MARY BLACK describes Galway as “a particular favourite place of mine”, but it is no idle platitude. It was here, and more specifically during her tenure with De Dannan, where she came of age as both singer and performer, setting her on the path to her now unassailable position as Ireland’s leading contemporary folk artist.
“My history with Galway goes back a long way,” Mary tells me during our Thursday morning interview. “I always find Galway audiences to be enthusiastic, they are always with you from the outset, and it’s an actively arty town. For all those reasons I look forward to playing Galway.”
Mary admits she “spent many’s a great night in Galway” with De Dannan, but also notes “they played a huge part in developing me”.
“I only had one album out at the time so I wasn’t as established then as people often think now,” she says. “De Dannan were great operators and had a following outside of Ireland - in Britain, the Continent, and America. Touring with De Dannan was a great opportunity to represent myself as a singer. They were blowing audiences away with how they played. That taught me that every single song was important and you had to deliver it and I made sure I did. It brought out a competitive side in me - I wanted to get the applause for my singing as much they got for their playing.
“In a band you were also living in close proximity with others, but they were a great bunch of guys, I never laughed so much. Dolores Keane was also in the band for about half the time I was there. Two women in the band, you might imagine there was some competition, but it was always friendly and that time in De Dannan resulted in a lasting friendship with Dolores to this day.”
On Charlemont Street
If De Dannan was Mary’s adult apprenticeship, her journey towards being a singer began much earlier within the family home in Dublin’s Charlemont Street.
“There was always instruments and my father encouraged, not pushed, us to play and sing,” Mary recalls. “Everybody sung at a family gathering on a Sunday afternoon. They would start at two and go on until six or seven. Everybody had a party piece. One of the first I learned was ‘Beautiful Bundoran’, and songs my mother taught me. For me, singing made me feel very happy. I would sing myself to sleep, and it wasn’t just folk music, there would be hymns I learned at school, or a song on the radio. It didn’t matter what. The need to sing came from within. I found a real passion for it.”
Mary also acknowledges the influence of her mother and eldest brother in her passion for song. “My mother was passionate about singing and imparted that to us and the ethos of hard work and that nothing comes easy, so you have to work for it,” she says. “My eldest brother got strongly into folk music. He would tune into Radio Scotland and we’d hear all this traditional music and ceilís and he passed that on to me. He would play guitar while I sang and I benched into folk singing.”
Mary found herself reliving those early days again quite recently when she published her autobiography, Down The Crooked Road, last October.
“I know people always say these things are cathartic, but it is,” she says. “At times it was quite emotional. At times I was right back where I was during my mother’s death, the loneliness I felt for my children when I was away from them on tour, but you have to go back there if you are going to describe properly how it felt. I had with me my daughter Róisín, who is also a singer and goes by the name Róisín O. She could pry into how I really felt and between us we managed. Róisín and I always had a great relationship, but the whole experience brought us closer.”
One of the stories in the book which gained most attention was how poverty was a factor in Mary’s upbringing, leading to her having to scrape together money to buy her school uniform.
“There was poverty but we were never hungry,” Mary says. “We were poor but it was not like we were the only family. I used to think at the time that we were well off. My father was always working and my mother always tried to make ends meet, but the school uniform was such an extra expense. There was also shoes, a gabardine, gym slips. My mother took one look at the list and said ‘I don’t know how I’m going to find the money for all that!’ so I had to work for it. You were allowed to work at the time at 14, but I was only 13 so I lied about my age, got the job, and worked for the whole summer. I loved it. I was only a kid but I felt much older.”
‘There has to be an emotional bond’
Following Mary’s time in De Dannan she firmly established herself in Ireland - and abroad - as a solo artist of note with the albums Down The Crooked Road (1987 ), No Frontiers (1989 ), and Babes In The Woods (1991 ), which contain many of her signature songs, such as ‘Katie’, ‘Once In A Very Blue Moon’, ‘No Frontiers’, ‘Carolina Rua’, and ‘Adam At The Window’.
“We have great songwriters in Jimmy McCarthy, Mick Hanly, Thom Moore, and Noel Brazil,” she says. “I was just really lucky to be in the way of those songs.”
Mary’s renditions of Jimmy McCarthy’s songs were important in bringing the Corkonian to wider attention, and she was aware that she was dealing with something special.
“I introduced them to the world but I had that opportunity he didn’t have,” she says. “Declan Sinnott who was my guitarist and producer at the time, we felt it was important we did Jimmy’s songs well. We played Cork the other night and the audience was singing along to them, including the young people, who were singing them at the top of their voices. These songs stand the test of time.”
However in the last 15 years, Mary has only recorded two albums - Full Tide (2005 ) and Stories From The Steeples (2011 ) - but it not so much a case of abandoning recorded music, more a case of being more choosey.
“With each of those two albums I felt I didn’t want to force it or do it because people expected me to,” she says. “That’s not why I sing. I’m very proud of those albums and feel they represent me well. I want to make sure I’m doing it for the right reasons. I have to be excited about songs and be enthusiastic. Maybe it’s part of the slowing down process, but who knows what the future holds? I have ideas for themed albums or a collection of previously unheard Noel Brazil songs. Hopefully I’ll have the time and make sure it’s something I’ll like doing.
“It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes me choose a song. There has to be an emotional bond, an emotional attachment, usually its the lyrics rather than the tune that would make me interested. I wait for the songs and for that to happen.”
More recently Mary announced she has no plans for international tours, although calling her most recent series of dates Last:Call has given the impression she’s about to give up touring altogether! “This is not my ‘last call’. I haven’t given up touring!” she says. “Touring can be very draining and I’ve done enough. I will still play Ireland and there will be the odd festival abroad that I want to do, but not the long international tours of before. I look back on it all with fondness, I have no regrets, no regrets, and its not over yet.”
Mary Black plays a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ concert at Seapoint, Salthill, on Saturday March 28 at 8pm. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.