She came to fame singing power ballads on The X-Factor. But yesterday Mary Byrne left the singing aside to support the Dementia Community Roadshow when it arrived at Tesco in Ballymena. JOANNE SAVAGE talks to her about a cause close to her heart.
“I think Ballymena is a beautiful place,” says Mary Byrne, very generously, her voice warm, lilting and just a fraction hoarse. “Driving up here I looked out the windows and thought it’s just gorgeous.”
Clearly X-Factor star Mary is an ebulliently positive person, even praising the so-so scenery enroute to Ballymena.
Of course, her positive mental attitude was clear throughout the nerve-wracking ITV series that lifted her from the tills at a Dublin branch of Tesco to sing Shirley Bassey numbers and other power ballads before a captive audience of millions.
Her voice was strong, full of conviction and emotion, and she battled low self-esteem and anxiety to sing each word like she meant it, bringing the odd tear to even the most cynical of The X-Factor’s Saturday night sofa hostages. Mentor Louis Walsh loved her, Dani and Cheryl cooed praise, and the ever-tough Simon Cowell often gave her an approving wink and a flash of those ridiculously luminous veneers.
The 51-year-old single mother of one from Ballyfermot made it all the way to the semi-finals and post-X-Factor she has cemented her fame with a now double platinum album, Mine & Yours.
But yesterday she arrived in Tesco at Ballymena’s Larne Road, not to showcase the incredible power of her lungs, but to support a cause that is very close to her heart -the Dementia Community Roadshow organised by the Alzheimer’s Society.
Byrne lost her parents Elizabeth and Thomas to the disease and so knows firsthand of its devastating impact and the importance of early diagnosis.
“If my brother and I had had a better understanding of dementia it would have helped a lot in looking after mum and dad,” says Mary.
“Both my parents had dementia for a long time before we knew what it was. We were blind to it in many ways and didn’t know what to expect.
“Dementia is the slow death of the person you love. You’re kind of mourning the person before they’ve even gone and looking after them is extremely stressful. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling.
“My mother Elizabeth was a very happy-go-lucky and optimistic person and to see her turn angry and aggressive, unable to feed herself or go to the toilet on her own - it was horrendous to watch.”
Mary thinks she has her father Thomas’s softness and her mother’s ability to just get-up and get on with life, whatever the hardships.
“I know that though they are no longer here they are proud of what I have achieved,” she says, obviously moved.
The countless TV appearances, the double platinum album, the adulation, performing (alongside Westlife and Riverdance) for none other than the Queen during her recent Irish visit and - a real personal highlight - singing at a Neil Diamond concert before 45, 000 people: Mary has been generously bathed in limelight.
She is still full of gratitude and awe about it all, constantly emphasising how much she owes to the people who voted for her on the show, to the people who bought her album and enjoy the beauty of her voice. So far her really stand-out moment of fame was the Neil Diamond concert: “I was shaking,” she says “but it was the most outstanding feeling ever, and I just knew that I had to try to keep doing this for the rest of my life.”
She doesn’t really miss her days working at Tesco, although there are times when she thinks nostlagically about the craic and the simplicity of that way of life. Fame has its stresses and its vicissitudes.
“I do miss the customers and my colleagues, but I wouldn’t give this up for the world.
“The great thing about X-Factor is that it’s given me a public voice, which allows me to support things I care about like Alzheimer’s care.”
When she’s at home in Ballyfermot Mary is still singing, usually something by Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey or Elvis Presley. One of her favourite songs of all time is the Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey number I Who Have Nothing, which she sang to rapturous applause on X-Factor, thumping her chest at crucial moments to underline the passion of the chorus.
The thing about Mary is that she’s genuine, all salt-of-the-earth and normality; people respond to this and love her for it.
“I’m having a great time,” she says, smile broadening, “and if I can lend my support to a worthy cause that makes me very happy.
“There is no cure for dementia but the earlier people visit their GP and have tests to find out if they have it, the sooner they can get the care and medication they need.”
People have lined up to say hello and get her autograph and Mary obliges before posing behind the till, just for old time’s sake. Not many people on the checkout have sung for the Queen or wowed on The X-Factor, but Byrne has acquired none of the sniffy airs and graces that might come with such achievement.
If you are worried about your memory or are affected by dementia visit alzheimers.org.uk for more information.
Mary Byrne’s album Mine & Yours is available now.