‘Music is our way of coping with life’: the Mary Wallopers on bringing booze, sex and politics back to folk

In a snug pub known locally as Tata’s, Charles Hendy is calling out “notions” – the distinctly Irish strain of having ideas above one’s station. “We have no problem giving guest list to a plumber,” he says, the day’s first pint of plain at hand. “In fact, I think the whole idea of being a musician should be a lot more like being a plumber. Music is an everyday trade.”

Alongside his brother Andrew and Seán McKenna, Hendy helms the Mary Wallopers, the Dundalk balladeers elevating traditional Irish folk for a new era. Raised on trad giants such as the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers, they formed in 2016 and are a rare generation-bridging proposition. Just like the Dublin folk savants Lankum, their music “speaks truth to power” while, crucially, taking power from tradition. Setting them apart is a rascality that honours the craic every bit as much as having a conscience.

“Our whole thing is presented in an honest way because it’s the people’s music,” says Andrew, the younger of the Hendy brothers and a virtuoso on tenor banjo. “We play funny songs and songs about riding” – sex – “but we also play political songs and sad songs. If we can rip the piss out of ourselves then sing something that is really emotional it makes it more like real life.”

It’s a muted midweek afternoon in Tata’s, a Dundalk pub properly called O’Carroll’s, but the buzz picks up the second the Mary Wallopers walk in. “Are you lads for the session later?” a young bartender inquires off the bat, referring to the casual weekly gathering of trad players at Russell’s, a neighbouring bar.

“Awk now, we’ll have to see,” says Charles, a subtle wink from the singer and guitarist almost giving the game away.

With a recently expanded live lineup, his group are gung-ho in their mission to bring ballads – short traditional narrative poems sung with an accompaniment – to the masses. Take the new single and longtime fan favourite Cod Liver Oil & the Orange Juice. Written in the 1960s by the Scottish folk singer Hamish Imlach, it’s an ode to drunken divilment – the most Irish of catch-alls for mischief-making – that the Mary Wallopers have made their own. It may be a simple tale about a “hard man” from Brighton and a woman known as “hairy Mary” but therein lies its lure.

“Human stories are the most important and moving things,” says Charles, 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 about? You don’t want to be saying that it’s special because that puts up a barrier. You want to be removing barriers if anything.”

Having spent four years removing barriers in rooms big and small, the group were well on their way when Ireland first entered lockdown in March 2020. With five gigs in three days cancelled (it was the week of Saint Patrick’s Day) the Hendys built a makeshift bar in their front room and launched a live-stream series, Stay at Home with the Mary Wallopers. Over several sanity-saving weeks, they flipped the script on fate and emerged as a national phenomenon, throwing a lifeline to more than 40,000 people watching at home.

“It was mad but those streams were easy for us to do straight away,” says Charles. “When your whole career is rolling with the punches, your disadvantages can also be your advantages. The whole DIY side of things can take a lifetime to learn. We haven’t fully learned it yet but you have to be willing to adapt.”

The Mary Wallopers’ essential outsider energy underpins that spirit. Sessions in bars such as Russell’s may always reign supreme but they have also vividly captured that world on their self-titled debut album. Whether on renditions of trad gems such as Dominic Behan’s Building Up and Tearing England Down, or originals including The Night the Gards Raided Owenys – a first-hand account of the police busting a local legend’s shebeen – the lives of everyday characters take centre stage.

It speaks to a bigger point, says Andrew. “People who need these songs the most should be able to connect to it easily. If people listen to us and feel like, ‘Oh, I could never do that,’ then there’s something wrong.”

“If we can do it, anyone can,” adds McKenna.

As they gear up for a three-month tour of Ireland, the UK and Europe – their furthest-flung trek to date – the group’s modesty seems rooted in hard-won perspective. Rather than yet another overnight success story, it’s a payoff for their relentless hard graft and conviction. And that is before even tackling the backwash of social paralysis that has deprived prior generations.

“In Ireland there is definitely generational trauma from colonialism and from the church, that trickled down through families, that have affected people,” says Andrew. “It’s always gone hand in hand with a strong quality of songwriting here. Music is our way of coping with life.”

The Mary Wallopers performing last year at the RTÉ Radio 1 folk awards in Dublin.
‘You don’t want to be saying that folk is special because that puts up a barrier’ … The Mary Wallopers performing last year at the RTÉ Radio 1 folk awards in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

“It took a long time for us to admit that we’re musicians,” says Charles. “We have such a rich culture here in Ireland but the key is recognising it and not putting it on a pedestal. Irish musicians are no longer putting on English or American accents. The ones that do thankfully fall out of vogue very quickly.”

As the group leave Tata’s, an older man rushes up. “Do you play music yourselves?” he asks, and promises he will check them out. On an off-the-cuff tour of town haunts with the trio throughout the day, it’s just one of many encounters with Dundalkians, both those who are familiar with their work and those who are not. In the boxy smoking area of the Stag’s Head, Charles appeases a newcomer to their music with a solo rendition of The Night the Gards Raided Owenys. Later, in Harry’s Bar, a brisk walk up the town, a framed photo of the group running naked through a field sits proudly behind the bar.

Then there is the inevitable session at Russell’s, featuring a rotating cast of trad heroes. Wielding fiddles, bodhráns and more, there is the young bartender from Tata’s and the fabled Oweny himself. Pitching in on reels and ballads along the way are the Mary Wallopers, who steer clear of their own material, and the distinction between casual maestros, fast-rising contenders and their audience falls away. As the town’s feted sons see it, that magic isn’t confined to Russell’s, Dundalk or even Ireland as a whole.

“I worked abroad for a year,” Andrew said earlier. “It made me appreciate how much immigration strengthened traditional Irish folk music. Most people come to Ireland to see pub sessions, but they started in England and America and didn’t happen here until immigrants needed somewhere to play music together. So it is important for us to connect not just with Irish people but also all people who have had to leave their families to work shite jobs and live in bad conditions in pursuit of a better life. In some ways, it’s people that aren’t Irish that need it more.”

The Mary Wallopers self-titled album is released via BC Records

The Guardian