Sunday 25 September 2016

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This is the 50th year of Irish entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. Emily Hourican recalls a half-century of many highs and the odd turkey-shaped low

Published 18/05/2015 | 02:30

Molly Sterling
Molly Sterling

I met Johnny Logan in Brussels in 1987, the night he won the Eurovision Song Contest with Hold Me Now. I was 14 and had been working at the Irish Club of Brussels annual cheese and wine fundraiser. Such was the excitement of his win that my parents (surprisingly) agreed I could go with the gang heading into the hotel where it was rumoured Logan would be celebrating. Finally, he arrived, and launched into a victorious rendition of Hold Me Now, but broke off after just a few lines. Overcome by the emotion of the moment. In tears. 'They said it couldn't be done,' indeed. I had a big crush for at least a year afterwards, and a residual interest in the Eurovision ever since.

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Now, I tell this story to highlight what the Eurovision once was, how much it once mattered. Because something funny has happened in the meantime. That something is what you might call full circle. Or maybe not full, but three-quarters anyway.

After Johnny Logan we had a few more good years - we won again in 1992, and 1993, oh, and 1994, when we not only won but launched Riverdance on an unsuspecting but eager world. We won in 1996 and then, just as we thought we had it permanently in the bag, we entered a long, dry period where we couldn't get arrested.

God knows we tried, submitting Dervish, Dustin the Turkey, even Jedward, but you see, we were misreading the rules of engagement. Eurovision had moved on, into crazier territory. Gone were the earnest desires to give a little peace to the world, or joyful expressions of love for life, intermingled with the innocent fun and froth of Bucks Fizz; serious didn't cut it anymore, but we weren't all that good at silly. Dustin the Turkey may have been a low point for all involved.

There seemed to be more countries every year, all putting their best feet forward, more out-of-the-box musical escapades - Lordi, anyone? - and rapid adoption of the new norms, a level of self-aware campness that other countries seemed to cotton onto faster than we did, as the Eurovision embraced its core constituents - children and gay men.

Also, the throwing open of voting to the public did us a major disservice. Under the old system, Ireland could always rely on picking up a number of Anyone-But votes, the safe option for countries determined not to vote for near-neighbours and old enemies. Once that was diluted, so too were our chances.

Really though, the problem was simply that we were out of kilter. Uncomfortable with the campness and unable to do 'fun' without tipping over into 'novelty.' However, a recent gentle recalibration of ethos has seen a new heartfelt-ness creeping in, a renewed appreciation of thoughtful. Dana International, the 1998 winner, wasn't just a glamorous Israeli transgender singer. Her song, Diva, is a return to meaningful messages: "She is all/ you'll ever dream to find/ On her stage/ she sings her story/ Pain and hurt/ will steal her heart alight." Since winning, Dana International has shown herself no pushover. Dismissing European criticism of Israel's policies, she said: "You need to shut your mouths, you have murdered millions and millions of people throughout history."

Conchita Wurst's win last year wasn't noteworthy only for her attention-grabbing beauty. Rise Like A Phoenix was a proper power ballad, a return to the anthems of the past, a rallying cry on a par with Abba's Waterloo (if rather less witty), still the most popular winner ever.

This is The New Eurovision, a place where we can once again be serious about the things that matter. And in this climate, heartfelt, earnest Playing With Numbers, from self-taught 17-year-old Molly Sterling, above, just might do it.

The Eurovision semi-finals take place on Tuesday and Thursday and the final will be on Saturday. All three will be broadcast on RTE

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