Dancehall days and great times

Gina remembers the day with absolute clarity. An advertisement had appeared in a local paper in Cork looking for a lead singer for a band. Her father brought it to her attention and, concluding she had little to lose, she replied.

As frontwoman of Gina, Dale Haze and the Champions, she was soon one of the most recognisable performers in Ireland.

“I never thought about fame,” says Gina, whose real name is Mary Hurley.

“I used to sing with my cousin. We entered a talent show on RTÉ and sang on TV. And then we parted. After that my father pointed out an advertisement to me. That’s how it started.”

She was, as she says, never a natural attention seeker. On her first performance with the Champions she went on wearing a mini-skirt and, catching a punter up the front gawping a little too attentively, retreated towards the back.

From then on she made sure to wear trousers on stage. The Irish live scene of the 1970s and 1980s was overwhelmingly male-dominated. Most of the musicians were men, as were all the concert promoters and behind the scenes crew. Typically Gina arrived at a venue to find she was the only woman. However, she remembers being treated with absolute respect and never felt she had to prove herself.

“The lads in the band were like my brothers,” she says.

“We had great craic. We went from day to day, one big thing to the next. Life happened along the way. We had total respect for one another.”

Gina would go on to marry band member Pat Walshe and today lives quietly in Ballycotton in east Cork. But it’s hard to overstate just how big the Champions were in their heyday — when they never seemed to be off the television or radio as they notched up such its as ‘Minnie Minnie’, ‘Give Me Back My Love’ and ‘Playing With Fire’.

A certain revisionism has set in when discussing Irish rock in the post-showbands period. The idea has taken hold that this was the time of loud, sweaty rockers — of Horslips and Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher.

No doubt they were influential — but, at home at least, were arguably overshadowed by pop groups such as the Champions, who toured constantly, playing to packed rooms.

“It happened very quickly,” Gina recalls. “I remember being very nervous at the start. But I got into it and enjoying things as they were happening. We had a great career. You have so much energy at that age you don’t even think about it.”

Pop groups from that age tend to be lumped in with the showbands of the previous era. In fact, Ireland had changed hugely in the interim. The spectre of the Church had diminished significantly by the time the Champions were blazing their way.

The old black and white world of the dancehalls and the disapproving parish priest was already in the past.

“The showbands were amazing but everything would shut down for Easter and Lent,” she says. “You weren’t even allowed go to the

cinema during Lent. All the bands had to go away and tour abroad. That was never how things were with us.”

Still, she remembers that earlier age with some fondness. From Friars Walk in Cork city, her love of music was born in dance-halls and ballrooms such as the Stardust in Cork city and Redbarn in the east of the county (where Johnny Cash and Chubby Checker famously played).

“I grew up in the city. My ballroom was the Stardust on the Grand Parade. Redbarn, Crosshaven — all those halls were owned by Jerry Lucey, the same guy who had the Stardust. You had these ballrooms and local halls over Ireland. They were amazing places.

"They didn’t serve alcohol and when we started you’d see people coming in very chirpy and then sobering up. It changed when the hotels [began hosting shows] and then the discos came in and it all changed again.”

There were many other pop bands on the circuit at the same time as Gina, Dale Haze and the Champions. But their paths crossed less often than might be imagined and there wasn’t any sense of rivalry.

When she sees younger groups, especially in the country and western milieu, perform today, Gina is struck by the comradeship. It wasn’t like that in her day.

“All the younger bands... they are often sharing the stage. Back then, a group would go on before us for two hours, then we’d be in for two hours, then someone else would go on.”

As is often the way with successful groups, burnout eventually became a problem. By the early 1990s, Gina had two young children and weeks on tour was becoming less enticing.

She was, she remembers, back on stage five-and-a-half weeks after the birth of her eldest and eight-and-a- half after her second child. At the time, eight-and-a-half weeks felt like in indulgence. Deep down, she knew it couldn’t go on. She was also suffering postnatal depression.

“I pulled the plug because the pressure was too much,” she says. “The tour bus would pull up and the boys were heading off but your little girl didn’t want you to go. I needed to get away from it. I needed to be at home with my family.”

But there was a happy ending. In 2009, the group reunited and such was the response that Gina decided to return more or less full-time.

The days when she would perform literally every night are long gone. Nonetheless the Champions maintain a brisk schedule while this year she released a new solo album, Dragonflies.

“People enjoy nostalgia and while we like to add bits and pieces you have to remember that the audiences who came to see us many years ago are often disappointed if you don’t do the hits. We like to mix and match. Over the years you get to know you audience — and to know what they like.”

Gina plays Cork Racecourse Mallow on Friday.

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