The Mary Wallopers: ‘Folk was never supposed to be safe’
The Dundalk ballad band are tapping into the political power of folk, punk and hip-hop
Sean McKenna and Charles and Andrew Hendy of The Mary Wallopers in the cottage/barn near Dundalk where they live and run traditional music Youtube gigs. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Two Mary Wallopers take their laptop for a walk to show me where this interview is taking place. They’re in a newly created room above the barn behind their house. The laptop moves outside, down an outdoor staircase that leads to the yard. They renovated this room, put a bar in the corner and built the staircase. “The stairs isn’t built that well,” says 27-year-old Charles Hendy. “And one of our friends fell through it one night.”
“DIY is important,” says Andrew, his 26-year-old brother. “But so is safety.”
It’s a room you might recognise from their very entertaining livestreams as rabble-rousing ballad band The Mary Wallopers. The Mary Wallopers features the Hendys and their friend Sean McKenna. They have one excellent EP of old Irish ballads called A Mouthful of the Mary Wallopers. The Hendy brothers are also in the hilarious, acidly political hip-hop outfit TPM (TaxPayers’ Money) who have gone viral with songs like F*** RTÉ and The Boys on the Dole.
Why launch their music empire from Dundalk?
“Because it’s the best place in the world,” says Charles. “We were considering going to Manchester and London to do music because they’re the places that everyone goes... We had an epiphany that we should just move to Dundalk because what’s the point in this centralisation of culture where everyone moves to these cities? It doesn’t make sense with the internet. You can access stuff from all over the planet.”
The Hendys grew up in Dunleer surrounded by folk music. As small children their sister sang old songs for them, and their dad played the accordion. “There used to be ballad sessions in the house,” says Charles. “When we were very into punk, we wouldn’t have necessarily realised how punk the ballads were.”
Around six years ago Andrew was in a punk band and about to start then drop out of an engineering degree in Trinity. Meanwhile, Charles was living in the Netherlands where he had a dream about Luke Kelly and awoke with a renewed desire to sing folk music. Soon after this they moved into a house in Dundalk town together and a week later wrote their TPM hit The Boys on the Dole. “One of the worst things that ever happened to TPM is it went viral,” says Charles.
“We ended up playing Electric Picnic with one song and then toured the country for the guts of the year with four songs,” says Andrew.
What influences them? “The biggest influence for us has always been reactionary stuff to poverty,” says Charles. “It’s mad how much you accept living in poverty as a young person.”
“I think we’re both more inclined to write about stuff that annoys us than write songs about clouds or whatever,” says Andrew.
“Any music we enjoy is very honest,” says Charles. “Grandmaster Flash and The Message, it’s about his life and what’s around him. And that’s where hip-hop really blossoms and it’s the same with punk and it’s the same with folk. Anything that’s kind of DIY.”
Four years ago, they moved out to the country to the house in which they live now. The property is owned by a friend’s family, who couldn’t rent it because of a problematic neighbour. “It’s like The Field,” says Charles.
“No one wanted to live here,” says Andrew.
“But we said we’d live here no problem,” says Charles.
After seeing how little bands in Dublin venues were being paid, the brothers built a stage in their barn and began running gigs featuring acts like Miles Manley, Junior Brother and Thomas McCarthy. They drove people out from town in their van. Their friends brewed beer. They paid the bands but made no money. When lockdown kicked in they renovated the room above the barn and began livestreaming.
I get distracted for a few moments by a man at the bar behind them who’s tying two hurleys together for a sort of Skull and Crossbones effect.
We always get comments about our accents on Mary Wallopers videos. People always say, ‘The Dubliners on helium’, which we’ll take
“That’s Mark,” says Charles. “He does set design.”
Why folk music?
“When we got back and moved to Dundalk, we knew Sean used to sing ballads when we were younger,” says Charles. “So to get free drink around the pubs of Dundalk, me, Andrew and Sean would go into the pub and go like, ‘Will you give us pints and we’ll play music in the corner?’”
They started playing regularly in McManus’s, “the pub famous for starting off the Corrs.”
They feel connected to other DIY musicians around the country, all similarly politicised singers like Jinx Lennon and Postpunk Podge. “Jinx is our biggest influence,” says Charles. “I think he’s the best in the world. He’s up against a lot because of his accent, which is a kind of a self-hating Irish thing.”
“People don’t want to be told of the goofiness of the little town they come from in Ireland,” says Andrew.
“Singing in your own accent is the most beautiful thing – people are so shocked by it,” says Charles. “We always get comments about our accents on Mary Wallopers videos. People always say, ‘The Dubliners on helium’, which we’ll take.”
The Mary Wallopers have played Irish embassy events and been on RTÉ shows such as The Den and The Tommy Tiernan Show. The Hendys think that people don’t realise how subversive folk actually is.
“TPM is more in-your-face,” says Charles. “But to us there isn’t much difference in the actual politics.”
“A lot of the people who might be offended by TPM hear us singing ballads and say ‘that’s lovely’,” says Andrew. “If they were around in the time of Brendan Behan or James Joyce or Luke Kelly they’d have been saying, ‘That’s disgraceful!’”
“With stuff like Mumford and Sons, folk became very twee and very safe,” says Charles. “Folk was never supposed to be safe music. Doing the embassy thing, we were told that we couldn’t play [the Dominic Behan song] Building Up and Tearing England Down, in case there was an international event. So it’s funny, because I think when people book folk acts sometimes they’re like, ‘It’s a folk act – they’re not going to be saying anything.’”
They’re not frightened of putting themselves out there politically. Charles and Andrew went viral (again) last year after they disrupted a local far-right anti-lockdown protest, turning up wearing tinfoil hats and sandwich boards declaring they were “Dundalk Against Change”.
“Bring back dial-up! The internet is too fast,” they chanted, and, “Open up the old shopping centre!” and “I have flags in my house too!”
“I think it’s very important to counter-protest that kind of fascism,” says Andrew. “We could have made them better actually, the tinfoil hats,” says Charles. “They were flying all over the place.”
What was the reaction like? “They’re horrible, horrible people,” says Charles. “And it was only proven because afterwards the amount of abuse we got was unholy. People were screenshotting pictures of our noses and putting them into the group, saying we were Jews and we were being paid by George Soros.”
Over the summer we’re considering doing a little fake tour around Ireland where we just rock up into different places and play sessions
“And look at the march in Dublin,” says Andrew. “If you thought that these people are just loonies, and they can’t gain traction, that’s very dangerous because they can gain traction.”
What are they trying to do with the livestreamed shows? “I think we’re trying to recreate the pub experience,” says Andrew. “We’re trying to keep folk music accessible. So there’s no point in us doing a live stream and trying to pretend we’re magical and untouched. It’s much better if we dress the gig as a session.”
“The reaction was unbelievable,” says Charles. “People who lost people close to them who wanted us to play certain songs... There was a video of someone’s grandfather playing the tin whistle along with it.”
They’re trying to adapt and plan ahead. “Over the summer we’re considering doing a little fake tour around Ireland where we just rock up into different places and play sessions,” says Charles.
“We bought an old pickup from the ’80s and we’re going to restore that,” says Andrew.
“It’s full of rust but it has a lot of character,” says Charles.
They have three old vans. They spend a lot of time fixing them. “Our dad taught us how to weld when we were about six,” says Andrew.
“A lot of the DIY stuff comes from our father,” says Charles. “I remember he would get angry if he couldn’t fix something himself.”
“He built his own windmill and any time the wind got heavy you’d hear it banging outside,” says Andrew.
“And you wouldn’t be allowed go outside if it was windy,” says Charles. “He built us a 24-foot-high swing.”
“One day he was watching us on the swing,” says Andrew. “He was being like, ‘This swing is sh**. It isn’t good enough.’ So that’s still there. A swing that’s taller than our two-storey house.”
So the Hendy brothers are DIY in every sense. They have a Mary Wallopers album recorded with McKenna, this time featuring some original songs and even some samples. It will be out at some point this year. They have a drummer and a bass player on board for future live gigs to help them attain a certain level of pub rowdiness. “We were playing in McManus’s once,” says Andrew. “This girl started smoking a cigarette inside and the barman gave out to her and her two uncles came out and started beating each other up and they had each other by the neck with their foreheads touching. We started playing Paddy Works on the Railway really fast. The main goal is to try and transfer that energy onto the stage.”