‘Her voice originated from deep in her soul, you could hear it’

The life, music, and work of Mary McPartlan to be celebrated with a concert in the Town Hall

The late, great, Mary McPartlan. Photo:- Aengus McMahon

The late, great, Mary McPartlan. Photo:- Aengus McMahon

MARY MCPARTLAN, a powerhouse of Irish folk music - as a vocalist, a supporter of songwriters, an event organiser, as someone who nurtured the tradition, not just keeping it alive, but giving it a future - will be celebrated in Galway in April.

Mary died in 2020 after battling cancer, but her life and achievements will be celebrated at a major concert in the Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday April 5 at 8pm, entitled The Skite - Remembering Mary. The concert is also being live streamed.

The concert will feature an array of trad and folk titans, with Máirtín O’Connor and his band, Frankie Gavin, Shaun Davey, Rita Connolly, and Steve Cooney, as well as the ConTempo String Quartet, singer-songwriter Ruth Dillon, the poet Eva Bourke, and writers Vincent Woods and Michael Harding. There will also be video contributions from Uachtaran na hÉireann, Michael D Higgins.

Mary McPartlan by Aengus McMahon

Photo:- Aengus McMahon

For Mary’s husband, Paddy Noonan, this event is deeply meaningful on many levels. “It’s huge for the family,” Paddy tells me during our Monday afternoon conversation. “At the time of Mary’s passing we were just at the beginning of Covid. We couldn’t have a proper funeral, we had a limit of eight people in the church, even in the graveyard the gates were locked, the only exception was Máirtín O’Connor was allowed in to play a tune at the graveside.

“The wake is a very important part of the process of grieving. When you lose someone it’s very important you have friends around. We felt like it was in a vacuum. The whole thing was over at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We were all back home, asking ‘What happened?’

“So it was always an ambition of mine to celebrate her life as soon as we could, and for that I’ve had some great cohorts - Lelia Doolan, Hannah Keiley, Maureen Clancy. Lelia is the main driving force really. I came up with who I’d like to see at the show, but she is putting it all together, has the running order all mapped out, no better woman.”

The organiser

All proceeds from the night will be going to the Simon Community, which is appropriate as Mary worked for the organisation for many years and it was there she and Paddy “really met”, when Paddy was the chair of Simon at that time (early 1980s ).

“She became our first administrator,” he says. “Her title was fundraiser/administrator, and there was a lot of fundraising that went on. She did things like getting Charlie McGettigan to write a song, she got artists to donate their work for an exhibition, there was an event in Gleninagh called ‘Not The World Cup’, at the time of Italia 90, and we had Michael D, and musicians and writers, playing football in a charity match. She was great at organising, getting things together. She had a vision. She knew what she wanted and what would work, and that followed on throughout her career.”

Organisation and administration was a talent Mary brought to her work in the artistic field as well - to the benefit of many Galwegians.

“She started her own public relations company, McP Promotions, and she would bring musicians to play lunchtime concerts in factories,” says Paddy. “I remember Jack L, playing Jaques Brel songs while the workers had their lunch. The idea was to give people the chance to hear Irish performers.”

Perhaps her greatest legacy in this regard is the Arts in Action programme at NUI Galway which she created in 2008.

“Arts in Action was a huge success from the off,” says Paddy. “I remember she begged and borrowed to pay the artists to come. As I often say, she begged Peter to pay Paul and then begged Paul. She included Sami people from Finland, experimental artists from Iceland, flamenco dancers from Spain, fado singers from Portugal, as well as Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh musicians and theatre makers. Thankfully, her legacy is going to be continued as the university is appointing a new director of Arts in Action. It’s great to see that remaining.”

The singer

Yet, Mary was first and foremost a singer of Irish folk song, and Paddy remembers well the first time he heard that voice.

“The first time I heard Mary sing was in a folk singer’s club in Richardson’s. It was a new idea to me at the time, the idea that people would just come and sing,” he says. “When I heard her sing first I thought she had an amazing blues voice. Her voice came up through her diaphragm, but it originated much deeper than that, from her soul, and you could hear it. When you sing unaccompanied, you are totally open to the world you are bare, but she could just close her eyes and find the notes deep inside her. I always loved her singing.”

Yet, it was only in 2004 that Mary finally released her debut album, The Holland Handkerchief. After decades supporting others, it was time for Mary to step forward and bring her own personal talents to a wider audience.

Mary with Shane McGowan. Mary's version of 'Rainy Night In Soho' is regarded as one of the best interpretations of The Pogues' song.

“She always wanted to record,” says Paddy, “but she wanted to make sure the material she got was right. She researched in depth what she would record. She wasn’t interested in throwing a few songs together. She wanted to make sure it covered the things she was interested in. It had to be right, she had PJ Curtis as the producer, and she wanted to have the right musicians, so she got Paddy Keenan [The Bothy Band], Máirtín O’Connor, Seamie O’Dowd.

“Unfortunately it coincided with her first brush with cancer, so she couldn't promote it as much as she wanted, but it got great praise. MOJO made it their Folk Album of The Year, and that was a thrill for her to get that.”

The seeker

Mary McPartlan 2004

Mary in concert. Photo:- Mike Shaughnessy

In 2008, Mary released her second album, Petticoat Loose, which saw her work with the ConTempo Quartet to record a Romanian drinking song. She also recorded songs as Gaeilge; ‘Victor Jara’, about the Chilean singer-songwriter and socialist political activist tortured and killed during Pinochet dictatorship; and a wonderful version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Sisters of Mercy’.

The album also featured two songs by Mary and Paddy’s close friend, Vincent Woods. “Vincent is part of the family really,” says Paddy. “He wrote two great songs for her, ‘Sanctuary’, about her growing up in Leitrim, where they’re both from, and ‘Hold Me Up To Kiss The Moon’, which is what she used to say to her mother when she was small.”

One of Mary’s finest attributes, after her voice, was her support of younger songwriters and her conviction that if folk and trad is to survive, new songs in the form must be added to the repertoire - else it may die from stagnation and an over-reliance on standards - and for that, young songwriters in the folk and trad fields need to be encouraged and supported.

“She had a good ear. She’d follow the careers of people like Declan O’Rourke, who write their own stuff,” says Paddy. “Mary didn’t want to do standards, there was always an element of doing something different. She knew what she was doing wasn’t commercial. It was about producing good work that was original, and with the best of people playing on it. She was always on the lookout for new music.”

Tickets are €25 to attend the show, Tickets for the livestream are €10. Tickets are available from the Town Hall (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ). All proceeds are going to the Simon Community.


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