Wednesday 21 November 2018

Comment: Eurovision comes roaring back in Ireland as Ryan O'Shaughnessy proves real winner

Our man in Lisbon takes a look back on a week where Ireland grabbed world headlines

Irish Eurovision hopeful Ryan O'Shaughnessy pictured on the blue carpet at the opening ceremony for the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 in Lisbon, Portugal. Picture: Andres Poveda
Irish Eurovision hopeful Ryan O'Shaughnessy pictured on the blue carpet at the opening ceremony for the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 in Lisbon, Portugal. Picture: Andres Poveda
Brian O'Reilly

Brian O'Reilly

The result may have been a little lower than we'd hoped - but it's undeniable that Eurovision fever has gripped Ireland once again.

In many ways, the result doesn't matter. Ryan and the team has a message of inclusivity and love that they wanted to spread to as many people as possible. And that goal was achieved before the results began to come in. In many ways, no points on a scoreboard could compare to the power of the message they sent.

The events of last week with China banning the performance meant that message was spread to an audience far wider than the Eurovision bubble.

Young LGBT in Ireland, and way further afield, were able to watch a performance that told a love story - while delivering a message of hope to them. 

Ryan O'Shaughnessy celebrates getting through to the Eurovision final with Team Ireland. PIC: Andres Poveda
Ryan O'Shaughnessy celebrates getting through to the Eurovision final with Team Ireland. PIC: Andres Poveda
Alan McGrath and Kevin O'Dwyer Photo: Andres Poveda

One young woman tweeted after the performance "That's the first time I've ever seen positive representation of a gay couple on TV in the Balkans. Thank you Ireland." - which sums up what the Irish performance was all about.

Ryan proved to be an incredible representative for our country - and when thrust into the international spotlight unexpectedly handled the pressure with grace, dignity and humour.

He was never frazzled or stressed - and in dozens of international media interviews was an excellent ambassador for the young generation of modern Ireland.

He knew the importance of what he was doing, but through his own humbleness probably didn't realise the full effect it would have - and what it meant to so many people.

Ryan O’Shaughnessy celebrates after securing a place in the Eurovision final (Armando Franca/AP)
Ryan O’Shaughnessy celebrates after securing a place in the Eurovision final (Armando Franca/AP)

Graham Norton, commentating for the BBC, was particularly emotional about the performance. When he grew up in Ireland being gay was one of the biggest social stigmas a person could face. In 2018 we sent a positive message of acceptance on the world's biggest musical stage.

Ryan best explained his logic when he said: "Having a gay couple was really important. This is coming from a straight man - a lot of people asked me why I was doing it if I'm not gay. It's because my nephew could be gay, or my kids could be gay."

Eleni Foureira from Cyprus performs the song 'Fuego' in Lisbon, Portugal
Eleni Foureira from Cyprus performs the song 'Fuego' in Lisbon, Portugal

Ryan's dancers - Alan McGrath and Kevin O'Dwyer - also deserve considerable praise for how they handled being thrust into the international spotlight.

It's incredibly rare that backing singers or dancers are requested, or expected, to be interviewed. It's even rarer that they become the centre of the biggest news story that emerged from Eurovision 2018.

Thrown into the spotlight literally overnight, the duo passionately and articulately explained what being part of the performance meant to them. It would have been easy to let Ryan carry the can of explaining the story to the media, but reflecting what a close-knit team the group had become they had his back.

"We've had such touching messages from people around Europe who aren't out, or who are in the closet. It's a great thing because Kevin and I were both at that point in our lives at some stage. It's great to be able to send out such a positive message", Alan told Independent.ie.

Israel's Netta performs
Israel's Netta performs "Toy" during the Grand Final of Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena hall in Lisbon, Portugal, May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

While Ryan and the dancers may have been thrown into the spotlight, the rest of the team were hugely supportive. Backing singers Janet Grogan, Claire-Ann Varley and Remy Anna as well as choreographer Ciaran Connolly were a constant source of support as the story gained coverage from the Guardian to NBC news in the US.

In many ways, Eurovision has changed dramatically in the five years since Ireland last qualified. Songs with messages or stories to tell have shot up the scoreboard. Israel's winning song, on the surface an ethno-pop banger, was actually a lyrically-clever nod to the #metoo movement.

France's song was about the refugee crisis in Europe, Germany's about the death of the singer's father while Italy focused on terrorism.

There were of course the usual off-the-wall performances we've come to expect at Eurovison - but the show provides a platform for all genres. Some songs makes you think, some songs makes you feel and some songs makes you hurt your neck trying a hair flip (I'm looking at you, Eleni from Cyprus).

Something that also struck many members of the press covering Eurovision for the first time was the age profile of the fans. Hundreds of teenagers milled just outside the security corden at the arena hoping to grab a selfie with their favourite performer.

Finland's Saara Aalto performs
Finland's Saara Aalto performs "Monsters" during the Grand Final of Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena hall in Lisbon, Portugal, May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

One young woman broke down in tears when the Czech singer Mikolas hugged her. Finnish superstar Saara Aalto was thronged with fans as walked on the sea front.

Far from being a stuffy old song contest, the Eurovision has attracted a newer, younger and social media-driven audience. That shift has been reflected in recent winners - it's been well over a decade since a solo singer over the age of 30 has won.

Ireland's entry was very much a reflection of contemporary Ireland, and appealed to the modern young generation of fans the contest has attracted in recent years.

Mikolas Josef from the Czech Republic, center, performs the song 'Lie To Me' in Lisbon, Portugal, Saturday, May 12, 2018 during the Eurovision Song Contest grand final. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)
Mikolas Josef from the Czech Republic, center, performs the song 'Lie To Me' in Lisbon, Portugal, Saturday, May 12, 2018 during the Eurovision Song Contest grand final. (AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Credit also must go to RTE, often bashed by Eurovision fans and the public at this time of year. In a leap of faith, the broadcaster gave Ryan the space to stage the song as he had envisaged.

"They really listened to my vision for this project and having the open mind to have the two dancers, it really shows that we're moving forward as a country."

RTE this year have also firmly dispelled the notion they don't want to win again. Sure, they wouldn't like the bill it would land them with. But there has been a reigniting of passion at the broadcaster for the event. 

Estonia's Elina Nechayeva performs
Estonia's Elina Nechayeva performs "La Forza" during the Grand Final of Eurovision Song Contest 2018 at the Altice Arena hall in Lisbon, Portugal, May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

The usual naysayers will be out in force when the cost of this year's contest to RTE is revealed, but there are two important points to consider. RTE operated on the ground in Lisbon with a skeletal staff compared to the majority of other European broadcasters. Eurovision produces eight hours of prime time live TV, at a far lower price than it would cost most broadcasters to produce the same amount of hours of live entertainment TV content in-house.

In fact, given the total costs, the Eurovision is considerably better value to the licence-fee payer than many major sporting events. But there are rarely calls for RTE to drop the World Cup or Euros when we don't even qualify for them.

Yes, we all went a little nuts betting money on ourselves, but the result is still our best in seven years.  Given the odds we were faced with before the contest, qualification and a respectable mid-table finish with 136 points (our most in the final in 21 years) we had an excellent return.

Ryan O’Shaughnessy and dancers Alan McGrath and Kevin O'Dwyer on stage in Lisbon. Picture: Andres Poveda
Ryan O’Shaughnessy and dancers Alan McGrath and Kevin O'Dwyer on stage in Lisbon. Picture: Andres Poveda

But the main result is the success the Ireland team had in sending their message, and how it spread a positive message of hope well beyond these shores. When taken from that perspective, this year's Eurovision could never be classed as a disappointment for Ireland.

In a year's time no one will remember where we finished on the scoreboard, but they will remember the barriers the Irish entry broke in 2018.

It won't be Dublin 2019, but we can now have renewed faith Eurovision will come back to Ireland again someday.

Read more: Five singers who could represent Ireland at Eurovision 2019

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