Ireland's other Eurovision entry - Aidan O'Connor gearing up for final as co-writer of Czech entry
How did a school teacher from Limerick end up co-writing the Czech Eurovision entry? Ronan Abayawickrema finds out
As A boy, Aidan O'Connor loved the Eurovision Song Contest so much he used to put on his own version for his family. He built his own stage, and performed the Eurovision songs and other hits of the time, filling up cassette after cassette with his recordings. Relatives were recruited as jury members.
This was in the early 1990s, when Ireland dominated the Eurovision, with three consecutive victories from 1992. One of Aidan's most vivid memories of the time is of Ireland's hosting of the contest in 1993, at Millstreet, Co Cork, not too far from his own home in Carrigkerry, Co Limerick.
He remembers watching the finals on television and the "adrenaline and buzz of... people coming together from all over the world... but obviously, back then, I never thought I'd be able to go."
Twenty-three years later, Aidan will not only watch the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest live in Stockholm, Sweden, but he'll also be following the semi-final intently from the green room, cheering on Gabriela Guncikova as she performs the Czech Republic's entry I Stand, which he co-wrote.
As a result, this year's competition will have another Irish connection, in addition to our 2016 entrant, former Westlife singer Nicky Byrne, and his team.
From performing on his homemade Eurovision stage in Co Limerick to watching his song compete in the real thing in Sweden, Aidan (32) has been single-mindedly pursuing his dream for years.
As a fan, he started travelling to Eurovision finals as soon as he was old enough. At the same time, he was also developing an interest in writing lyrics, and in 2007 he decided to combine these two loves and start to co-write songs to submit to the contest.
The first song he put forward was Unbreakable, to the Irish national competition in 2009. It wasn't selected, but it was also entered in the Lithuanian national finals a couple of years later.
By this time, Aidan, an English and geography teacher at Stanhope Street Girls' Secondary School in Dublin, was regularly co-writing and submitting songs to the Eurovision.
In fact, to date, 25 of his songs have reached the national final stages of the competition, for countries including Malta, Romania, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Moldova.
In some years, he had multiple submissions, with songs entered in the national finals of rival countries. Some of his entries performed well, but none were selected to go through to represent the nation in question, and Aidan learned to cope with disappointment.
"Eurovision is a difficult game to be in, and you have to be able to take rejection," he says. But despite the knockbacks, he never considered giving up.
"There was never a point where I thought 'this isn't for me', because it's a love, it's a passion... and I knew it would take time."
Aidan initially focused on submitting songs to Eurovision-mad Malta, and then gradually branched out to other countries as he made more contacts. He collaborates with a number of other songwriters, most of them outside Ireland, and usually online, using apps and social media, rather than face to face.
He met the Swedish songwriting team of Sara Biglert and Christian Schneider five years ago, and they became regular collaborators and fast friends. They started to write I Stand together last year and immediately sensed they were on to something special.
They submitted it to the Czech Republic, which this year invited songwriting submissions but left the choice of the singer to the national broadcaster, CT. Gabriela Guncikova's selection was the final piece of the puzzle.
"When she sang it, we felt it was the perfect marriage, it was as if it was always made for her."
Because the Czech selection process eschewed a national final this year, Aidan found out that one of his songs had finally been picked for the Eurovision in about the most low-key manner possible - by receiving an email at home.
"It was just surreal. You expect to know how you're going to feel... but I guess I was ecstatic, proud and excited, and then you enjoy that moment and then you get back into work mode."
And Aidan knew he would have his work cut out for him. He feels that the Czech Republic, which has yet to progress to the finals stage, is something of an "underdog" in the competition, but he's proud that I Stand has created a buzz in the country, buoyed by an extremely eye-catching, if baffling, video featuring everything from Minecraft-evoking graphics to Gabriela wreathed in a carpet of flowers.
He also sees Ireland's entry, Sunlight, as a strong contender.
"Nicky Byrne has stage presence, he has charisma and I think the song is very radio friendly. I think it will definitely get to the final and do very well."
And while Aidan says he is patriotic and still harbours an ambition to co-write an Irish Eurovision entry in the future, for now he's proud that I Stand is representing a Czech Republic in which the Eurovision is fast growing in popularity, and will be happy to wave the Czech flag in the green room.
Ultimately, Aidan remains a Eurovision fan at heart, and he is thrilled he will be competing against one of his songwriting idols, Thomas G:son, one of the writers behind Sweden's 2012 winner Euphoria, often credited with revitalising the contest, and who co-wrote the Cypriot entry this year.
And, for Aidan, one of the joys of the competition is its unpredictability. He cites another winner, 2006's Hard Rock Hallelujah, by Finland's costumed heavy metal ghouls Lordi.
"Who would have thought monsters performing a hard rock song would do it? You can never predict what's going to happen."
The Eurovision Final airs from 8pm on Saturday May 14.