President pays tribute to 'one of Ireland’s great folk singers' Mary McPartlan

Mary McPartlan performing in 2016

President Michael D Higgins has paid tribute to folk singer, musical director and broadcaster Mary McPartlan who has died after an illness.

“It is with deep sadness that Sabina and I have heard of the death of a dear friend, Mary McPartlan, musical director, broadcaster, and one of Ireland’s great folk singers,” Mr Higgins said in a statement today.

Mr Higgins said the Leitrim-born folk singer, who won many awards, “leaves a legacy of achievement for the arts that will endure”.

Ms McPartlan received an Ireland United States Association (IUSA) Distinguished Alumni Award just over a year ago for her “outstanding contribution to culture, education and music”.

She formed folk duo Calypso in the 1970s, and was also founder of singer’s club, An Riabhóg, in Galway. She toured in a Druid Theatre production of The Midnight Court with singer’s Seán Tyrrell and Seán Keane.

She worked with the Galway Simon Community, supported many political causes, and cited ex-Bothy Band uilleann piper Paddy Keenan’s encouragement for her release of her first album, The Holland Handkerchief, in 2004 when she was 50 years old.

She was creative director of the very successful Arts in Action programme at NUI Galway (NUIG), and received a Fullbright Scholarship in 2013 to Lehman College (CUNY) and Berea College in Kentucky.

While in the US she collaborated with jazz pianist Bertha Hope, who subsequently came to Ireland to perform with her.

Mr Higgins noted that she “played an important role in so many initiatives”, including the TG4 music show Flosc, and the introduction of the Gradam Ceoil National Traditional Music Awards. She was also a founder of the NUIG medical orchestra.

Mr Higgins said her production skills were also influential in the Galway theatre company Skehana, which she initiated, and he noted that she played key roles in the Galway Youth Theatre and directed the opening of Glór, the national Irish music centre in Ennis, Co Clare, in 2002..

“Acutely aware of the history of Irish music, song, dance and culture, Mary McPartlan brought the truth of emotion and empathy to her singing, and her acclaimed debut album ‘The Holland Handkerchief’ established her as one of the greatest traditional singers of her generation,” Mr Higgins said.

Singling out her interpretation of “Wild Mountain Side”, Mr Higgins said that her "invocation of place, history and feeling was unique”.

Sabina and I were among the many who were privileged to call her our friend, and we will miss her so much.

“For myself, I will always hold wonderful memories of being on tour with her and of her singing her tribute to Victor Jara at those five gigs we did together in 2011 in Leitrim, Donegal, Wicklow and Kerry,” he said, recalling her rendition of Adrian Mitchell’s salute to the poet murdered after the coup in Chile.

Mr Higgins referred to “the wonderful company she was... and later I often admired how brave she was, indomitable, transcending loss and adversity with a nobility of heart and a powerful reach of humanity that was of course always there in her singing and in her life”.

The President and his wife offered condolences to her husband, Paddy, and daughters Mairéad and Meabh, along with her family and friends.

NUIG professor of drama and theatre studies Patrick Lonergan described her as a renowned singer, highly respected producer, and mentor of other artists, who was also an inspirational educator and a person of “unique kindness, good humour and fortitude”.

“Without question, her greatest educational legacy is the creation and curation of the NUIG Arts in Action’ programme, supported by the university’s College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies.

“That weekly series of performances runs throughout the academic year, and features an unparalleled range of events by Irish and international artists,” Prof Lonergan noted.

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