Ireland was a troubled place 20 years ago. Unemployment had hit unprecedented levels. The North was no closer to calming its internal strife as tit-for-tat killings populated the news. The Loyalist and the IRA campaigns were at full tilt. Mary Robinson took the office of Irish President to Belfast for the first time, despite the Irish and British governments’ dismay. She even shook Gerry Adams’ hand.
The rest of the country agonised over the Maastricht treaty and being European. And while we did, in sailed a soundtrack that instantly captured the mood of a nation in need of calming. The album A Woman’s Heart, originally just an experimental line-up of musicians, stilled the country’s anxieties.
Remember this was the year Bishop Eamon Casey’s fatherhood came to light, as did the £70,000 hole in diocesan funds, spent on his family. As Casey disappeared to South America, Annie Murphy arrived into our living rooms; telling us how she had always hoped the man she’d fallen in love with would some day share their life. She was hurt, but not embittered.
This was the same year the High Court prevented a 14-year-old rape victim from going to Britain for an abortion, only for the Supreme Court to step in and overturn the decision. Known as the X case, it gabbed everyone’s attention. And as it did, the debate about women’s rights manifested in pro-choice campaigners and anti-abortion advocates jousting on the streets. Despite the legal decision, the girl had a miscarriage. Her rapist got four years.
In the midst of this uncertainty and frustration, six female voices combined for 12 tracks. And they became the zeitgeist. Somewhere, in the endless airplay, we got to feeling a little better about ourselves. So much so, most of us can rhyme back the lyrics, especially of the title track, like a prayer from childhood.
Today, it remains the best-selling, home-grown album ever in Ireland, with a whopping 750,000 copies sold worldwide. In the Irish charts, it glued itself to the Number 1 spot for four months. No wonder the nation knows it off ... pit for pat. Well, at least the chorus.
But what was it that made it such irresistible listening? It was, after all, quite the blend of contemporary and traditional songs, married with a cluster of haunting ballads. Some say it was like having a good cry to clear the head. For others, it was a celebration. And yet, the album and its architects never really knew what they were up to when compiling it.
Paul and Joe O’Reilly of Dara Records had twigged they might be onto something when bringing together a group of known and emerging female talent, for an all-woman ensemble. The idea was simple. A laid-back, wholesome kind of delivery. The other end of the spectrum altogether from pop. They just didn’t realise what it would become. Their intuition proved to be genius, though. Mary Black, Dolores Keane, Mary Coughlan and Maura O’Connell were automatic choices. Sharon Shannon’s fresh talent ensured her inclusion. The irony though was that the least well-known of the sextet at the time — Eleanor McEvoy — was the one to write the album’s eponymous title track, A Woman’s Heart.
And it wasn’t a song that particularly caught her attention at first. McEvoy reckoned it was a slow-burner and not really what audiences would latch onto. She had almost consigned it to the shelf when Joe O’Reilly watched her perform it live. Afterwards, he bought one of her cassettes. And by the next day, he’d called her with the idea for a duet with his wife Mary Black.
McEvoy has since confessed that she wrote the song when she was totally depressed, and feeling sorry for herself: “I didn’t even bother doing it for a while after I wrote it.” But luckily the night O’Reilly was in the audience, she reconsidered her set. Short a number, she’s been quoted with the deliberation: “Sure I’ll do that new one. Oh no, it’s awful . . . but shag it, I’ll do it anyway.”
Years later she rephrased her words, saying feeling ‘awful’ was a bit harsh: “I hope I don’t sound arrogant, but I put a great deal of work into every song, and I wouldn’t have presented a song to an audience that I thought was awful. But I did think it might be a bit too soft and slow for live performance. I certainly didn’t think it could be a hit.”
Thankfully, the ladies are re-releasing the album. We could well do with another listen.