Sunday 1 February 2015

After the burnout

Gina, Dale Haze and the Champions were one of the biggest Irish pop bands of the Eighties, but faded into oblivion after the stress drove Gina to post-natal depression and burnout, she tells Joy Orpen. Now, a new chapter is beginning

Leonard Cohen did it, so did Cat Stevens and Tina Turner. In fact, just about every successful musician makes a comeback at some point.

Now an iconic Irish band from the Seventies and Eighties is about to set the country's stages alight once again with their rocking and rolling.

But technically Gina, Dale Haze and the Champions can't make a comeback, because they never officially disbanded. "We never did a farewell tour," says Gina, their petite lead singer.

The band was at its zenith towards the end of the showband era and during the dawning of a more raucous and more experimental period. The beauty of the group was that they skillfully managed to straddle the different eras, while the punters danced the night away to hits such as Give Me Back My Love, Dreams are Good Friends, Do You Wanna Do It? and Minnie, Minnie.

Exciting though it surely was, there was a price to pay, too.

In Dublin recently to promote their upcoming concerts, Cork-born Gina -- whose real name is Mary Hurley-- says that although she "burnt out" in the Eighties, she is excited to be playing with the band again. "Hopefully we'll see many of the people who came to the dances all those years ago," she adds.

Thirty years on, Gina is as pretty as ever and full of enthusiasm. Her singing is an inherited talent. "My father had a lovely tenor voice," she says.

Gina remembers her late dad with huge affection. He had to raise most of his 10 children single-handedly following the sudden death of his beloved wife, then aged 50, from a brain haemorrhage.

Gina recalls that horrific night: "I said goodnight to her at 11.50pm and 20 minutes later the ambulance was at the door. It was that sudden."

Gina, then 17, thought her mother was being taken to hospital for treatment, but now knows she had already died.

"There was huge disbelief waking the younger children to tell them the terrible news," she remembers.

"Three weeks later, I was singing my little sister to sleep and I thought, 'This can't be happening, Mum will be back in the morning.''' As the eldest daughter still living at home, Gina was expected to take on a good deal of the responsibility for the younger children. And she did it gladly.

She had left school at 15, because it didn't suit her, and went to work making gloves and tailoring, but singing was Gina's first passion. When she was 19 she reluctantly auditioned for a band called The Champions. Her sister dragged the terrified Gina along to the audition, but once there, she wowed the band with her dulcet tones.

"To sing with proper musicians was just unbelievable," she says. "All my fears just fell away." And so began a remarkable and successful journey.

Gina learned her lesson, and when the stage was high, she always wore trousers.

Later, she began dating Pat Walsh, the lead guitarist in The Champions. They married and moved to east Cork.

Their lifestyle was hectic. The band played all the big dance halls in Ireland, including The Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney, Co Kerry, Dublin's National Ballroom and Cork's City Hall. "Once we left our house in Ballycotton and didn't return for 11 days, even though we never left Ireland," Gina says of those busy times. "It was great, though."

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