Friday 20 April 2018

The woman who ran Daniel’s show

As Daniel O’Donnell’s mother Julia is laid to rest, Anita Guidera looks at the life of Ireland’s most famous matriarch

Daniel O'Donnell with his late mother Julia. Photo credit: Declan Doherty/PA Wire
Daniel O'Donnell with his late mother Julia. Photo credit: Declan Doherty/PA Wire

When the late Julia O’Donnell was making her final journey home to Kincasslagh on Sunday evening, the cortege took a brief detour to Cruit, overlooking her beloved native Owey Island.

Here on this windswept outcrop, a few kilometres off the Donegal shore, life began almost 100 years ago for Ireland’s most famous mother.

Her son, Daniel has retold Julia’s ‘rags to riches’ story of survival countless times to audiences all over the world.

It is small wonder that Daniel credits his mother for all the fame and fortune that has come his way. But for her fierce determination, life may not have been so kind to him and his four older siblings.

Raised in a humble three-roomed thatched cottage on Owey Island on July 15, 1919, Julia had to earn money from a young age to help keep the family from starvation.

She travelled to Scotland in her early teens, working seasonally, picking potatoes in the fields of Ayrshire and Renfrewshire where she was paid a pittance and slept in cowsheds.

Later as a young adult she gutted and filleted herrings on the Shetland Islands and in Great Yarmouth, working outdoors in all weathers.

She married Francie O’Donnell from neighbouring Burtonport and the couple settled in Kincasslagh but circumstances meant that Francie spent most of the year as a migrant worker in Scotland. This took a toll on his health and in 1967 he died of a heart attack at the age of 49 leaving behind a destitute wife and five children. Six-year-old Daniel was the youngest.

With just a widow’s pension to support her family, Julia supplemented her income knitting sweaters into the late hours of the night for the American market.

Daniel would later recall how, despite difficult circumstances, his mother ensured her children never wanted for anything. Nor did they ever feel poor.

By the time he embarked on his musical career, his sister Margo was already a household name in Irish country music circles and he would accompany his mother to her gigs.

But as Daniel’s international career took off and she became a regular at his gigs, Julia was propelled into the limelight.

Friends recall how she would show up at his concerts, impeccably dressed, her hair newly done and take her seat in the front row, often hours before the concert began. She travelled all over Ireland and the UK, and to Branson, Missouri on several occasions, attending Daniel’s concerts every night during his month-long residency there.

Over the years, Julia perfected the regal wave, delivered on cue when Daniel, who jokingly referred to her as the Queen Mother, acknowledged her from the stage. Even when she wasn’t there in person, Daniel would tell audiences how his mother ran the whole show from her chair in the corner of her kitchen. Julia glowed under the spotlight, knittings socks and scarves for three popes, one now a saint, and gloves for Queen Elizabeth. She also knitted gifts for the US President and First Lady, as well as sporting and music stars. She corresponded regularly with her son’s fans, many of whom became her friends through the years and spoke to her son on the phone almost every day when he was away from home.

Julia’s was an open house where visitors were always welcome. Her apple tarts and scones were legendary but she was best known for her pancakes, once delivering a freshly made batch to country music legend, Loretta Lynn in the RTE studios in Donnybrook.

Julia never tired of being on the road and meeting new people but, despite all the fame and fortune, she remained straight talking and true to her island roots.

Although sharing her famous son with legions of adoring female fans she always knew she was his number one girl.

In the song, Medals for Mothers which became a feature of Daniel O’Donnell concerts, there is no question about whom he is referring to when he sings: “If there’s medals for mothers/for all of the deeds they have done/If there’s medals for mothers, Mama you’ll win every one.”

When she is laid to rest in Kincasslagh this morning it is first and foremost as a proud mother of five children, a grandmother and great grandmother, and as an island woman that Julia O’Donnell will be remembered.

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