During Catskill Irish Arts Week 2011, Mary Staunton spoke with us about singing and more. Her singing has been described as low on flash but as beatiful as a lark.
Question: When did you start singing?
Mary Staunton: I suppose it was when I was a young child; probably I was six or seven. My grandmother used to sing her songs at home to us. My neighbor was a great friend of my dad's. They played fiddle together. Dad used to sing a lot of songs for us as well, when we were young. There was always music and singing in the house.
Question: Did you grow up with the Irish language?
Mary Staunton: Yes, my grandmother spoke Irish to us at home. I grew up in a Gaelic speaking area or Gaeltacht. All of school was in Irish right up to 18 year olds. We sang Irish songs and English songs all the time. We played music as well, and the singing and music went hand in hand. When I was young I probably played more music than I sang. As I got older, singing took over more.
Question: What part of Ireland did you grow up in?
Mary Staunton: A place called Tourmakeady (Tuar Mhic Éadaigh in Irish). It's a small little village between the mountain and the lake – Lake Mask. It's in southwest Mayo, almost in Galway. It's about 15 miles from Westport Town.
Question: When you were a teenager, did you start doing stage performances?
Mary Staunton: When I was thirteen, we were playing sessions around Mayo. We'd play in the local bars around home, especially in summer. We'd play for seisún. We'd play for dancers. We did years of that. It was good fun, though. All my family played. My brother plays bouzouki and my sister plays fiddle and whistle. So we always played and the craic was always there! Performing was part of life.
Question: Do you remember how you learned to memorize songs?
Mary Staunton: That was just part of the art. We learned by ear and we memorized since we were kids. It was part of the thing we did. You get very quick and very used to it as you get older, especially when you start young. We heard a lot of tunes and we learned them by ear.
Question: What is your favorite song to sing?
Mary Staunton: The one I got from my grandmother, “The Green Fields of Mayo.” I love it because it's about home, it's from her, and it's very personal. It's a sacred song to me, like my family is.
Question: Have you enjoyed Catskill Irish Arts Week? Is it your first time at Catskill Irish Arts Week?
Mary Staunton: Yes, I enjoyed it very much. I heard about it for years and lots of my friends have been here, but it's my first time coming here. I had a great time. I met lovely people. There is a great atmosphere here. There is so much music going on and it's impossible to hear it all as it's so extensive. It's fantastic. Everyone is so welcoming and nice. I had a great time.
Question: How did you hear about Catskill Irish Arts Week before you came?
Mary Staunton: I heard about it through other people who've been here down through the years. I know the musicians and singers in Ireland who have come here. Anyone who has been here always speaks very highly of it. They've all said they had a great time.
Question: Were your students attentive this week?
Mary Staunton: Yes, and they were all lovely people. Some of them were teenagers. One of them had learned two songs in Irish and one hymn. She sings at a mass every year. It was great to hear her singing in the Irish language. One woman spent three months learning one song “as Gaeilge” (from or in Irish language). She broke down all the songs phonetically. It must have taken her so long to work it out! It was amazing to hear that.
Question: What's been the most surprising thing this week?
Mary Staunton: I admire the way Paul has put it all together. It’s a maze of timing for all the concerts, workshops, and all the various classes. The week is a huge thing to undertake. He does amazing work. The whole jigsaw of the time table - how he does it is great.
Question: Are you staying for a bit in the States after this week?
Mary Staunton: I am going back into New York City to be with friends for a few days. I haven't seen them in years. That will be wonderful!
Question: What CDs do you have out?
Mary Staunton: I just recorded a new CD last year called “Circle of Friends.” I launched it last August as my second CD. My first CD was 12 years prior in 1998. It took me a long time to get into the mood to do the next one, but I got lots of help from various friends. A friend of mine Alec Fin produced it with me. He's a circuit barrister and my neighbor. It was an easy recording to do as I had the help of my many friends on it.
My earlier CD is called “Bright Early Mornings” but that was done so many years ago. It's a mixture of songs and tunes including a few duets. There are a lot of Mayo tunes on it that are nice to preserve.
Question: How did you come to have a duet with John Prine on your Circle of Friends CD?
Mary Staunton: I’ve known John Prine for twenty years. He has a holiday home in Kinvar and we play tunes there together. Also, Sharon Shannon invited us to a duet of John’s own composition on the Diamond Mountain Sessions CD. His composition is entitled, “Love, Love, Love.” When we were recording that, he offered to do a duet with me the next time I recorded a CD.
Question: How did you pick the song to do as a duet?
Mary Staunton: John and I both liked “Boots of Spanish Leather” by Bob Dylan. We liked the idea of doing a male/female call and response. When you look at the song, you see Dylan wrote it in that style, but of course he didn’t use a duet of voices. He recorded himself singing both the man and woman’s parts. John and I decided it would be fun to record it as a duet.
I heard Bob Dylan play Boots of Spanish Leather in Galway once. His version was amazing.
So that’s it. Maybe Bob will hear this track someday? I hope he likes it. It was a privilege for me.
Mary Staunton Website
More Irish Musicians in Shamrock Road blogs:
- Brían Ó hAirt (Brian Hart)
- Bernadette Nic Gabhann
- Aoife Clancy
- Matt and Shannon Heaton