matter how important the occasion we were attending together. I wear it today as an outward sign of the deep sorrow I, you, and many across the world are feeling as a consequence of Mary's death.

As you know Mary loved language: signed, spoken and written language. But for so many of us this past week, in the immediate aftermath of Mary's death, none of these forms of language have proved adequate to the task of enabling us to express Mary's importance in our lives and our feelings for her. Tears overtake the words and we are unable to continue: we leave sentences unfinished and individual words are left to bear the weight of sentences. I tell you this because in the next few minutes there will be times when the interpreter will sign that the speaker is unable to speak: tears will overtake the words I wish to say.

In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul quotes Scripture: "O death, where is thy sting?" St. Paul uses the question to instruct the Corinthians that death has no power after we pass from this mortal life to that of the immortal new life that awaits us. Death has no sting now for Mary, who endured such suffering during the past few months of her life. But for us who mourn, the "sting" of death is very real as we attempt to come to terms with her passing: as we adjust to a new life that will be very much the poorer without her.

In remembering Mary we remember her in many different settings. Joe (Joe Conn in the first eulogy) has described Mary through the eyes of her family. Those of us who knew Mary as a friend, through her work and in professional settings will recognise that the same qualities Joe has described characterised Mary in her roles as teacher and researcher. In the many messages I have received since her death, all without exception, make reference to her personal qualities, as well as to her outstanding achievements: to her integrity, decency, honesty and generosity. As one former student wrote "Mary left her handprint on the hearts of the people who knew her". For Mary the individual mattered, irrespective of their position or status.

I do not have the time to list and describe all of Mary's academic and professional achievements: her outstanding contributions to the fields of Linguistics, Education, Deaf Studies and Interpreting. In the Church Hall after this service you will be able to watch a video in which Mary signs a brief account of her professional life.

signed contentView BSL clip of Mary (1)  signed contentView BSL clip of Mary (2)

I have only time this afternoon to touch on one area of her work: that of sign linguistics.

It was here in Edinburgh that Mary commenced her research on the signed language of Deaf people. She drew on, and extended the work of the pioneering American Sign Linguist, William Stokoe. She sought to describe and explain how British Deaf people used sign. Her work with colleagues here in Edinburgh, and that carried out at the Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of Bristol, established the linguistic status of Deaf people's use of sign in Britain as that of an independent language. In a paper1 published exactly thirty years ago in the United States, Mary proposed for the first time that this visual language be known as British Sign Language. Two years ago (in 2003) the British government formally recognised British Sign Language. Her work contributed to the very definition of language being redefined to incorporate the signed languages of Deaf people.

During the Offertory of today's Mass, Mary's godson Liam carried a copy of her first paper1, together with Mary's personal copy of the British Sign Language/English Dictionary, and laid them on the altar as a symbol of her contribution to the study of signed languages. As you will see her copy of the Dictionary is well used: a number of years ago it collapsed under the strain and divided into two parts, creating the only two volume version of the Dictionary.

Her research and teaching were characterised by a pursuit of excellence. This was essential in Mary's view if the new subjects of Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies were to be accepted within academic institutions. It was also, in Mary's view, what Deaf people, the people at the centre of these two disciplines, deserved and had the right to expect. Her work made a major contribution to enabling Deaf people to change how they define themselves and how they wish to be viewed by members of the wider society: not as "impaired" people but as members of a linguistic minority. The importance of Mary's work to Deaf people was acknowledged last year with the award of the British Deaf Association's Medal of Honour: the picture of Mary in the Order of Service shows her wearing the Medal.

All of Mary's research projects and teaching programmes involved Deaf people: it was inconceivable to her that such work could be undertaken without the direct participation and contribution of Deaf people. All of her large research projects and teaching programmes involved teams of Deaf and hearing people. She believed that Deaf people had a special contribution to make to these projects, one that only they could make, but she also believed that hearing people could contribute to advancing our knowledge of sign languages and enabling Deaf children and adults to realise their potential in our society.

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Establishing teams of Deaf and hearing researchers and teachers allowed ambitious projects to be undertaken, such as the British Sign Language/English Dictionary, the CD ROM Dictionary projects, the Productive Lexicon project, the Access to Justice project, the Achievements of Deaf Pupils in Scotland project, the Crowded Cottage and the post graduate and certificate courses at Durham University. None of these would have been possible at the time without Mary's participation.

She made major contributions to important policy documents such as Creating Linguistic Access for Deaf and Deafblind People: A Strategy for Scotland (published by the Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters in 2002) in which Mary and her colleagues draw attention to " lack of linguistic access is resulting in inequality and social exclusion" for many Deaf, deaf and deafblind people "across many areas of Scottish life". The analysis, and the proposals put forward for addressing the inequality and social exclusion identified, would apply equally to the situation in other parts of the United Kingdom and in other countries.

Fr. Peter (McDonough) in his homily draws our attention to Mary's commitment to social justice and fairness. I know she would have wished to join the demonstrations in Edinburgh this weekend and next week, seeking justice and fairness for the poorest people on our planet. She would have acknowledged the progress that has been made, but given the opportunity she would have told the leaders of the G8 countries and the organisers of the Hyde Park concert that justice will not be achieved if they do not work with the representatives and musicians of African nations. She would have asked why there will be no African representatives present when Africa is discussed by the G8 leaders; why so few African artists will be on the stage at Hyde Park? Mary asked the same questions in relation to the involvement and participation of Deaf people in matters of concern to them throughout her career as a researcher and teacher, and sought always to work with D/deaf people in the work she undertook.

Did Mary have any flaws? I am probably the wrong person to ask. I have to confess my heart did sink when she first revealed she was a Newcastle United supporter: our home is a "Red and White" (Sunderland) house.

I know Mary would concede that she was still "working towards" excellence in relation to administration. Preparing the "gizinties", a Geordie word Mary used to refer to course and project finances, was a responsibility she preferred to delegate.

However her major flaw was the inability to say no to requests for assistance from friends and colleagues. She was guilty of this, and at times it created problems. But we, her friends and colleagues, were guilty of asking. We knew what Mary's participation would bring to a project, a meeting or an advisory panel, and therefore we asked. Mary realised how much needs to be done, and therefore found it difficult to refuse.

Liam placed a third item on the altar in remembrance of Mary: an image of a sheep. If you visited Mary at her home or at her office you could not avoid noticing that Mary had a very special affection for sheep. Images of sheep were to be found everywhere. I have been told no eulogy to Mary would be complete without the Durham sheep story, even though all of you must know it by now. I retell it today, not to illustrate Mary's love of sheep, although it does do that, but as an example of her concern for other people.

It was the occasion of Mary's fiftieth birthday and members of the Deaf Studies Research Unit wanted to celebrate this significant birthday in an appropriately memorable manner. A member of the Unit lived near a farmer who had a "tame" sheep. The farmer agreed we could borrow the sheep for an afternoon so that it could be joint guest of honour, together with Mary, at the Unit's party to celebrate her birthday.

I can still remember the look on Mary's face, a combination of amazement and disbelief, as she entered the room to be greeted not by an image of her favourite animal, but by a real, live, fully-grown, sheep. Mary often spoke of how much she enjoyed this special birthday surprise, but I believe her enjoyment was far greater in recalling the event afterwards, than it was at the time. Why? Well the sheep very quickly adjusted to its new surroundings, discovered the carpet was inedible "grey grass", and understandably reacted by covering it in sheep droppings. Mary's immediate concern on seeing the sheep's droppings on the carpet was for the ladies who cleaned the classrooms and for the sheep's well being. Sheep droppings are, fortunately, small, hard, round and "sweepable" and were removed by colleagues without staining the carpet, the sheep was returned to its field and the cleaning ladies thought the whole event was hilarious. Sheep have also lost a great friend and advocate with Mary's passing.

Before I conclude I know there is a request that Mary would want me to make at this time. Lilian Lawson (Director of the Scottish Council on Deafness and the first Deaf researcher to work full time with Mary) was to have given a eulogy to Mary this afternoon. A few days ago her husband, Jock Young (a former Chair of the British Deaf Association), was taken seriously ill and as a consequence Lilian is unable to be with us this afternoon. Mary had a special affection for Jock and Lilian and held both in high esteem. I know she would want us to remember them and their children, Tamara and Nicola, at this difficult time.

Mary has left us an extraordinary legacy in the form of her work and the individual love and consideration she extended to so many of us. She would want us to build on that legacy: let us commit here, before her, to work more closely together to do so.

  1. Brennan, M. (1975): Can Deaf Children Acquire Language? An Evaluation of Linguistic Principles in Deaf Education in American Annals of the Deaf October 1975

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Michael Brennan

My Sister's Flat

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In my father's house there are many mansions.
In my sister's flat there are many sheep.
They're everywhere. From doormat as you enter.
From fireplace and mantelpiece and wall
They stare at you appealingly. In the bathroom
One elegantly minimal in pen and ink
By Ernst peeps out one eye appraisingly.
My sister's breakfast mug displays a sheep.
Even the tea cosy is woolly – and has horns.
Why sheep? Well, sheep are gentle, unassuming
But click on,
You'll never underestimate a sheep.

When cancer came, my sister bought a flat.
Foolhardily? Well, good on her I say.
In January she proudly shows us round,
Sheryl, my wife, and me, and at the window
Points out the view. There straight across the street
The classic façade of the Usher Hall
And over here the Royal Lyceum Theatre
And just around the corner there's the Traverse too.
My sister's brother notes the Shakespeare's pub –
If rubbernecked you could see Film House.
The cultural heart, she says, of Edinburgh
And therefore of the world. And what is more
A Jesuit church is just a walk away.
My sister's church is a splendid church.
It is a church of spaciousness and light.
From narrow base it grows towards the sky.
Now in this church a mighty congregation
From the Latin for a flock of sheep –
Who come together as a living sign
Of love, respect and approbation.

You reach my sister's flat by wellworn stairs
Which are regularly cleaned with mop and pail –
But then within, a haven of peace and grace,
Prints on the wall, Quebec and Stockholm
Durham by half-light, Australia,
High ceilings, antique clock, tasteful bric à brac
And one upholstered chair, rescued by my Dad
From Guy Fawkes bonfire fifty years ago,
And books and books, so many, many books,
Those on the education of the deaf
A valuable collection in itself
And books on every quirky theme and then
Her wee indulgence – whodunits in hardback.
My sister's kitchen's large with one stone wall
And Scotsman kitchen range and mantelpiece,
A fine table purchased in Balerno
For just five quid some thirty years ago
At which we sat each night the four of us
With napkins, glass, silverware, best dinner set
And had good crack in semi-formal cosiness.
But there above our head – for this is Edinburgh
A pulley shows our drying underwear.
My sister's flat is not grand. But ee, it's grand!
In my sister's study a black-faced sheep
On a green glazed jug guards the pencils
And sequenced upright box files line the room
But others on the floor lie disarrayed
For work accomplished and work unfinished
Are both present in my sister's study.
The presence in this church today attests
That study is no distant ivory tower,
That work has had results, affected lives.
This mighty congregation here proclaims
A woman of achievement and of worth
The illustrious Doctor Brennan.

My sister's flat speaks more quietly
Of a modest, cultivated woman,
Generous, accepting and daft on sheep.
My sister's flat to me speaks quietly
Of my little sister, my gentle sister,
My beautiful sister, Mary.

Already now her flat's begun to change
With beds made up for guests in every room.
My sister's flat will never be the same.
The precious paraphernalia will be packed away,
The intricate mosaic of a life.
Sometime, soon or late, the books and prints and taste
Of others will define that living space
And others' underwear adorn the pulley.
Then some of us will treasure a memento
From my sister's flat, perhaps a favourite book,
Admired print, perhaps a woolly trophy
That will forever jog – and joy the mind
With thoughts of Mary.

This mighty congregation too shall soon dissolve.
As we disperse I hope each one will take away
A tiny flattering seed of emulation
For them my sister's work will live – and grow.

If my father's house has many mansions,
Then Mary now deserves her choice of keys.
I think she'll say "I'll settle for a little flat
Like Grindlay Street – and can I bring my sheep?"

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Joe Conn

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Though Mary was my cousin, she was more like the sister I never had, just as to my mother, Winnie, she was the daughter she never had. Mary was such a warm, accepting person that anyone who met her felt welcome in her presence. This came largely from the atmosphere she grew up in at home. The Brennans' first house in Saltwell View in Gateshead was right opposite Saltwell Park, a one hundred and fifty acre paradise where we lived and played as children for the bulk of our free time. We had everything we wanted there - football pitches, tennis courts, playgrounds, a boating lake, gardens, a museum, and we spent hours there everyday.

Then they moved to Coburg Street nearer the town centre and if possible that had even more appeal. When the film "Get Carter" briefly made Gateshead famous they filmed much of it there, so when you next see a young Michael Caine walk naked into the street with only a shotgun and goose-pimples, that's Mary's house on his left. You could call in any time on the way to or from town and it was always busy - Mary playing the piano in the front room, her dad coming in from a union meeting, her brothers off to their three choir practices a week and Mary's mam trying her best to keep track of what they were all doing.

Their social life revolved round family and church. At Christmas we would be taken to a huge party at St. Theresa's Club in Heaton in Newcastle, at which all of our forty or so relatives would be present. It was here that Mary first stood out from the crowd and earned our undying gratitude. The young ones were expected to entertain the adults and someone from each family group had to sing, dance or play an instrument. None of us were keen to make fools of ourselves and things were getting desperate until Mary without any fuss climbed onto the snooker table, which served as a stage, and belted out the Geordie folk song "Cushy Butterfield" with great gusto.

Performing like this was in Mary's blood; her dad was famous for singing at family occasions, When TV arrived in the fifties, one of the first things we all crowded round a tiny set to watch was Mary's auntie, Eileen Brennan, singing "Eileen Oge" at the London Palladium with Eamonn Andrews. Later on her brother Michael made his Shakespearean debut at the National Theatre in London with Sir Laurence Olivier - and the card and a bottle of champagne from the great man were given pride of place on the sideboard.

Mary was courageous in the face of serious illness from an early age. She passed her Eleven Plus Exam to go to La Sagesse Grammar School but soon after had to spend several months away from her family in a TB sanitorium in Northumberland: a time she endured, like her last few months, with typical good humour and her usual positive outlook. As part of her recuperation there were frequent visits to the coast, especially to St. Edmund's Bay which, in the family, was known as "whooping cough bay" because if you had mumps, measles, chickenpox or anything infectious you were always sure of solitude there, probably because it was only half a mile from North Shields fish quay.

Whenever we went to the coast there was often some comical drama, which Mary would really enjoy, such as when her brother set out to walk round the headland to Cullercoats. He was trapped by the incoming tide and the coastguard had to be informed. Mary loved the sea and we were always reluctant to get out of the water to come home. On one occasion the same brother who had been rescued by the coastguard genuinely couldn't get out, as he had a fish hook firmly embedded in his toe and the line wouldn't snap to free him.

Mary was always a great listener, a skill she polished listening to the adults at large family gatherings or sitting behind the counter in Aunty Winnie's shop, spell-bound by customers' gossip. When she was in the sixth form at school she started to help out on the Simon Community's nightly soup run talking to homeless people on the quayside in Newcastle. She developed a real gift for being able to communicate with anyone, with sympathy and compassion. Everybody got her full attention, no matter who they were, and she treated them all with the same respect be they a tea-lady or Lady Di.

It seemed inevitable that she should enter the La Sagesse Convent in North Berwick; no-body who knew Mary was the least bit surprised. Not that she changed her warm, friendly, down-to-earth manner in any way - the nuns had to get used to her the way she was. Only three weeks ago Mary and Margaret, who first met during their early days in the convent, were laughing together about her unorthodox appearance as a nun. In all her years inside, Mary never learned how to put her headdress on straight. There was nothing forbidding and sombre about her, which always made Mary more approachable as a human being.

Unfortunately Mary's last months at university coincided with her mother's final illness, which followed soon after her dad's sudden death. She was given a special dispensation from her enlightened order to stay at home to look after her mum in her final months, which meant that the only time she had to revise for her finals was through the night - a practice she continued all through her professional career whenever there was a report, chapter, speech or even a Ph.D. thesis to be written at the last minute. The news that she had won a double first at university came just as we returned from her mum's funeral.

There are many people here today who are grateful that Mary finally left her order to devote her life to her true vocation and life's work - Deaf Studies in general and BSL in particular. There are so many more memories we all have of her: her curious obsession with sheep; her Schumacher driving style she learned from her brother Peter who taught her to drive; her ability to transform a decent car into a distressed state within months - but all of these idiosyncrasies pale into insignificance beside her enduring legacy, her work with Deaf people. Thank God for a life well lived and well used.

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Fr. Peter McDonough

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I still remember Mary clearly.

One of the images of Mary that I have in my mind is her calm and strong sense of justice. She calmly set out teaching and enabling all to work together to break down the communication barrier. She gave us the tool of the power of knowledge. She listened to each and everyone and instilled in each the belief that we all have the worthy vocation in making a fairer world.

At the same time she always managed to make us feel good within ourselves, thus setting us free to live with hope and assurance.

Mary was a remarkable woman; to her we offer our humble thanks for her years of faithful and dedicated service to the Deaf community.

May she rest in peace forever.

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