Mary O’Dowd to perform at Garden City Historical Society
When Mary O’Dowd starts singing at the Garden City Historical Society Museum on Sunday, March 11, she will be bringing a piece of the Emerald Isle to attendees via the day’s program, “Sounds and Songs of Ireland for a Sunday Afternoon,” Accompanied by guitarist Ron D’Addario and fiddler Bob Mastro, she’ll be performing a blending of material that represents the Manhasset native’s traditional Irish music and 1960s folk roots. It’s the kind of set list you would expect to hear from the first generation daughter of a mother and father who hail from County Roscommon and County Sligo respectively.
“The show will be in the living room of the home, so it’s very cozy and it’s been very personable in prior years. I’ll be singing a lot of the basic Irish repertoire,” she explained. “We’ll most certainly do ‘When New York Was Irish,’ ‘Fields of Athenry’ and ‘Dublin in the Rare Old Times.’ People can certainly plan on ‘No Name Every,’ everyone loves to sing along with that plus ‘Black Velvet Band.’ It’s kind of a cross-section of this with American folk songs like ‘City of New Orleans’ and ‘Both Sides Now.’”
As the eldest of John and Ellen O’Dowd’s eight children, the former Phoenix resident grew up in a household full of Irish music and culture. And before the family decamped to Arizona when she was 11 because of her father’s middle-aged onset of asthma, one of O’Dowd’s earliest musical memories was of attending a show by the McNultys at the Irish American Center in Mineola when she was 6 years old and saying in her head, “I think I can do that.” Stints in the high school chorus and glee club were aided by the novel fact that as a teenager, she knew a lot of Irish and American folk songs. Influenced by the likes of Tommy Makem, The Clancy Brothers, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, O’Dowd first sang professionally upon returning back east to New York City when she was in her early twenties.
“The first time I sang professionally would have been in the John Barleycorn, which was the first singing pub in New York and that was probably around 1967,” she recalled. “The resident singer, Michael ‘Jesse’ Owens, who was very popular there and a dear friend to this day, brought me up to sing. So I had a job two weeks later singing on Sundays. Meanwhile, I was working for American Airlines. So I sang Sunday afternoons for brunch and then that turned into several nights during the week, which I did for several years, because you can do that when you’re young. I had to pick one or the other, but I started in the John Barleycorn in New York and they actually paid me to sing.”
While O’Dowd wound up working at Pfizer for 20 years, singing was never far off, whether she was singing in clubs in New York, New Jersey, California, Canada and Ireland or releasing albums like Portrait of Mary O’Dowd and At the Close of An Irish Day. There was even a stint with her ex-husband Tony owning Mary O’s, a restaurant the duo ran on East 57th Street in Manhattan where she sang nightly. But one of the things she’s most proud of is the Frances Pope Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit she and her former spouse founded in February 1982 after their 18-month old daughter Frances Alyne succumbed to leukemia. Since it was founded, the foundation has made it a goal to provide financial and emotional support to families of children with pediatric cancer or a catastrophic illness, particularly when it comes to expenses that may not be covered by medical insurance. The foundation’s most recent fundraiser raised $500,000 gross. Her work with this organization has been equal parts fulfilling and astounding to O’Dowd.
“This is our 36th year, which completely boggles my mind. Number one, the fact that we’re still doing it. Of course, that first evening we weren’t thinking longevity. We were just doing it as a response to the loss of our 18-month old daughter and also we were so moved by the struggles of the other families that we had met and were still going through. So that’s what we did and it’s still continued through all those years,” she said. “It’s gotten to go from the basement of St. Stephen Church of Hungary here on 82nd St. and graduated to The Pierre and we’ve managed to raise money for funds not covered by insurance. And that could be a lot of different things, but the easiest way is to say it starts with transportation, babysitting or people being behind on their rents or mortgages. One of the things that I was always concerned about was to make sure that the baby that is well stays well throughout this whole ordeal. We try to respond to the unique needs of each family. Now do we pay everything? Of course not, we’re still small, in that we have a fairly wide touch, but we deal with five or six hospitals in the New York City area including Long Island Jewish, which is now Northwell, Sloan-Kettering and NYU. We’re small, but we have a nice relationship with those hospitals and we also work closely with social workers and the families. We have a small staff. It’s myself and another young lady. And when we put on events, I have lots of wonderful volunteers.”
Mary O’Dowd will be performing “Sounds and Songs of Ireland for a Sunday Afternoon” on March 11 at the Garden City Historical Society Museum, 109 Eleventh St., Garden City. For more information, call the A.T. Stewart Exchange during shop hours at 516-746-8900. Visit www.francespopefoundation.org to find out more about the Frances Pope Memorial Foundation.
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