Sunday 19 May 2019

'I was very aware that I came from the wrong side of the tracks' - Mary Black looks back on her career

As she leads the search for Ireland's favourite folk song, Mary Black looks back on her own successful career and tells Ronan O'Reilly how she can still lose herself in music

Singing legend Mary Black. Photo: Julien Behal
Singing legend Mary Black. Photo: Julien Behal
Singing legend Mary Black. Photo: Julien Behal

Even now, there is an event from Mary Black's childhood that baffles her. It happened towards the end of her days at St Louis Primary School in Dublin's Rathmines when a Department of Education inspector - the cigire - arrived on his rounds. Introducing various pupils to the visitor, one of the senior nuns pointedly referred to the future singing star as "Mary Blake".

Half a century later, Mary - who wrote about the incident in her 2014 autobiography Down the Crooked Road - remains as puzzled as ever. "I don't know, I'm just as confused as you," she says now when asked what she thinks the intention was. "But I actually felt she didn't want to say 'Black'. I was in the school since I was four, I was 10 or 12 at the time… she knew me inside out. I was in the choir, it isn't like she didn't know who I was - and she just said it. And I thought 'What? Should I ashamed of having the name Mary Black?' I mean, it's my name. It's odd, isn't it, weird? I kind of felt there might have been a bit of racial stuff - I really don't know - but she wasn't comfortable saying it."

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Growing up in the gritty environs of Charlemont Street in the south inner city, however, Mary already felt like something of an outsider at the school. "I was very aware of the fact that I came from the wrong side of the tracks," she says. "In St Louis's, most of the kids there would have been from a better financial background and nicer places in Dublin. I felt the nuns were a little bit aware of that.

"My mother never had a washing machine, she washed everything by hand in the sink and wrung them out herself. So I'd say I might have been a little bit shabbier-looking than some of the other girls, maybe that was it… they were all pristine and the hair was always washed. We'd no bath, no bathroom, we were in a tin bath in front of the fire. That's how we got our bath every week; other than that, it was a cat's lick. I suppose I didn't look as smart as the others and I wouldn't make any apologies for that. That's how life was - my mother did the best with what she got."

Yet if money was tight, it seems there was no shortage of love and laughter in the Black household. And there was also, of course, plenty of music. By the time she reached her mid-teens Mary was already an accomplished singer, and she went on to hone her skills through performing in pubs and clubs across the city. Her glittering career really kicked off, though, with the release of her eponymous debut album in 1982. Since then she has recorded up to 20 best-selling records, won countless awards and traversed the globe several times over.

Now, however, Mary Black has taken on a fresh role as she fronts the five-part RTÉ series, Ireland's Favourite Folk Song. Each week focuses on two songs voted for by the public and whittled down to a shortlist selected by a panel of judges. The series begins tomorrow with On Raglan Road, which will be performed on the show by Conor O'Brien, and Green Fields of France, which will be sung by Niamh Farrell and Niall Hanna.

"I was approached to be the presenter as a singer, I suppose, of folk music myself," Mary explains. "Initially, I felt, well, it's a challenge, it's something I've never done before. I found it a little bit daunting in the beginning because I could learn a song off no problem, it's just what I do. But when you're trying to remember pieces to camera and you've got to put dates in and you've got to put website and email addresses - and look like it's coming naturally…" she laughs. "It's like 'Oh, Jaysus, I don't know if I can do this'. But I did - I got on top of it and I'm enjoying it now.

"I'm not looking for more work in it, to be honest now - it wouldn't be like I'd want to go into that field at all, but I just thought it would be an interesting project for me."

Now aged 63, Mary has cut back on a hectic touring schedule that regularly saw she performing in America, Australia and further afield. Apart from occasional dates in the UK and Europe, she now restricts herself to playing only on home soil. "I just was tired of the travelling - I'd been doing it for 35, 40 years," she says.

"Just being on aeroplanes and being away for chunks of times. I just felt it was time to make time for other things and be here more.

"I've got two lovely granddaughters and I want to be around for them growing up. I mean, I missed a bit of my own kids growing up from time to time and I always felt guilty about that. It's just that it was my job and I had to do what I did - and it was what I loved to do as well, so it wasn't forced on me. But I just feel that time races on and you just have to make time for what you really want to do, and make decisions for your life that suit you."

Last year Mary received an unwelcome reminder of her own mortality when she was struck down by a "very nasty" medical condition. "It came out of the blue, I was in the middle of an Irish tour actually and I got really sick," she recalls. "I thought I had an ear infection, but it turns out that it was a thing called Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which is shingles in your ear. So I was staggering around the place because I had vertigo and I was vomiting and running a high temperature. Anyway, I was 11 hours in A&E waiting to get in to see a doctor and I was put on a drip straight away - I was in hospital for nearly a week. It really knocked me for six, I had to cancel stuff, I had a documentary lined up last year and I just couldn't do it. I was probably floored for a good four or five months afterwards.

"I lost a bit of the hearing in my left ear permanently. I still have a little bit of vertigo. It's not too bad, but it gets to me now and again - and I have to be careful coming downstairs because I can get dizzy.

"As far as I am concerned, it's in the rear view mirror now and I'm moving forward and I'm grand. But a thing like that if it hits you suddenly out of the blue, you kind of get a fright because you sort of say 'Jesus, if this can happen, anything can happen'. It wasn't life-threatening per se, but I suppose if I hadn't gone to the hospital it might have been."

Of her success, she says: "I never dreamed that I'd be a well-known singer at all, but I knew that singing was extremely important in my life and I wanted to make sure that if something did happen I was able to give up everything and go for it.

"You wouldn't call it ambition, but you'd call it hoping you got lucky and that's exactly what happened. But [it was] over a long period of time.

"I also used to say, well, if I really want this I'm going to have to work for it. And I would push myself to go out and sing in places like Slatt's [Slattery's pub on Dublin's Capel Street] where you'd be unaccompanied for 50 minutes or an hour, and talk and tell stories about the songs that I was singing.

"So I did push myself in that way. I still didn't think it was going to make that much difference, but I was never happier than when I was singing. It's still the same; when I get out in front of an audience and start singing, I just lose myself in the songs. It's great to be able to pursue something that you love so much."

Mary Black is on tour across Ireland, including dates at the Olympia Theatre and Vicar Street, from next month. 'Ireland's Favourite Folk Song' begins tomorrow on RTÉ1 at 7.30pm.

Ireland's favourite folk songs

Below are the 10 short-listed songs, as voted by the public. The overall winner will be announced on The Late Late Show at the end of May.

1. On Raglan Road

2. Green Fields of France

3. Rainy Night in Soho

4. The Foggy Dew

5. The Town I Loved So Well

6. Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile

7. Danny Boy

8. The Parting Glass

9. The Rocky Road to Dublin

10. A Woman's Heart

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