The first and only time I met Mary Hickson was last New Year’s eve, when we were holed up in a friend’s house in the West of Ireland for 48 hours, with enough gin to see us through the winter. Talking about musicality, or lack thereof, I confessed to the moment that I realised I couldn’t sing – when a 5 am crowd ruthlessly shut down my take on Bob Marley’s Redemption Song – and she convinced me to sing it again. How we LAUGHED!
It was only then, after I’d doubly exposed my busted pipes, that I learned that Mary was essentially Ireland’s answer to Keith Moon, among many other things. Having studied music in UCC – staying on to teach Ewe Dance Drumming – she went on to do a Masters in Ethnomusicology in UL. She then joined the original team behind the first Festival of World Cultures in Dublin, managed the Poetry Now Festival, was Director of O’Reilly Theatre, among many other projects before she returned to Cork in 2009. From 2010 to 2015 she was CEO of Cork Opera House, responsible for completely reimagining and reinvigorating the creative programme and transforming its finances in the process. She is now Director of Carraig Productions, Clonmel Junction Festival, Sounds from a Safe Harbour and Creative partner on HAVEN festival in Copenhagen; as well as Creative Producer for CrashLands, Crash Ensemble’s 20th Anniversary project. Apparently she sleeps in September.
I spoke to the all ’round super ledge about blue skies, guts and forging your own path.
OR: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
MH: Honestly, I never had the ‘I want to be a ballerina’ thing; I was a happy little drifter for a long time. Never had a plan or any major ambitions really.
OR: What or who were you most influenced by in your mid to late teens?
MH: I loved music – playing the piano – and was always doing calligraphy. I remember being a bit of a loner really – loved being creative but content doing things alone. I think I was inspired by me sisters – they always seemed to know where they were headed and I was in awe of that.
OR: At what point did you start taking yourself seriously?
MH: I remember the moment actually. I was in the Corner House in Cork with some friends and I mentioned the advertised job for CEO in Cork Opera House. I said to them that I was thinking of putting my name in the hat – kind of half waiting for them to laugh – and one of them immediately said, ‘of course you should, we’re the next generation and it’s our time now.’ I felt about 2 inches taller then and knew in that moment that it was my job – the determination was flying out of me. I had been freelancing for a time in Cork and teaching West African percussion at UCC then. I distinctly remember when I was offered the job in Cork Opera House that I was doing ok for myself.
OR: Did you have a mentor or someone who championed you along the way?
MH: I was very lucky to work with some inspiring people along the way from Jody Ackland at Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire; Mel Mercier in UCC; Olga Barry (a long time cohort of mine) and more recently Bryce Dessner (The National) who I am working with on many projects at the moment. They are all really good with people and care about others experiences which is something high on my priority list.
OR: How do people react when you tell them what you do?
MH: They think it’s interesting and the journey I have been on is kind of unusual too I think. I don’t really fit into a specific job title at the moment. My daughter is talking a lot about what she wants to be when she grows up and she has a list that she rattles off which ends with ‘and the stuff that you do mammy.’
OR: What do you love most about your job?
MH: Seeing the project realised to the best of its potential.
OR: What do you find most challenging?
MH: Budgets are always hard when you have big plans – there comes a point where you have to cut your cloth to fit.
OR: What is your super power?
MH: I am a good people person and I don’t get stressed much. I think I calm people, at least I hope I do – and that gives people confidence. I like to do things differently and am not afraid to take a risk.
OR: What gets you excited?
MH: Seeing a blue sky dream come together – the ‘imagine if we’ and then it’s happening – a bit like having The National and Bon Iver playing Cork in Sept – that has been a dream of mine since forever.
OR: What is your relationship with time and ‘time management’?
MH: I go through bursts of being very disciplined with work/life balance. When the festivals are coming so hard and fast I am working around the clock really BUT the pay back is a long break in September, hopefully that won’t change.
OR: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken, personal or professional?
MH: Pulling together the Michelberger Music project last November was a huge moment for me. There were over 120 artists collaborating for a week together and I was responsible for putting the schedules together for them all at the weekend. It sounds like nothing much but it was the biggest professional challenge of my life and we nailed it!
OR: What’s your biggest fail – professional or otherwise – and what did you learn?
MH: I am very emotionally attached to the work. It can be a good thing and a bad thing at times. I have had to accept that this is who I am and how I do things – there’s a lot of love in there but sometimes it’s my enemy. There are times when you need to look at things practically and take the emotion out – I’m working on this.
OR: What experience has most shaped who you are today?
MH: Going with the flow and believing in the fact that everything will be ok I think. I have a very loud gut – always had – and it has served me well. I wish I had tuned into it earlier in life. It was my husband Luke who taught me to listen to it. He is the driving force behind everything I do.
OR: What would you say to an 18 year old now, hoping to trace your career?
MH: Listen to your gut!
Clonmel Junction Festival kicked off today and is running until Sunday July 9th. Haven festival in Copenhagen is the 11th and 12th of August. Sounds from a Safe Harbour is on from the the 14-17 of September in Cork.