Thursday 22 February 2018

Why we no longer need to call the tune in a contest lacking in rhythm

Left: Solomia Boiko (6), Katarina Zhukova (6), Taras Boiko (9) and Sasha Maidaniuk (8) from Kiev with Irish Eurovision hopeful Brendan Murray Photo: Andres Poveda
Left: Solomia Boiko (6), Katarina Zhukova (6), Taras Boiko (9) and Sasha Maidaniuk (8) from Kiev with Irish Eurovision hopeful Brendan Murray Photo: Andres Poveda

Damian Corless

Around 8.40 this evening, mild-mannered Tuam troubadour Brendan Murray will take to the stage in Kiev seeking to become the first Irish entrant since 2013 to make the final of the Eurovision Song Contest. Even if he succeeds, he's 100/1 to win Saturday's showdown.

Once upon a time this state of affairs would have been a cause of national soul-searching, but not anymore. With the fragmentation of the old Soviet Bloc, the contest's zeitgeist has shifted eastwards. To be frank, Eurovision doesn't need its champion nation anymore, and, happily, we no longer need Eurovision.

For 30 years after we first entered in 1965, we were deeply needy. Eurovision was a cherished red-letter day on the social calendar of a very lonely island. When we had no footballing success, no pop or movie stars, and no interest from the outside world, it was the one night this Cinderella society could go to the ball.

When Butch Moore and Dickie Rock came home as gallant losers, crowds swamped Dublin Airport. Before Dana's victory in 1970, the nuns made sure that every convent schoolgirl was word perfect on 'All Kinds Of Everything'. Ireland's special relationship with Eurovision was unwittingly illustrated by Bono when, playing Rotterdam, U2 broke into the Dutch winner 'Ding-a-dong'. The crowd responded with silent bewilderment. Only someone from Ireland would have assumed instant recognition for a nation's winning song.

For three decades Eurovision offered Ireland a lifeline, and we reciprocated by taking it seriously and contributing a record seven wins by 1996. Make that eight, and four in a row, if you count Fionnuala Sherry winning for Norway in 1995, and nine if you count interval act Riverdance which blew away all comers in 1994.

But Ireland's record this millennium has been dismal. We grumble that the unsporting Eastern Europeans have hijacked the event.

There's nothing new here. Eurovision play-acting has always been a safety valve for letting off steam at the bothersome neighbours.

In 1969, the Brits fumed when Lulu's infectious 'Boom Bang-a-Bang' was dragged back into the pack for a four-way tie. But it was the outcome a year previously that really hurt. Co-written by Derry's Phil Coulter and performed by Cliff Richard, 'Congratulations' was so obviously the definitive Eurosong that it was a cast-iron certainty. When it lost out by a single point to the Spaniards, the conspiracy theories took off, including that agents of General Franco's fascist regime had somehow rigged the votes.

Dana, winner of the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest (Photo by McCarthy/Daily Express/Getty Images)
Dana, winner of the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest (Photo by McCarthy/Daily Express/Getty Images)

By the time the 1970 contest came around some Team Britain members seemingly decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The favourite was Paul McCartney's protégé Mary Hopkin singing 'Knock Knock Who's There?' But as the big night drew near it became clear that Dana's ridiculously catchy Irish entry, 'All Kinds of Everything', looked irresistible.

Each country's jury was to be hermetically sealed in a studio capsule while they loaned their ears impartially to each song. A young promoter from Northern Ireland sat on the UK jury. As the Irish entry began to pick up momentum across Europe's voting panels, a BBC organiser popped into the booth and suggested that the jury might consider giving a heap of points to Yugoslavia as a patriotic gesture to derail Dana and propel Mary Hopkin to victory. The man from NI expressed disgust at this skulduggery. His high dudgeon was shared by a fellow jurist who happened to be a lay preacher. The moral high ground prevailed and the UK jury voted with a clear conscience. Dana won, Mary Hopkin came second, and Julio Iglesias finished third for Spain.

Ireland's prize was the honour of hosting the 1971 contest. The choice of the UK's contestant at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre had shades in the current Russia/Ukraine face-off. The Troubles had engulfed Northern Ireland in 1969. Many saw the Republic's selection in 1970 of Dana, from largely nationalist Derry, as endorsing, or at least echoing, a long-held territorial claim on the six counties.

So when Clodagh Rodgers, from Ballymena, was picked to represent the UK in Dublin the political interpreters went into overdrive.

One spin from British sources at a time of heightened tensions was that the UK felt it prudent to send an Irishwoman because they feared a singer from Britain would get a hostile reception from the home crowd. The reverse theory was that the UK had chosen a singer who could be seen as a proud representative of Ulster in order to 'put it up' to the hosts. The spin-offensive was upped a notch when one of the UK judges ran to the press claiming she'd been offered a bribe in a Dublin pub two days before the big night.

Eurovision soothed this isolated nation's inferiority complex when we desperately craved approval from wherever we could find it. In return, we first got blasé, then downright rude, fielding a sneering turkey in 2008 squawking 'Irelande Douze Points'.

We had outgrown Eurovision, but it would have been better to walk away, as other nations have, leaving both parties to separate with their dignity intact. Part of the reason we haven't is because Eurovision is embedded deep in the DNA of RTÉ, and Montrose won't accept the jig is up. Reflecting on one of our dismal latter-day showings, one RTÉ veteran observed: "In recent times, when the results have gone against us, the contestants have taken it well. They've shrugged and smiled and enjoyed the moment. It's the RTÉ crowd that has been inconsolable. There are people in RTÉ whose predecessors have brought the Eurovision to Ireland and they desperately want to do the same. They see it as a mark of failure if they don't have a Eurovision win on their CV."

Sympathy votes are in short supply.

Irish Independent

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