X Factor contestant Mary Byrne has revealed the secret heartache behind her success on the talent show.
Mary’s brother-in-law has terminal cancer but has battled the illness and defied doctors who say he should be dead.
Liam Donovan, 70, was given three months to live when he was diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago.
Dubliner Mary — who at 50 is X Factor’s oldest ever contestant — wowed the audience and judges last Saturday night.
But last night she told how her brother-in-law’s battle with cancer had been her inspiration.
‘I had battled with low self-esteem after a few failed relationships,’ Mary said. ‘And this knocked my own confidence in my ability to do what I really want to do — which is to be a great singer.
‘But when I watch how Liam fights his awful illness, that inspires me. He is the real reason I went ahead and had a go at trying X Factor, and every song I sing on that show is with him in mind.’
Mary has one daughter, Deborah who she had at 27. She is no longer with the father and has not spoken to him for more than 20 years.
Speaking of her heartache at her brother-in-law’s condition, she said his courage gives her strength.
‘He is one of the biggest inspirations of my life,’ she said. ‘My own worries just pale into insignificance when I think about what he has to deal with. If I win the show, I don’t just win it for me — I will win it for him.’
Ireland’s answer to SuBo, Mary also revealed that her bosses at Tesco have given her paid leave to follow her dream of winning X Factor and landing a record deal.
Her presence behind the till of the supermarket’s Ballyfermot branch was causing quite a ruckus as shoppers are now clambering over each other to be served by Mary.
‘Tesco have been great over the 11 years I have worked there. Last week, the manager Joanne Barry pulled me aside for a chat and said she was going to let me go on paid leave to pursue my dream,’ she said.
‘She said that for as long as I am on the show, I could have all the time off I wanted.’ Whether she wins or not, Mary has her feet firmly on the ground. ‘I’ve proved to myself that I have talent by getting this far,’ she said.
‘Everything else is a bonus. If it all ends tomorrow, I know I’ve a job to go back to and life goes on. I am going to enjoy this for all it is and make the most of it.’
Mary’s lifelong ambition has been to be a like Welsh diva, Shirley Bassey. By the time she hit her 40s, she started losing hope — and confidence. But they say at life begins at 40, or is it 50? Age is no barrier to Mary.
Last year she put her confidence woes behind her and took to the stage under the pseudonym Mary Lee. She won TG4’s talent show Nollaig No. 1.
She went on to record a festive Celtic take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Then, last May she found herself waiting among thousands of other X Factor hopefuls — a wait of 14 hours.
But it was not Mary who applied to enter the high-profile competition.
Her niece Elaine, daughter of Mary’s brother-in-law Liam, put an application in on her behalf.
Last Saturday part of her dream became a reality as millions of viewers watched Mary — who has arthritis in both her knees — belt out a version of Tom Jones’ I Who Have Nothing.
Watching in the packed auditorium was Liam, Mary’s sister Betty, a posse of relatives and friends from Tesco. Despite the long wait, Liam was determined to see Mary perform.
‘The wait was horrendous and everyone found it a bit knackering,’ the budding star said. ‘Liam was really tired but he stuck it out, despite suffering cramps in his legs.
‘He told me he was not going to leave until he saw me sing.
‘When I was finished, the crowd gave me a standing ovation. It was amazing.
And I looked over at Liam and he had a great big smile of pride on his face,’ she said.
After her audition, X Factor judge Louis Walsh was completely enthralled by her performance.
He praised her and boldly predicted: ‘Everyone in Ireland should watch very closely. I’ve a feeling an Irish person will be in the final shake-up.’
After she performed, he told her: ‘You’ve picked a big song and you hit every note. Tesco could be in trouble.’
Mary even managed to charm the high-waisted pants off TV’s Mr Nasty Simon Cowell — famous for his withering put downs, especially to those starting out.
‘You have the best voice out of everyone who has auditioned,’ the music mogul said. ‘Seriously, seriously good.
‘And actually more than that, I really like you.’
When Walsh started the judges’ round of voting, he said: ‘I’m going to kick it off, a million per cent, yes.’
The audience drowned out the judges’ voices, with Simon barely audible as he said: ‘Two thousand five hundred and one yesses.’
However, Mary’s army of admirers will have to wait until Saturday to see how she does. For now she is staying tight-lipped.
Her contract forbids her from discussing the details, although neighbours smile when asked if they know.
One said: ‘I’m not allowed say anything. She’d murder me.’