Country and folk singer Mary Duff talks to Mags Gargan about faith and music
Despite an international, globe-trotting career, Mary Duff remains a home bird at heart and says one of her favourite things is singing in her local parish church.
“I live in Lobinstown parish [Co. Meath] outside Drogheda and have never moved away from home,” she says. “In small communities, everyone knows everyone and watches out for each other, but in towns or cities you may not know your next door neighbours. I love the country, the fresh air and I always appreciate when I come back home.”
Mary first got the chance to showcase her talent at just 12 years of age when her father heard her singing on a home tape recorder and recognised she had a talent. Having his own band at that time, he invited Mary to sing with them at weekends.
“My father plays accordion and is a traditional singer. Music has always been played in our house and musicians would be coming round to play. He discovered that I could sing and persuaded me to come to the local pub one night to perform and I loved it. But the very first place I sang was in church and my school teacher encouraged me to sing solos and then we began to sing at weddings and funerals,” she says.
“I love singing in church and take any opportunity, in fact I would love to do more shows of that nature, especially around Christmas.”
Mary plans to perform a concert in support of a campaign to prevent the closure of the local Dominican church in Drogheda. She will lead the performance in the ‘Stand by your church’ concert with special guests on September 18 at 8pm to mark the one-year anniversary of the Dominican order’s announcement that they would withdraw from five centres across Ireland, including Drogheda.
“St Magadelen’s is a gorgeous church. It was there before Cromwell and is part of the history of Drogheda, and it would be such a shame if it closed down,” she says. “It is a smaller, old style church which is lovely for the community as smaller churches have more atmosphere, and as a singer it is nice to sing in because smaller churches have better acoustics.”
The Catholic faith has always been a strong influence on Mary’s life. “I would always say prayers and carry holy water with me. My grandmother always had holy water and I was brought up with that faith.”
Mary also carries a small statue of St Martin with her which dates back to the first big break in her career when she won the Sunday World Nationwide Talent Competition.
“My friend had a tiny statue of St Martin in her pocket and she would bless me and give it to me for competitions. When I won the competition she gave it to me and I always keep it with me. Maybe it is a bit superstitious, but that is very Irish too,” she says.
“I think you have to believe in something. I bless myself with holy water and the St Martin statue before going on stage, and carry rosary beads with me. I also strongly believe in guardian angels. On the Voice of an Angel album, the Fr Liam Lawton song is the title track and people often say to me it is very inspiring or helped them in a time of need.”
Mary says she had always wanted to record an album of hymns, and the 2009 CD features 14 inspirational hymns, including some of her firm favourites Ave Maria, Ag Críost An Síol and O Holy Night, which she says she loves to sing in church at Christmas time.
“I sing in the local parish church at Christmas and at funerals or weddings if I am not away touring. It is such a great feeling to sing in a church, especially in the older churches. You don’t really need a microphone and there is a lovely silence. I can’t describe that feeling.”
After her success in the Sunday World competition, Mary signed with Ritz Records and was offered the special guest slot on Daniel O’Donnell’s first UK concert tour. Such was the success that today, 28 years later, Mary still remains Daniel’s special guest.
“We have had a great time and toured all over the world,” she says. “We have a great camaraderie and it was wonderful to get to know his audience. This has allowed me to follow my dreams and I am very thankful to Daniel and the other people who have supported me along the way.”
While originally a competition winner herself, Mary feels that the big televised music competitions of today are not preparing people properly for the music industry.
“I started from scratch and worked my way to get where I am. I think big talent competitions that take people from nowhere and make them famous don’t give them the experience of what it’s really like. A career in music is not a bed of roses, it is hard work and you have to keep at it and believe in yourself, like any other business,” she says.
“But it is also a very fulfilling business. Sometimes I get letters from people about the joy the songs give them. One man in Australia wrote to me about going to my concert. He has been diagnosed with cancer and felt very down and depressed and didn’t want to be there. He heard me sing the Cliffs of Dooneen and he thought ‘why would I want to leave this life with such beauty?’ and it became a turning point for him.
“Stories like that give you the incentive to go on and you get such satisfaction to meet people and hear stories like that.”
Mary recently returned fromthe annual Mary Duff Appreciation Society Weekend at Llandudno in Wales. It is a music festival over the course of a number of days in July to celebrate Mary’s music. Organised by her fans, the festival has been running for 15 years.
“I sing there every year and have guest singers. It is a lovely get together for people to meet and make friends. It is like a big family gathering and people are just so nice.”
Mary is the patron of CF Ireland and is supporting the #strawfie social media campaign – similar to the ice bucket challenge – which aims to show how difficult it is to breathe for those living with Cystic Fibrosis – a genetic condition that affects mostly the lungs. She has also recorded a new song Breathe with Me which will be launched in September.
“With the #strawfie challenge, you take a picture of yourself pinching your nose while trying to breathe through a straw to feel how CF sufferers go through their lives,” she says. “It is next to impossible as a singer to live with CF, as breathing is so important.
“It is a great cause and something I am honoured to be involved in. It is nice to help other people through whatever way you can.”
*Participants in the #strawfie campaign are asked to post their photos on social media nominating three other friends and to make a donation for Cystic Fibrosis by visiting https://www.justgiving.com/TWF-breathewithme/