Nicola O'Haire

Mayo singer's 'Orphan Girl' single debuts at No. 1

MAYO singer Nicola O'Haire has seen her debut single 'Orphan Girl' go straight to number one on the iTunes Charts (Ireland) this week.

The song, released on Wednesday, was written by Brendan Graham to commemorate the relocation of over 4,000 Irish orphan girls who were shipped to Australia during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

From south Mayo, Nicola (23) is a graduate of American College Dublin, where she earned her BFA in Musical Theatre. She has appeared in numerous stage productions.

Her two years at the Mayo Vocal Academy saw her receive a High Achievers Award from The Royal Irish Academy of Music. This talent eventually saw her do backing vocals for Russell Watson in the Waterfront Theatre/Ulster Hall, the National Opera House, and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, and she has also performed as an ensemble vocalist on Phil Coulter's 'Scorn Not His Simplicity'.

The release date of Orphan Girl marked the anniversary of the first of Ireland's 'Orphan Girls' landing in Australia aboard the merchant ship the Earl Grey on October 6, 1848.

Explained Nicola about the song choice: “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.”

Any feelings of elation and satisfaction on release day were tempered somewhat by the fact that 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, 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 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?

She explained: “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 (who lives in Finney) 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.”

Covid, however, mean that the 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.

“My dream is and always has been 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.

In the end, the 'orphan girl' in whose voice Nicola sings was but one of 4,114 such girls, treated as a little more than a bothersome inconvenience by those who ruled their homeland.

In the song's third verse, Nicola gives voice to what may have been the desire upon which all hope of a happier life hinged for our dear Mayo girl, when she sings, “And I will be some good man's wife.”

That she, and more of those 4,114 orphan girl,s did find happiness in some shape or form while still on this earth, we can only pray.

'Orphan Girl' is available on all platforms.