Soul singer

Mary Byrne talks of family and faith with Paul Keenan

Part way throughher interview with The Irish Catholic, Mary Byrne shares a secret.

Fielding questions both on her singing career to date – some 40 plus years in the making to her sudden climb to stardom in 2010 – and what place she makes for faith in her life, Mary brings the conversation back to that first year of fame, when, as a contestant on the hit television talent show The X Factor, her singing talents were given international exposure and her set her on the path to the career she had desired all her life.

What Mary shares is that never seen moment before each performance, the last few seconds of preparation before the spotlights came on, placing her before the gaze of judges and audience.

“I said a prayer,” Mary says, explaining how important it was to combat a feeling of overwhelming loneliness that threatened each time. “I said a prayer and gained strength from that. And I never felt lonely walking on stage.”

Irish hope

The ‘great Irish hope’ in The X Factor throughout the 2010 broadcast, Mary was ultimately eliminated from the competition at the semi-final stage. That was time enough for her to become a hit with television and studio audiences, not least for her powerful and heartfelt rendition of It’s a Man’s World – still indelibly linked with her as a performer – and to catch the eye of record producers who set her on the path to her first album Mine & Yours and high profile appearances, such as her performance in support of Neil Diamond at the Aviva stadium in 2011, and a gala performance marking Queen Elizabeth II’s 2012 visit to Ireland.

A case of a dream come true, or a prayer answered?

Mary says it’s a little of both.

Family life

“Music was always a big part of family life,” she explains of her youth in a family of three boys and two girls in Dublin’s Ballyfermot suburb. “None of us were shy about singing.” (Her brother, Tomo, would later become the first to earn from the singing talent, becoming a Tom Jones tribute singer around Dublin)

The crossover between that and her faith, Mary explains, is best illustrated by her love of Midnight Mass every Christmas.

“Going to church and hearing the choir sing, I always loved that,” she recalls, adding that her fondest memories growing up are prompted by certain songs, the ‘soundtrack to her youth’.

“I still go to the Midnight Mass at the Church of the Assumption in Ballyfermot every year,” Mary says, explaining that her presence, and those little pre-performance prayers come courtesy of her late mother, “a devoted Catholic”.

Also courtesy of her parents, Mary explains, this Christmas season is another in which she and her siblings worked to be together as a family, whatever the demands of working lives and the season itself.

“Christmas is about family,” Mary insists. “When my parents were alive we always got together in their house.” Now, in their absence, one of Mary’s sisters has assumed the role of hostess this year and the tradition of gathering continues. “That’s important now there are grandkids and nephews and nieces,” Mary says.

Such a fondness for social settings comes as no surprise from someone who describes herself as “a big people person”.

“I loved that part of my work because of all the people I met,” she says of her ‘previous life’, working a till at the local supermarket. “It was a real relationship.”

While she says that singing to a live audience is also a relationship, “it’s different with the people ‘out there’ in the audience” and that separation – and a very real sense of separation from her daughter during the filming of The X Factor – has convinced Mary that “we all need people in our lives. That’s what keeps any loneliness at bay.”

That and those little prayers?

Talking to God

Definitely, Mary agrees, explaining that in those periods of ‘downtime’, without family and friends, she finds a comfort in talking to God, very often visiting the Church of the Assumption simply “to be on my own with God. He’s there and I spend time with him there. I do believe he’s with us 24-7.”

Downtime is something that has been rare for Mary as the Christmas season got into full swing. On top of festive duties, she is working on a new album, set for release in time for Mother’s Day next year. A collection of old classics, from Broadway and Hollywood musicals, Mary is working to “give them a new swing”. She confides that she is “very pleased” with the results from four tracks already recorded.


Notably, too, in addition to scheduled performances at Dublin’s Red Cow Inn, Mary devoted time again this year to charity performances – “charities are in such need now” – and she reveals that a previous show on behalf of the Society of Vincent de Paul still stands as “one of the best I’ve done”. (Anticipating a somewhat obvious question, she adds, “yes, I do still get asked to sing It’s a Man’s World.”)

And then, when all is ‘sung and done’, Mary kept to another tradition she values, when, on Christmas Eve, when the red candle is lit (another nod to her mother’s influence), she settled down with her daughter for a viewing of her favourite seasonal film, White Christmas.

It comes as no surprise when Mary admits she knows every word of every song.