The Irish folk singer Mary Black celebrates her 20-year anniversary as an artist with the double album Mary Black Live (one CD and one DVD) and an extensive tour through the Netherlands.

ANTWERP – What is it with those Irish? They sing, dance, make music, tell the most beautiful stories and write profound poetry; even though there is no reason for it. Hasn’t Ireland’s history been one large piece of misery?
Mary Black nods to indicate that even she notices this contradiction, she then pours herself a cup of tea and cynically says that the misery of her beloved country has also been a blessing.

“Everything seems to have its price”, Black says with a wry smile, “but it was a high price to pay for the art and culture of Ireland. ” The singer reads the bill: 800 years of oppression, a language almost completely murdered by the British, famine, hardship and a stream of emigrants blowing a hole in the nation that is still tangible.

But when she talks about the sum of all that misery, her deep blue (actually green) eyes shine. “All that beautiful music would not exist today if Ireland had been a rich country that had not been torn apart by poverty and a colonial religious war. Thanks to the music we did not go down. The music is the basis that has kept the nation together.”

Mary Black grew up in a poor working class area of Dublin. “We shared a large rental house with several families. No streaming water, no toilet. To me it was all normal at the time. I mean, all my friends lived like that. I even believed that we belonged to the privileged class as we went to visit our grandmother's farm every summer knowing that most kids in Dublin had never seen a cow.”

That farm, on small Rathlin Island just outside the northern Irish coast, still has a warm place in Black’s heart. “Moreover, there I learnt that things could be done differently, socially and politically. On Rathlin, Catholics and Protestants lived together without killing each other. And don’t be surprised: they even played music together.”

Music was another luxury that distinguished the Black family from the other families in the rental houses. “A lot of people believe that all Irish sing, dance and play music. Of course, that is not true. We had a so-called singing family and that was unusual. My mother sang, my father played the fiddle and my elder brother taught me the traditional Irish songs. When I was eighteen and finished school, I didn’t take a steady job at a bank or the like. I wanted to be able to, when music called, pack my bags and leave. I worked a lot as a waitress to complement the earnings I gathered with singing.

After her rewarded debut album, Black worked together with the Irish band DeDannan for some time. Everybody thought she was crazy when she decided to leave the band after three years. “But I had to, I am not such a puritan traditionalist and I felt encaged by that music. When I continued solo, I slowly but steadily allowed other influences, i.e. pop music, to become part of my repertoire. On the album No Frontiers from 1992 (Note: should be 1989) I achieved a style that I liked, although my music has already changed again.”

Purists are sometimes critical of Black's open style of making music. She can understand it, but has no problem whatsoever with it. “Everything I do, has been influenced by the songs that I learnt as a child. The child I was and the place I came from, these elements are always found in my music. Sorry, but then it doesn’t matter what kind of song I sing exactly.”