Nicola O’Haire’s Debut Honours Ireland’s Orphan Girls
“I’m very into Irish songs, especially ones like this that tell a story. And the reason it does that is all due to Brendan’s talented songwriting. It’s like a mini- history lesson more than anything.”
So said Mayo singer Nicola O’ Haire recently when speaking about her forthcoming debut single, ORPHAN GIRL. And its writer – the Brendan in question – is none other than that expert crafter of song, Brendan Graham.
But when Nicola releases Orphan Girl on Wednesday, October 6th, any feelings of elation and satisfaction will be tempered somewhat by a fact which the musical theatre graduate admits will shadow her thoughts throughout the day. For on that very day, some 173 years before, the young Irish women whose utterly heartbreaking story is so eloquently conveyed in Graham’s master-work, first set foot on Australian soil, landing at Sydney Harbour as passengers aboard the merchant ship the Earl Grey, having been forced to leave their native Ireland the previous June.
Unlike in more recent times, these luckless, helpless souls had little by way of choice in their journey. Their destiny was decided by Earl Grey, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, after whom the vessel that carried the “scarcely turned sixteen” protagonist orphan girl of Graham’s tale from a Westport workhouse to Australia where she hoped to, “…find myself a better life”, was named. Under this most heartless of schemes, one which also bore his name, Earl Grey decided that the perfect solution to the problem of overcrowding in the workhouses of Ireland, was to ship this excess number of human beings to the other side of the world where they would help to settle the new Australian colony, making up for a shortage of serving staff and domestic labourers there.
So how did Nicola – a graduate of the American College in Dublin – go from a make-shift ‘stage’ of hay bales, singing You Raise Me Up to a shed full of cattle in the wintertime at home on the family farm – just on the Mayo side of the Galway/Mayo divide – to singing in a recording studio with Brendan himself watching her take on one of his songs, something she described as being “a real ‘pinch-me’ moment”?
Nicola herself took some time out from release preparations to fill us in on exactly how it all came to be…
“There was talk of a concert involving Brendan Graham happening in my locality, and I would usually sing at any events like that, you see. Two great men for supporting their community, Ray McHugh and Paddy Rock from Cong, had me in mind to sing at it, so they put in a good word for me. It all took off from there. I spoke with Brendan about it and he suggested I perform one of his songs at the concert. And that song was ‘Orphan Girl.’ Brendan initially wrote it back in 2012, to commemorate the relocation of over 4,000 Irish orphan girls who were shipped to Australia during Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1800s.”
Due to Covid, however, that concert was never able to go ahead. But, having fallen in love with the song, and being so moved by the story, Nicola still wanted to record it. And Brendan, impressed by the version Nicola went ahead and recorded on her own, invited her to Ventry Recording Studio in Balbriggan to record a new arrangement of the song, overseen by arranger and producer Feargal Murray, and engineered by Dave McCune. And, to do so with a view to releasing it as a single.
“My dream is and always has been”, declares Nicola, “to become a successful recording artist. And every day I aspire to taking a step closer to that dream. I’ve always worked so hard to make this dream of mine come true. But I was also met with an amazing opportunity of getting to work with the incredible Brendan Graham himself when our paths crossed last year. He has made this opportunity possible for me, and has assisted me every step of the way. It has been an incredible experience for me. A very surreal one at that. This project with Brendan has been an amazing adventure, one I will truly never forget.”
And thanks to songwriters like Brendan and artists like Nicola, Ireland’s lost orphan girls will never be forgotten either.
~ ORPHAN GIRL (written by Brendan Graham), the official debut single from NICOLA O’ HAIRE, will be available on all platforms from WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 6th.