The swagger of the remarkable hurling teams up in The North Mon during our secondary school years in the early 1980s would regularly entice entire slabs of Cork’s northside on tour beyond the county bounds and out of reach of regular reason. On assorted mid-week afternoons every winter, a slew of battered old buses and coaches would fetch up at the gates and deliver the school’s travelling army to remote, rural venues all over Munster for big colleges games. And these were all bleak, barren and backwards places: with our crudely-formed inner-city smarts, anywhere other than Blackpool was.
Decked out in our duffle coats and hooped blue-and-white scarves, and with our cheese sandwiches packed away in our pockets, we saw the very best of emerging locals like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan, Jim Murray, Liam Coffey and the mighty Connerys of Na Piarsaigh up close in their callow bodies and pimply faces in villages and towns all over South Tipperary and beyond. Those young men were never beaten and consistently left it all out there on the killing fields in the school’s cause and, back in The Mon, we made sure to commemorate their heroics.
We had a song, ‘Amhrán na Main’ – a bit like Amhrán Na bhFiann meets The Green Fields Of France – which we’d rehearse in class before big Dr. Harty Cup games and, on those occasions when we’d reach a provincial or national final, the school would produce it’s own hurling fanzine, a badly photocopied, Pravda-inspired issue called ‘Monsoon’. In which you were told all you needed to know about the teenagers on the panel – club, height, weight, the class they were in and their own favourite hurlers – with a cursory line at the end about their off-field peccadilloes.
Frankie Walsh was one of a small number of pupils who were trusted with loud-hailers and hand-picked to lead the cheering and chanting on the days of the big games. He had a smoker’s wheezy rasp and a fine beardy shadow and some of those in the staffroom clearly thought his sharp tongue and quick wit could be channelled a bit more positively. And, for a change, to the school’s benefit. So on the marquee occasions, he’d be given a bit more latitude than usual and enlisted as an official rabble-rouser.
Frankie was easily bored, though, and would sometimes deviate off-script and into more dangerous territory [‘Tax The Farmers’ was one of his better originals] and, from his seat at the back of the bus, would slyly drop the teachers’ nicknames into some of his post-watershed material. It took a brave boy to stare down The Christian Brothers but Frankie had a hard neck and a soft head and he’d give anything a decent old shot. And on the days immediately after we’d put one over on Thurles C.B.S. or Saint Flannans of Ennis or Saint Colman’s of Fermoy, he’d strut the ramp up to school like someone returned from a fortnight in America with a buffalo’s head in his holdall.
It was hurling that first took us to Emly, New Inn, Cahir, Clogheen and Ballyporeen, and they were vile places: one-bit, two-horse towns that whiffed of diesel and whose pop-up tuck shops and filthy chip vans lured the per diems from the sweaty palms of the day-trippers. How the locals, we imagined, must have feared the bumper days when The Northside, in it’s rattling fleet, rolled into town with it’s history, cocky young hurlers, loud-hailers and quotient of un-reconstructed tulls.
Decades later I married into the South Tipperary crowd and, for the last twenty years, I’ve routinely driven those roads through the same villages and towns deep within The Golden Vale, often over the hills into Kilworth and back home by stealth to Cork from my in-laws house in Ardfinnan. Every single time I drive the four-and-a half miles from Clogheen into Ballyporeen, a part of me is still fifteen years old, thick and back there with the Mon boys on tour, taxing the farmers. And another part of me is older but no less clueless, wondering which of the narrow by-roads around these parts could have inspired such wonder and magic in the songs of Gemma Hayes ?
Born and reared within a large family in Ballyporeen, Hayes remains a peripheral figure and real curiosity within Irish music circles and, even after nearly twenty years spent making records and keeping on, is frightfully difficult to pin down. Sitting neither in the fish bowl of the kooky left-field set populated by Lisa O’Neill and Julie Feeney or in the often ungainly mainstream of Imelda May or Sinéad, she’s long paid the price for her ambition and wanderlust and even more so for her indifference.
I’ll happily stand corrected but I’m still not convinced she’s been given the credit she deserves as one of Ireland’s most consistent, curious and captivating writers and solo performers, as engaging over long distance as Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien and even Sinéad herself. So much so that, when I see Imelda May vamping it one more time for the cameras, the latest in line of national sweethearts, I wonder if Ireland just likes it’s contemporary story-tellers far better if they’re more malleable and just available ?
During the summer of 2015, Gemma did a short radio insert with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio One: she was plugging her fifth album, ‘Bones And Longing’ and, from a remote studio in London, performed a couple of numbers on acoustic guitar and gave her host a terrific if all- too-brief interview. During that exchange she revealed that Louis Walsh, the one-time Boyzone and Westlife manager and now a well-known figure on British television, once suggested he take her under his wing and manage her career. ‘He wanted to work with me at the time. He was saying to me, ‘Gemma, you need to play the game more. We need to get you out dating another celebrity, we need to get you on the scene and in the papers’’, Gemma told Miriam.
Walsh, who she described as ‘a brilliant businessman’, also suggested that Hayes stop writing her own material and that he employ a team to do that on her behalf instead. And kicking the corpse once more for good luck, he assured her that she did indeed have ‘The X Factor’ which, no doubt, thrilled her no end.
Walsh is a diverting, often creepy and always boisterous figure with a traditional view of the entertainment industry – ‘the business we call ‘show’’ – who’s long understood the enduring benefits of good teeth and the utter pointlessness of the creative process. Alongside a couple of RTÉ presenters, Walsh is easily the most available ‘well-known face’ in the country and, to this extent, is a world removed from Gemma Hayes who remains at a distance and tends to hold her whisht unless she has a record to perform or promote or something of interest to impart.
Which has it’s advantages too, of course. Because if Gemma was more visible and closer to hand, like all of our many national sweethearts, would her terrific songs still carry the same degree of mystery ? Does unsung and distant give her more room to roam, more of a licence to take risks and distort her sound ? Either way, she had a lucky escape with Louis Walsh.
Hayes first made herself heard during the late 1990s when, around the fringes of the post-raggle taggle Dublin scene dominated by the likes of The Frames, The Mary Janes and Mark Geary, you’d sometimes see her with the Whelans and Mother Redcaps set, often alongside the cellist Julian Lennon. There have been five albums since, all of them flushed with the soft, acoustic touch of the old school folkies, the frenetic, shoe-gaze blitz of Slowdive, the up-beat pop swagger of The Bangles and the giddy eclectics of Kate Bush. And every one of which, kicking against convention, has been progressively better and more ambitious than the last.
Foremost among which is 2008’s ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, a terrific break-up album seeking both ‘order in the chaos’ [and indeed ‘chaos in the order’ too] in the aftermath of a split, whether that be from a person, place or thing. Or indeed all three.
Sharply produced by David Odlum, one of the original members of The Frames and a member of Hayes’s kitchen cabinet for years, it’s easily one of the best Irish albums of the last two decades. And yet ‘The Hollow Of Morning’ rarely features on anyone’s list, another recurring theme of Hayes’s career. Unsurprisingly, the records that followed it –the excellent ‘Let It Break’  and 2014’s ‘Bones And Longing’, both of which, like ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, were independently issued – didn’t trouble the chart compilers either. Indeed despite a handsome cluster of terrific, guitar-fuelled albums, she is arguably best known fora cover version of Chris Issac’s ‘Wicked Game’, which featured on the soundtrack of the American teen drama series, ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and, to a lesser extent, for ‘Making My Way Back’, which sound-tracked the Lidl supermarket chain’s Christmas advertising campaign some years back.
But she remains one of my own favourite artists and I routinely return to Gemma’s songs ;- after a recent post here about Joe Chester, who’s collaborated with and featured alongside her for years, I’ve listened to practically nothing else since. And there’s a lot of material to suck in too, most of it determined by simple melodies and those gorgeous, breathy deliveries and smart, often arrant lyrics that have long been among her signatures.
Over the course of a random shuffle, she’ll divert and shift gear from the giddy, piano and plucked string staccato of ‘All I Need’ [from ‘Let It Break’] to the up-beat, guitar pop workouts of ‘Happy Sad’ [from ‘The Roads Don’t Love You’] and ‘Out Of Our Hands’ [from ‘The Hollow Of Morning’] to the introspective, fuzzy shoe-gazed tuning of ‘Laughter’ [from ‘Bones And Longing’]. And in spite of myself, I’m still suckered every time by the full-frontal pay-off in ‘Keep Running’, her 2011 single that, after a mildly-tempered rattle that name-checks some of the most interesting cities in the world in which the writer ‘might as well be lost’, proceeds to flail blindly, like a drunken uncle at an indie disco.
No one song captures the breath of Hayes’s ambition better than ‘I Let A Good Thing Go’, from her sturdy 2002 debut album, ‘Night On My Side’, which boasts all of her primary strike assets within it’s four minutes: the carnal vocals, acoustic underlay and full-frontal thrashing that plays with skewed tunings and distorted lower ends. Ingredients she’s long favoured throughout her recording history, in which the most obvious variances have been in her increased use of beats, loops and dips: her most recent work is certainly infused with far more ambience and space. As if, almost, the more perceptive and confident she’s grown, the easier it’s become for her to pare her songs right back. On ‘Bones And Longing’ its as if she’s often just corrupting the beauty.
A couple of summers ago, I produced ‘Saturday Night With Miriam’ for the RTÉ One television schedule and, with no little prompting from the show’s music booker, my old friend Caroline Henry, we invited Paul Noonan from Bell X1 and Gemma to come in and perform a live, acoustic version of ‘The Snowman’. Trading for the occasion as Printer Clips, a solo project of Paul’s, they fetched up in Studio Four without fanfare or fuss and, working the song through during afternoon rehearsals, had a core of us absolutely distracted as they did do.
Gemma had arrived bearing gifts: as well as her acoustic guitar, she also brought along her husband, who was also minding their first child, a little boy. And hours later, and in front of an audience of just over one hundred, Paul and herself delivered a mighty live performance, directed with her usual brio – in one shot only – by Niamh White and captured on camera in a single take by Gerry Hickey, a formidable and skilled operator. Once we’d downed tools for the night and repaired back-stage, Gemma told us that she’d successfully crowd-funded a new record, even if motherhood had given her far more pressing priorities and, as you’d expect, plenty else to occupy her mind and her time.
Months later she’d also delivered ‘Bones And Longing’, as absorbing a record as any and easily her most salient. And across much of the promotion she did in support of that record, she spoke about how becoming a mother had genuinely liberated her and about how music no longer absorbs her so intently or exclusively.
Life as a parent clearly suits her.
And her work.
Brilliant as ever Colm – the intro brought back mirror image memories from across the other county bounds with the big ball in the Sem in Killarney. With this article on Gemma, you have, once again, shone the light on a unsung hero of Irish music. Oh and in the same breath as chip vans and loudspeakers..Bravo
Thanks very much Donal, most appreciated as usual. In Ireland, I think that everyone and everything connects up in the end. All the best. Colm.
Really nice post about an unsung hero. Always dug her work ever since the 4.35am EP but will admit to not keeping up with what she was always doing. Palomino off the the recent album was among the best things she’s done.
Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment Hilary, most appreciated. Personally, I think she gets better and more interesting as she rolls. She’s a curious one, that’s for sure. All the best, Colm.
Great piece. Totally brought me back to the days of the barely road-worthy buses, Frankie Walsh, and the chants of “tax the farmers” 🙂
Thanks v much, Brendan. And hope you’re not too traumatised. All the best for 2019. Colm.
I didn’t catch this piece originally Colm, but wholeheartedly agree on Gemma’s pedigree. I’ve been a huge fan of everything she’s put out, continue to play it regularly, but am currently (as of April 2020) wondering if we will see Gemma return again? I’ve not heard much from her camp of late, and I’m sure she’s absorbed with motherhood.
But hopefully not too absorbed….
Thanks, Des. I suspect there’s a fair bit more in that tank. Hope so, anyway. Thanks for the note. Colm