In a cozy pub known locally as Tata’s, Charles Hendy calls ‘notions’ – the quintessentially Irish variety of having ideas above his station. “We have no problem giving a plumber a guest list,” he says, the first pint of the day at the ready. “In fact, I think the very idea of being a musician should be a lot more like being a plumber. Music is an everyday job.
Alongside his brother Andrew and Seán McKenna, Hendy fronts the Mary Wallopers, Dundalk balladeers elevating traditional Irish folk for a new era. Bred on trade giants such as the Dubliners and Clancy Brothers, they formed in 2016 and are a rare offering to bridge between generations. Just like the folk scholars of Dublin Lankum, their music “speaks truth to power” while reclaiming the power of tradition. Setting them apart is a rascality that honors the mad as well as having a conscience.
“All of our stuff is presented honestly because it’s people’s music,” says Andrew, the youngest of the Hendy brothers and tenor banjo virtuoso. “We play funny songs and songs about riding ‘-sex-” but we also play political songs and sad songs. to real life.
It’s a hushed midweek afternoon at Tata’s, a Dundalk pub properly called O’Carroll’s, but the buzz picks up the second the Mary Wallopers enter. “Are you guys for the session later?” a young bartender inquires straight away, referring to the casual weekly gathering of trad players at Russell’s, a nearby bar.
“Awk now we’ll have to see,” Charles says, a subtle nod from the vocalist and guitarist almost revealing the playing.
With a recently expanded live lineup, his band is enthusiastic in its mission to bring ballads – short, traditional narrative poems sung with accompaniment – to the masses. Take the new single and longtime fan favorite Cod Liver Oil & Orange Juice. Popularized in the 1960s by Scottish folk singer Hamish Imlach, it’s an ode to the drunken divil – the most Irish catch-all for doing mischief – that the Mary Wallopers have made their own. It may be a simple story about a ‘tough man’ from Bridgeton (usually pronounced ‘Brington’) in Glasgow and a woman known as ‘hairy Mary’, but therein lies its appeal.
“Human stories are the most important and moving things,” Charles says, his mid-country brogue bursting with emphasis. “They don’t need to be flash either. Folk became this thing where it was special as opposed to ordinary. Mumford & Sons and all that. What the fuck was that? You don’t want to say it’s special because it creates a barrier. You want to remove barriers if anything.
After spending four years breaking down barriers in venues large and small, the band were on the right track when Ireland first went into lockdown in March 2020. With five gigs canceled in three days (that’s was St. Patrick’s week), the Hendys built a makeshift bar in their living room and launched a live-streaming series, Stay home with the Mary Wallopers. Over several life-saving weeks, they reversed the script of fate and became a national phenomenon, throwing a lifeline to more than 40,000 people watching at home.
“It was crazy, but these streams were easy for us to do right away,” Charles explains. “When your whole career rolls with the punches, your downsides can also be your upsides. The whole DIY side of things can take a lifetime to learn. We haven’t fully learned that yet, but you have to be prepared to adapt.
The essential outer energy of the Mary Wallopers underlies this spirit. Sessions in bars such as Russell’s may still reign supreme, but they also captured that world vividly on their self-titled debut album. Whether it’s renditions of traditional gems such as Dominic Behan’s Building Up and Tearing England Down, or originals such as The Night the Gards Raided Owenys – a first-hand account of the police breaking the shebeen of a local legend – the everyday life of the characters takes center stage.
That says a lot about a bigger point, says Andrew. “People who need these songs the most should be able to tune into them easily. If people listen to us and say, ‘Oh, I could never do that,’ then there’s something wrong. »
“If we can do it, anyone can do it,” McKenna adds.
As they prepare for a three-month tour of Ireland, the UK and Europe – their most distant journey yet – the band’s modesty seems rooted in a hard-won perspective. Rather than another overnight success, it’s a reward for their hard work and belief. And that even before tackling the backlash of the social paralysis that deprived previous generations.
“In Ireland there is definitely generational trauma from colonialism and the church, which has run through families, which has affected people,” says Andrew. “It’s always gone hand in hand with a strong quality of writing here. Music is our way of coping with life.
“It took us a long time to admit we were musicians,” Charles says. “We have such a rich culture here in Ireland, but the key is to recognize it and not put it on a pedestal. Irish musicians don’t put on English or American accents anymore. Fortunately, those fall out of fashion very quickly.
As the group leaves Tata, an older man rushes in. “Do you play music yourself? he asks and promises he will check them. On an impromptu tour of the city’s hauntings with the trio throughout the day, this is just one of many encounters with Dundalkians, both those who know their job and those who don’t. . In the square smoking area of the Stag’s Head, Charles soothes a newcomer to their music with a solo rendition of The Night the Gards Raided Owenys. Later, at Harry’s Bar, a brisk walk through town, a framed photo of the band running naked through a field sits proudly behind the bar.
Then there’s the inevitable session at Russell’s, with a rotating cast of lore heroes. Wielding fiddles, bodhráns and more, there’s Tata’s young bartender and the legendary Oweny himself. Along the way, the Mary Wallopers branch out into reels and ballads, which eschew their own material, and the distinction between casual maestros, fast-growing contenders, and their audiences crumbles. In the eyes of the city’s beloved sons, this magic is not confined to Russell, Dundalk or even Ireland as a whole.
“I worked overseas for a year,” Andrew said earlier. “It made me appreciate how much immigration has strengthened traditional Irish folk music. Most people come to Ireland to watch pub sessions, but they started in England and America and didn’t happen here until immigrants needed a place to play music together. It is therefore important for us to connect not only with the Irish people, but also with all the people who have had to leave their families to work in shitty jobs and live in poor conditions in search of a better life. In some ways, it’s people who aren’t Irish who need it the most.
Mary Wallopers self-titled album released via BC Records