Ireland's best-kept secret, Mary McPartlan was nearly 50 when she suddenly emerged in 2004 with a debut album The Holland Handkerchief that instantly established her as one of the great Irish folk singers to be ranked alongside the likes of Dolores Keane, Niamh Parsons, Mary Coughlan, Mary Black, and Maura O'Connell. Displaying the same earthy emotional depth and empathy with traditional song that made Dolores Keane such a classic voice, McPartlan assembled a classy group of musicians, including legendary ex-Bothy Band uilleann piper Paddy Keenan, innovative accordion player Mairtin O'Connor, multi-instrumentalist Shamie O'Dowd and various members of Dervish on a shrewdly chosen mix of traditional and contemporary material. Her sensuous version of "Rainy Night In Soho" proved so popular it was released as a single and drew lavish compliments from its author Shane MacGowan. All of which posed the question, where had she been all our lives?
The answer is she had been busy working in other areas of the entertainment industry. Born in Drumkeeran, Co Leitrim, she started singing during the '70s in a folk duo, Calypso, but never considered it as a career and devoted herself to working behind the scenes as producer and director of a variety of musical projects. She became involved in the Irish language TV station TG4, developing the concept of the "Gradam Ceoil National Traditional Music Awards," which subsequently became a fixture of the Irish music calendar in Cork. She also co-produced two series of the award-winning TG4 music show FLOSC. Living in Galway since 1984 she became a founder member and producer of the Galway theater company Skehana, co-founded the Galway singers club Riabhóg, and became administrator of the Galway Youth Theatre. She also set up her own arts PR and consultancy company, Mac P, and in 2002 she directed the opening of Glór, the national Irish music center in Ennis, Co Clare. In 2003 she produced a four-hour show on the history of Irish music, song, dance and culture, which ran for three months in Las Vegas.
During this time McPartlan established her reputation as a magnificent singer in her own right with various informal performances at different events and social occasions and was repeatedly urged by her friends in the business to break cover and record her own album. She eventually relented and her first album The Holland Handkerchief, produced by P.J. Curtis, was launched in Galway in 2004. Much to her surprise, it went on to receive ecstatic reviews and was voted MOJO folk album of the year, although serious illness initially prevented her exploiting the interest. Later, however, she did form a touring band with Eddie Lynch and Shamie O'Dowd.