"He said (and I never understood this comment so feel free to fill me in) that S_k(1;Q) being irreducible as a Hecke module was related to (equivalent to?) a certain L-value not vanishing, and L-values tend to vanish occasionally when you look hard enough."
I dispute the impression of Hida with vanishing L-values. To precise this, a density statement is needed. The standard L-function technology whizzes from random matrices should expect that it doesn't vanish ever. In the same vein, Conrey conjectures that quadratic twists of weight 6+ forms never vanish aside from sign, though he kindly phrases it as "finitely many" as pointed out above.
For weight 6 we have rank 2 vanishing for a few forms, as Dummigan lists: 95k6, 122k6, 260k6.
I expect no vanishing for weight 8+. To my knowledge, no rank 3 vanishing exists for weight 4+. My recollection (Stein 2000) is that, outside with Gamma1(N), there is one at level 122 (sic, as above) weight 2 form with quadratic sign that vanishes to order 1 with no self-dual functional equation sign (eps = -0.76822128 + 0.6401844i).
I am editing this now to explain L-function methods. The right random matrix idea is that L-values have cumulative distribution with $\sqrt t$ for small $t$. It is probably unnecessary though.
For rather look at the BSD analogue. There is $L(centre)/\Omega$ and the other side is up to few rational factors an integer. It is also a square. So it is "like" a random integral square up to size $\Omega$ as the Tamagawa and torsion and much smaller. The "probability" of an (even signed) L-function vanishing centrally can be thought as $\sqrt\Omega$ as a chance that a random integral square up to size $\Omega$ is 0 is just 1 in $\sqrt\Omega$.