From a childhood of poverty to a top 10 album in the US, it’s been quite a ride for Mary Black, writes Ed Power
When Mary Black’s children said they wished to follow her into a life in music, she felt a firm chat was in order. It wasn’t that she was opposed to them singing for their suppers: but she wanted them to understand what an uphill struggle the business could be.
“I told them it wasn’t easy and that it’s not just about talent,” says the singer. “You have to be willing to work extremely hard — they went into it with their eyes open.”
Black’s son, Danny O’Reilly, fronts The Coronas, one of the country’s biggest bands.
Her daughter, Róisín, is touring Germany, where, as ‘Róisín O’, she enjoys a healthy fanbase (Black’s eldest child, Conor, is the black sheep, with his sensible job as a local authority land surveyor).
Black is glad her family is doing well — but relieved they grew up normal and grounded.
“When my biggest album came out, I had three small kids,” says the Dubliner, who is known for hits such as ‘No Frontiers’ and ‘Carolina Rua’.
“I had questions about how much time I should spend on the road. At the start of my career, I used to say yes to things all the time. As I got older, I learned to say no. You can only do so much. The kids turned out okay — so I think I made the correct choices.”
Black was a veteran when her third solo LP, also called No Frontiers, was released in 1989. It was an instant sensation, shooting to number one in Ireland and charting in the top 10 in the United States, an incredible feat for an Irish performer at that time.
Soon, she was on the cover of Billboard magazine and selling out multiple nights at what was then Dublin’s Point Depot. She was thrilled, if not quite surprised.
“It’s funny — of all my records, that was the one I thought might break abroad, even though it was the hardest album to make.”
There was, Black says, no little disharmony in the studio, with Black and her musical collaborator and producer, Declan Sinnott, clashing over the direction of the record. Still, the struggle proved worthwhile: No Frontiers was the best-selling LP in Ireland in 1989 and a phenomenon abroad.
In an age when Irish artists struggled to build a following overseas (unless they were named U2), it was a huge achievement.
“I had a sense it was going to do well,” says Black “At that point, I had achieved popularity in Ireland, to the degree I was able to gig regularly. But nothing much was happening outside of Ireland. No Frontiers brought me to America, to Japan — it was brilliant. It’s really flattering when the record company is excited about you. There was a lot to juggle, also, especially with my family.”
In her recently published autobiography, Down The Crooked Road, Black recounts the stress of international success. The book is a wrenching read, with Black also recalling her poverty-afflicted childhood — an upbringing that, in places, reads like something out of Dickens.
She was just eight when she took over the running of the family household on Charlemont Street in inner Dublin, so that her mother could work as a cleaner.
As a teenager, Black worked six days a week through her holidays, to pay for her school uniform and books. Even before her life in music, she had dragged herself up by the bootstraps.
“As a child, I thought our family was rich and they were poor,” she writes of the destitute neighbours she glimpsed from her window. “As I got older, I realised we were all poor on Charlemont Street, there were simply different levels of poverty.”
Black was badly treated by the nuns who ran her school — they looked down on her lower-working class background, a slight that cast a shadow well into adulthood.
Worse yet was the treatment meted out to her younger brother, kept bed-bound in a hospital presided over by religious orders on the spurious grounds that he was prone to ‘seizures’.
“It turned out the hospital received money from the government for every child that was in its care. Many believed the hospitals purposely kept children in for as long as they could, in order to receive the maximum funding,” she writes.
“The idea for the book really started with my daughter,” Black says. “She was interested in the stories about my parents, the things that happened when I was a kid, what the house where we grew up looked like.
“It’s quite an undertaking: you go through these things so deeply, you are nearly there again in your mind. I understand that my life is not necessarily that unique or interesting, and that not everybody might be interested. It’s really for fans”.
The events chronicled in Down The Crooked Road scarred Black deeply. As a woman, she lacked confidence and was reluctant to put herself in the spotlight. She was terrified of rejection, which is a major disadvantage for an entertainer.
Black was also prone to blue moods, and had post-natal depression after the birth of Conor and, later, what she has described as a ‘lost year’ when she turned 40 and wondered where she was going with her life.
The singer seems in better fettle as she looks forward to her 60th birthday and what, she has intimated, may be her last tour.
“I’ve always loved singing and never dreamed I might be able to make a living from it,” she says.
“Young people, nowadays, they dream all the time of doing well. They almost expect success. For me, to be able to sing, to earn a livelihood from that… it was just ‘wow’. Early on, I had to finance myself, work part-time jobs.
“To go from there to playing at The Point for five nights… There were moments you thought ‘What the hell is going on here’?”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved