In the twelve months before lockdown Charles played over a hundred and fifty gigs, relying on an old Transit van to take the band on sorties from and back to its base in Dundalk. When the head gasket blew, the Hendy brothers crowd-funded a second-hand engine—a few free stickers in the post later, they were moving again. And in many ways that’s analogous to the story of their progress: their ethos is one of DIY and their success hasn’t been so much a meteoric rise as a grinding, widening spread of puckish charm. You can’t help feel that adversity, for all its inconvenience, is not wasted on the three.
Fresh from a TV appearance on The Tommy Tiernan Show, The Wallopers were set to headline in Whelan’s, Dublin. One week alone would see them play two gigs in Germany and another in London, before flying home for a St Patrick’s Day show in the Cork Opera House. But, as the continent accustomed itself to the realities of Covid-19, Charles too saw previously clear horizons start to draw in around him. One by one, hard-earned gigs dropped off the calendar and the van’s hunger for diesel became a less pressing issue.
“At the same time, fuck it.”
The band adjusted to the patronising concept of the new normal by segueing into live-streaming from a pub they put together in the Hendy brothers’ house. Nights at home with The Mary Wallopers have proven popular with their fan base and even beyond, gaining them a following from different parts of the world. “Like, when we’re posting t-shirts, we posted a hundred and fifty t-shirts to America.”
Though their online shows are curated so as to have as much fan interaction as the internet allows, ultimately the trio play alone—not a scenario they’re used to. “We got our start playing in pubs that were rough pubs. On more than one occasion we were playing ballads while there was [sic] people fighting each other in front of us. Physically thumping each other.”
Tonight, Charles is over at his girlfriend’s house whilst Andrew is isolating as a close contact of a confirmed covid case. Though pixelated through Zoom, Charles’ face is angular and lively. His speaking voice tallies reassuringly with the one he sings with—sharp and fluid in its enunciation, and full of the cadences and rhythms of Dundalk. “I’ve just been doing nothing. I bought a book of ballads today and I’ve been learning the tin whistle.”
Despite initially being known as a hip-hop artist with the ironic-but-abrasive TPM, the word folk is surely relevant when applied to The Mary Wallopers and it’s not one Charles is about to shy away from. The genre leaves plenty of room for expression, all of which the Wallopers are keen to explore. “The songs are as punk or as rock ‘n’ roll as anything because they’re all about drinking and having sex and all that kind of stuff. They’re very raw songs.” He’s keen to emphasise that any preconceptions about the music being overly twee are misplaced: “It’s anti-authority music. It’s music for rebellion. Do you know what I mean? And that’s brilliant.”
We just thought, why doesn’t Dundalk deserve the effort?Charles on the band’s decision to return home to Dundalk rather than hit for a big city.
Charles is happy to accept terms like low-fi, raw and DIY in relation to the Wallopers’ aesthetic, and often slips them into his own speech. When he talks of the folk music canon it is with an effortless and penny-droppingly-appropriate blend of respect and irreverence. “We’ve always said that we’re vessels for those old songs. There’s a duty that you have to deliver the song. When I’m singing Building Up and Tearing England Down I’m thinking of my own father, uncles, relations and people that I know that have worked on building sites in England in the sixties and broke their backs, literally, building houses.”
There is, perhaps, an unspoken expectation that folk singers should somehow earn the right to sing about hardship through endurance of some difficulties in their own lives. So, given that “authentic” is a recurring adjective fans of The Mary Wallopers use to describe their live performances, just what is it about the three that rings true? Charles is cautious not to exaggerate his own travails. Though he has worked on building sites abroad, he acknowledges, “When you move to Holland and you’re Irish you’re considered an ex-pat, not an immigrant anymore. I’ve never had that feeling of going to a different country and people hating you. Lots of Irish people have and it happens here today.”
In describing his father’s experiences as a labourer and machine driver he does so with matter-of-fact empathy: “He was made redundant in the end as a big ‘Thank You’ but then this pension he was paying into just disappeared. The bubble burst of the Celtic Tiger. We saw him work his arse off until he died. And he had nothing to show for it really—except Sundays, when he worked on things that he liked.”
In truth, given the band’s high gig tally, the uncertainty that goes with live music, and the fact that until very recently they’ve run everything themselves – booking, travel, recording, promotion – it’s hard to imagine what they do is easy. But, hard work and tragedy aside, the other folk cliché is that of hard living in terms of vices—the romanticised tendency towards self-destruction. “It’s incredibly hard work and people don’t like you saying that. You can’t have a routine and you can’t have a diet that’s anyway good. And every night you go to a gig it’s someone else’s night off. Do you know what I mean? So everyone is like, ‘Stay up, we’ll fucking go mad.’ You end up getting no food and too much drink. But it’s worth it.”
Despite all the road miles involved in touring, not moving to Dublin or some other major population centre was a conscious decision, and one Charles feels strongly about. When he and Andrew decided to take music seriously it was over a phone call between Amsterdam and Hong Kong: “We were considering moving to London or Manchester, but then the realisation came that we should move to Dundalk because—why doesn’t Dundalk deserve the effort? Why don’t small towns deserve the effort and the art? They need it and they deserve it more than places that are culturally rich.” Given the recent covid-revived interest in rural living, their attitude seems prescient: “We’ve always been very interested in the decentralisation of culture. I think it’s so important that, to see a concert in Ireland, you don’t have to go to Dublin to do it. People can become more proud, or content even with where they’re from and it’ll make art better and it’ll make it more accessible and it’ll make it less airy fairy to people.” His thinking is clear: cities provide the audience and infrastructure that bands crave, but maybe that’s too easy. “I firmly believe if you can make it in Dundalk you can make it anywhere. There’s a lot more against you in Dundalk or somewhere like that than there is in New York.”
Although rooted firmly in the borderlands of Ireland’s north east, the band has played on the continent before. Their “O’er the Sea on a Pig” tour saw them drive from Belgium to Italy and down through Germany where they played in Bonn and Linden amongst other places: “We did fourteen gigs in two weeks out of the back of a Ford Focus. We would do a bit of busking during the day to get money for food and then we’d send one of the lads away to walk around all of the pubs and see if any of them would give us a place to stay and pay us to play a gig.”
Abiding recollections of Germany largely centre on the attitude to music there. Charles considers there’s a respect for the musician in Germany that can sometimes be lacking in Ireland where music can be taken for granted. “They were talking to us about particular songs that Irish people sometimes wouldn’t know, you know? They love Irish music.”
With a background as an original artist where he pens tunes for TPM, one might imagine transitioning to a more jazz-like tradition of interpreting handed-down songs could feel limiting. Charles feels sure by the time their second album comes around they’ll have some original tracks on it, but does admit a trepidation in adding to their folk repertoire: “It’s a bit daunting writing songs for The Mary Wallopers. With TPM, it’s all cloaked in humour. You know? You get away with a bit more. There’s not as much pressure for creating a song because you can go, ‘It’s a joke.’”
As the three share lead vocal duties, there is a healthy competitive edge when it comes to finding and claiming material to include in their repertoire. As time passes, each is discovering their own niche, and swapping songs to achieve the best outcome is not unheard of. Whereas Charles claims his brother is more animatedly musical, “Words is [sic] always the thing for me. In my singing style as well, you’ll notice I’m very particular about pronouncing stuff and getting every word as clear as I can get it.” Though initially drawn to light-hearted or comic songs, with experience comes the confidence that has seen Charles embrace darker material. Of particular interest to him is breathing new life into medieval songs, finding the contemporary in the ancient. “If there’s something a bit odd in the melody and if you can’t argue with the sentiment, then that’s the main thing.”
At present a self-titled EP featuring their break through hit, Cod Liver Oil & The Orange Juice, is on release and can be found on Spotify. After recording a full length album, the band decided to mothball the whole thing: “By the time we were ready to release it we actually thought that we were after getting better at playing the songs than the recording. The EP is kinda [sic] stuff we weren’t going to release so that’s why we put it out—we’re not going to release these so let’s release them.” There is finally an album in the offing though, together with an increasingly eager audience ready to receive it.
The Mary Wallopers’ music stands out in any setting, but it is live that the full texture of delivery is best appreciated. The more raucous the setting, the better—their gem is one that gleams brightest in the dirt. It’s perhaps because of this that the success of their livestreams from an empty room has been so impressive. Over the past eleven months or so we’ve all tuned in to audience-free content that has tanked but these are guys who can generate intrigue apropos of nothing.
Pressed on something positive up ahead, Charles’ response is clear if not unpredictable: “For 2021, gigs. That’s all we care about is that gigs are on the horizon finally—the fact that we can go back and play songs to a load of people that are going mad drinking and roaring and shouting.”
On the day after our chat, the van-breaking-down motif seems to proffer itself as some sort of metaphor for the balladeer’s struggle. I message Charles to say I’ll call later for more details on the event but in the end I don’t bother. His response to the request: “Lol. No problem, we can do that. We have many breakdown stories…”
The Mary Wallopers feature as part of “An Irish Night In”, a free online event hosted by the Irish Embassy at the Ambassador’s residence in Berlin on Saturday, January 23rd @7pm CET. Register here for the event.