Hail Mary, pride of Ballyfermot


Locals say Mary Byrne, the ‘X Factor’ finalist, has ‘put Ballyfermot on the map’ and ‘given the country a lift’. But there’s more to her than the reality-TV narrative suggests, writes RÓISÍN INGLE

CHECKOUT 40 at the Tesco supermarket in Ballyfermot is the latest stop on Dublin’s pop-music trail, a trail that also includes Korky’s shoe shop on Grafton Street, where Ronan Keating once spent his days flogging runners. Above the desk is a sign reading “Mary’s Till”. It is currently not staffed. The Mary in question, a dark-haired, size-20, vocally gifted 50-year-old, is in London, holed up in a luxury house with a dozen other X Factorcontestants, gearing up for her second live performance tonight. Since the Dublin auditions earlier this year, when she impressed Simon Cowell with her assured rendition of Shirley Bassey’s I (Who Have Nothing), Mary Byrne from Tesco has come a very long way.

Walking along the main street, you hear her name mentioned at traffic lights and in newsagents. A couple of teenage boys in the chipper are talking about her hair and make-up on last week’s show, when she got a standing ovation for her diva-worthy rendition of the James Brown classic It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World. “They her did up great, they did,” one says. “‘We’re supporting Mary” posters are on windows everywhere from the butcher’s to the florist’s. Liveline’s Joe Duffy, a local, has said she is the best thing to come from the area since the Furey Brothers.

“Being honest with you, I don’t think she will win, but she is a winner already,” says Claire McCormack, a local woman standing outside Tesco with her children. “It makes you proud to be from Ballyfermot. It’s put Ballyfermot on the map and given us all a lift. It’s exactly what the country needs.”

It seems the whole of Ballyfermot is buzzing on the back of Byrne’s X Factorjourney. It’s always a “journey” in talent-show-speak, in which the power of a contestant’s narrative is almost as important as the power in their voice. Byrne’s narrative ticks all the right boxes. As the comedian Peter Kay illustrated in Britain’s Got the Pop Factor and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice, his brilliant parody of the TV talent-show genre, you are nothing in this business if your story doesn’t have the capacity to jerk a few tears.

While few expect her to win the contest outright, Byrne has been one of the most talked-about contestants in the competition and is being styled as the Susan Boyle (or SuBo) of the competition. SuBo was the frumpy-looking Scottish woman with the amazing voice who became a global singing sensation after appearing on Britain’s Got Talent.

Mary Byrne (or MaBy, as she has been nicknamed) has talked a lot about her self-esteem issues, with the result that people are rooting for her with more passion than for fellow contestants such as Katie Weissel, whose obvious ambition and lack of underdog credentials have rendered her something of an X Factorpariah. Byrne’s story combines unhappiness about her size with a general lack of self-belief. She is also a single mother who suffers from arthritis and who has had, according to reports, “a hard life”.

She told one magazine this week that having a child without being married meant she was isolated by members of the very Ballyfermot community that now has her on a pedestal. “I was the subject of so much ridicule because, at that time, it was so frowned upon to have a child out of wedlock in a Catholic country. I was left high and dry, living alone, and at my wits’ end,” she said.

“I’d get so many nasty comments made at me in the street. My neighbours started shouting at me and called me a whore. I had no money and no prospects, no future.” Things like The X Factordon’t happen to people like Byrne, her powerful narrative suggests, and she’s been waiting for this all her life.

In fact, it’s only two years since she won a TG4 talent show called Nollaig No 1as Mary Lee – her brother sings in a Tom Jones tribute act under the name Tommy Lee Jones. The prize included the recording of a single, Siúl Leat,an Irish version of the Liverpool football anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, which ironically went up against that year’s X Factorwinner, Alexandra Burke, for the Christmas number-one spot.

The download-only track was reported to have sold just 19 copies. The producer of that show was Tom Evans of Adare Productions. He remembers Byrne as a “genuinely lovely person, who was a bag of nerves and had very little self-confidence . . . You would literally see her shaking before she went on stage.” Evans believes Nollaig No 1gave her the confidence to aim for a bigger stage. “I would hope that her self-confidence has improved since then, and we wish her all the best.”

BACK IN BALLYFERMOT, Byrne’s friend and colleague Peggy Hogarty is describing the woman who until recently used to sing at checkout 40 to entertain customers.

“Mary is big and beautiful and jolly,” she says. “What you see is exactly what you get. She can’t take a compliment; that’s one thing I would say about her: she finds it hard to believe that people think she is fabulous.”

Talking to those who know her, it emerges that there are two Mary Byrnes.

Tesco Mary is an ordinary person, popular with customers, who is quiet and kind. She’s the woman shaking like a leaf backstage at The X Factor, the one who covers her face with her hands.

Singer Mary is an incredibly confident performer, with a natural, unstudied charisma. She’s the one who emerged onstage last week, revealing a Dawn French-inspired makeover, wowing the studio audience, the judges and the millions watching at home.

“But you can see when she finishes a song that she breathes out heavily and goes back to being the other Mary again,” says Hogarty. “It’s almost like she can’t believe what she’s just done.”

Byrne has been coming to Downey’s pub in Ballyfermot for 25 years, often getting up to sing or to run the karaoke nights. Now Tesco has booked the function room on Saturday evenings so staff can watch their colleague perform in The X Factoron a big screen. The retail giant’s support of its employee, who is on paid special leave from the shop, has been the subject of some controversy. It’s suggested the supermarket’s “We’re Behind Mary” ads and e-mails to staff, urging them to support the singer, give her an unfair advantage over other contestants. “We are supporting Mary, but it’s up to people how they vote,” a spokesman said. The supermarket, with its slogan “Every little helps”, has had eight mentions in three programmes of The X Factor.

Last Saturday night in Downey’s was “unreal”, says Tom Flynn, a barman, between pulling pints for a mostly male afternoon crowd. He hadn’t seen anything like it in the pub or in the area since Italia 90.

“When she stood up to sing the atmosphere was like at a rugby international when Brian O’Driscoll steps up . . . When she sang you could have heard a pin drop, and then when it was over the roof nearly came down on the pub with the roars,” he said.

Journalists have been coming into the pub for weeks, desperate to unearth skeletons in Byrne’s closet, anything to offset the salt-of-the-earth persona that has been created. “They can dig and dig, but they won’t find anything,” he says. “She’s just a lovely woman who deserves every success she gets.”

Whatever happens in The X Factor, the support and admiration of its Irish judge, Louis Walsh, mean her dream of a singing career is now a real prospect. And Byrne’s journey has already inspired other communities to discover their hidden superstars.

“You see the way the people of Ballyfermot have reacted to having someone like Mary; it got us thinking that in a time of doom and gloom why can’t Ringsend get a bit of a boost like that?” says Shay Connolly of Clanna Gael Fontenoy GAA club in Ringsend, who has launched the D4 Hotels-sponsored Fontenoy Factor at the club. “We can lie down and roll over and die or we can try to get the feel-good factor back into the community.” (The contest takes place every Friday night at 8.30pm in the GAA club and is open to contestants from the Dublin docklands area.)

There may well be other Mary Byrnes singing their hearts out expertly in workplaces all over the country, but for tonight, and for what fans hope will be at least several Saturdays to come, it’s all about the woman from Ballyfermot.

Will the experience change her? “I really don’t think so,” says her colleague Peggy Hogarty. “I think she will be the same, but maybe with a bit more confidence.”

Does she think Mary will ever be back behind checkout 40, scanning groceries? “If she is back here there isn’t any justice in the world,” says Hogarty. “The next time I see her in Tesco she will be buying her own CD.”