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Sunday, September 20, 2009

After the burnout

By Joy Orpen

Gina, Dale Haze and the Champions were one of the biggest Irish pop bands of the Eighties, but faded into oblivion after the stress drove Gina to post-natal depression and burnout, she tells Joy Orpen. Now, a new chapter is beginning

Leonard Cohen did it, so did Cat Stevens and Tina Turner. In fact, just about every successful musician makes a comeback at some point.

Now an iconic Irish band from the Seventies and Eighties is about to set the country's stages alight once again with their rocking and rolling.

But technically Gina, Dale Haze and the Champions can't make a comeback, because they never officially disbanded. "We never did a farewell tour," says Gina, their petite lead singer.

The band was at its zenith towards the end of the showband era and during the dawning of a more raucous and more experimental period. The beauty of the group was that they skillfully managed to straddle the different eras, while the punters danced the night away to hits such as Give Me Back My Love, Dreams are Good Friends, Do You Wanna Do It? and Minnie, Minnie.

Exciting though it surely was, there was a price to pay, too.

In Dublin recently to promote their upcoming concerts, Cork-born Gina -- whose real name is Mary Hurley-- says that although she "burnt out" in the Eighties, she is excited to be playing with the band again. "Hopefully we'll see many of the people who came to the dances all those years ago," she adds.

Thirty years on, Gina is as pretty as ever and full of enthusiasm. Her singing is an inherited talent. "My father had a lovely tenor voice," she says.

Gina remembers her late dad with huge affection. He had to raise most of his 10 children single-handedly following the sudden death of his beloved wife, then aged 50, from a brain haemorrhage.

Gina recalls that horrific night: "I said goodnight to her at 11.50pm and 20 minutes later the ambulance was at the door. It was that sudden."

Gina, then 17, thought her mother was being taken to hospital for treatment, but now knows she had already died.

"There was huge disbelief waking the younger children to tell them the terrible news," she remembers.

"Three weeks later, I was singing my little sister to sleep and I thought, 'This can't be happening, Mum will be back in the morning.''' As the eldest daughter still living at home, Gina was expected to take on a good deal of the responsibility for the younger children. And she did it gladly.

She had left school at 15, because it didn't suit her, and went to work making gloves and tailoring, but singing was Gina's first passion. When she was 19 she reluctantly auditioned for a band called The Champions. Her sister dragged the terrified Gina along to the audition, but once there, she wowed the band with her dulcet tones.

"To sing with proper musicians was just unbelievable," she says. "All my fears just fell away." And so began a remarkable and successful journey.

"I never thought of fame or fortune, I just wanted to sing. I couldn't believe I was being paid to do something I loved."

Gina's first public appearance was something of a nightmare. Being inexperienced, she went on stage wearing a miniskirt and some young dope thought it his duty to make sure she knew he was gazing where he shouldn't. Gina was mortified and tried to move towards the back of the stage but Mossie Walsh, the bandleader, urged her forward, not realising the problem.

Gina learned her lesson, and when the stage was high, she always wore trousers.

Later, she began dating Pat Walsh, the lead guitarist in The Champions. They married and moved to east Cork.

Their lifestyle was hectic. The band played all the big dance halls in Ireland, including The Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney, Co Kerry, Dublin's National Ballroom and Cork's City Hall. "Once we left our house in Ballycotton and didn't return for 11 days, even though we never left Ireland," Gina says of those busy times. "It was great, though."

The band notched up 19 Top 20 hits over the years. "We put a lot of money into our recordings," she says, "so the radio stations were happy to play our records because the quality was good."

In 1983, Gina gave birth to her first child, Cian. Immediately after, she was dieting to get back in shape so she could resume touring. Though she suffered some post-natal depression, Gina managed to stay on top of things. Then, five years later, their daughter Grace was born and the depression was even worse.

Gina had beautiful children, a great husband who loved her and a wonderful career, but she was still miserable. She wondered why she was finding life so hard.

"My mother coped with 10 kids, so why couldn't I deal with just two? I felt so inadequate and, of course, I was living in a man's world," says Gina, "and, to be honest, men don't get this kind of thing. You have to go through it to understand what it feels like. It was so overwhelming."

Gina says being on stage was also hugely demanding because she had to appear cheerful, no matter how terrible she was feeling. She appreciated the applause and the love she got from her fans but there was a downside too -- the anticlimax, when for several days after the performance she felt deflated.

Her doctor gave her a prescription for anti-depressants, but she still wasn't coping. "I found the work hard, the travelling tough," she says, "and nothing felt right."

At times Gina suffered stage fright. "Oddly enough, though I loved singing, I never liked to be the centre of attention," she explains. "I would be incredibly nervous before a gig, but once I was on stage and singing, with a tambourine and the microphone to hold, I would be fine. But during the national anthem, when I had to stand still and I had nothing to distract me, I felt very exposed. I thought the audience could see through me to the fear I was feeling.

"Eventually it came to a point in 1991, when I just couldn't do it anymore, all the different pressures got too much."

After 19 years of punishing schedules Gina had had enough. She quit the band, but urged her bandmates to find another singer, but they never did, they simply stopped playing together.

Gina stayed at home in east Cork and took it easy and over time she recovered from her "burnout".

Since then, Gina and Pat have been doing their own thing, performing at corporate events and private parties.

Recently all the original members of the band got together for a birthday party and began to play again. "The chemistry was still there so we decided to do a few gigs," says Gina.

They will play three concerts with good, stress-relieving breaks in between. These will be seated events. But will that stop the fans from dancing down memory lane? I doubt it.

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In Loving Memory of Grant Gallagher: Sept. 21, 1990 - Nov. 18, 2006