Mary Dowling Daley
On February 11, 2010 Where Books Begin lost its founding mother,
Mary Dowling Daley.
"When you become old, your family must provide you with one
oatcake a day, plus a container of sour milk," Mary reported in
her book, Irish Laws. "They
must bathe you every twentieth night and wash your head every
Saturday." Mary’s children tended her to the end and she died
at McGregor House in Cleveland after a stroke.
Irish Laws, a compilation
of medieval statutes that traveling judges committed to memory,
was Mary’s most famous book, but she wrote all her life. A
prolific journalist, a cultural entrepreneur and possibly the
funniest woman in America, Mary was born with ink in her veins.
Her father was a Scripps-Howard executive whose job took him all
over the country. Mary worked for The New York Times before her
marriage and continued a distinguished career as a freelancer
for them, as well as Shaker Magazine, The Plain Dealer, The
Christian Science Monitor and Commonweal while raising four
Mary was the genius behind Where Books Begin. She urged me to
set up shop as a well-baby clinic for new book projects after we
had worked together on several projects. She was my first client.
I had met her in Cleveland in 1983, where I was working on a
project for the Armington Foundation at Case Western Reserve
University. An old college friend, Gary Stonum, chair of the
English department there, asked me if I would be willing to talk
to a woman who had an idea for a book.
Of course I rolled my eyes and whispered heavenward for release
from talking to another clueless housewife-writer but he insisted.
"She's very bright, and she worked for The New York Times." Both
those things turned out to be true. May had a typically brilliant
idea for a children’s book: she wanted to write about secret schools,
including the Irish hedge schools, Amerindian societies and slave
groups, who pursued education in defiance of the laws of the time.
A typical Mary project, advocating the positive in a totally
Mary was agridolce itself. Her intense sweetness of spirit was
matched by sharp analysis. A serious Catholic, she had a streak of
irreverence that made Chris Hitchens look like a mindless conformist.
A devoted mother, she included all of Cleveland in her flock of
friends. Ever loyal to her rich Irish heritage, she embraced new
trends in ways that were mind-blowing: Twenty years ago when kids
started tattooing themselves everywhere, she wistfully commented
that she would like a tattoo as well. "It would be on my chest: it
would say DON’T FEED ME; LET ME DIE."
Cover of Leggi Irlandesi, the Italian translation of Irish Laws
Mary’s masterpiece is Irish Laws,
published originally by the Applewood Press in Belfast and reissued
in American by Black Dog and Leventhal. She spent many years
researching it and many more years finding the right publisher for it.
Today it is available in five languages in a beautiful edition
illustrated by Ian McCullough. Before she undertook this enormous
project she published a coloring book for Cleveland’s children,
illustrated by the city’s high school students. Her columns and
op-eds were read all over the country.
Her professional and cultural contributions were remarkable but
the most remarkable thing about Mary was Mary herself. A beautiful
woman — the children in the inner city school where she
volunteered called her Mushroom Head because of her stylish blonde
bob — she sparkled in conversation. Yet she was also the person
to turn to with practical problems and deep philosophical questions.
Her mind had an amazing range and a life of wordsmithing had given her
a vocabulary for every occasion. She was a woman for all seasons.