The Power of Words

By Helen Aherne

I pull my car in to the side of the road, turn the volume up several notches, and smile as I listen, my head laid back against the headrest. I’m listening to Mary Black, iconic Irish singer and songwriter, who is being interviewed by Siobhann Tighe as part of Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 today. They are talking about the woman’s role in Ireland, as defined by the Constitution of the 1930s, and the changes that have taken place since.

Mary Black, with her clear, don’t-give-a-toss voice has formed the background to my life for as long as I can remember. I listen as she recounts her life in Ireland of the 60s and the role expected of women of the time. I empathise fully with her, mine being similar of my mother always at home, the house warm when I came home from school, and food on the table. This was ‘her job’ and neither my brother nor I could have envisaged life in our home any other way.

And, as Mary says, when her mother had to work outside the home to earn extra money, she, still only an 8 or 9-year-old, would take over the role of serving the dinner for her father and brothers. When asked if she resented having to do it, she replies: ‘No, I loved it,’ she says. ‘It made me feel important!’ she laughs. But as she got older, she decided that it wasn’t going to happen to her.

Throughout her changing career I’ve listened to her music – uplifting, melancholy and at times, defiant. I once even had the good fortune to see her live, in concert in Killarney. I had a huge row with my boyfriend, who decided to leave. I chose my priorities – and stuck with Mary!

Twenty-five years ago, she released an album called ‘A Woman’s Heart’ which resonated with women all over Ireland, a country going through huge changes at the time. As was I, on the cusp of embarking on a decision which would change my life forever.

I took her song and her music with me. Mary, like an old friend, has accompanied me through most phases of my life – my successes, failures, my rebellious years, and even the very ordinary events that make up most peoples’ lives.

“My heart is low/My heart is so low/As only a woman’s heart can be”

Mary recalls that at the time of the 2018 campaign in Ireland to repeal the law on abortion, she was singing in a concert in the Olympia in Dublin. She came on stage, and started with ‘A Woman’s Heart’, dedicating it to Savita Hallapanavar, a young Indian woman who’d been denied an abortion and later died. She says in her interview that she was humbled, as the whole concert hall sang with her, ‘with love, with passion, with pain.’

“Irish women had found their voice,” she says.

I sit in my car, wiping tears from my eyes and wish I could give Mary a hug. The immense power of words – let’s use them wisely.