'I'd absolutely hate if Daniel left me tomorrow, but I'd survive' - Majella O'Donnell
They have very opposite personalities and life stories, but Daniel and Majella O'Donnell are a perfect match
Back in 2001, when Daniel O'Donnell announced at his 40th birthday party that he was planning to marry Majella McLennan, it took the nation by surprise. As one of the most eligible men in the land with a fanbase of adoring women around the world, there was great interest in the singer's love life.
Was he secretly dating someone? Was he gay? A confirmed bachelor? The truth is that he had a couple of relationships along the way, but didn't really go public with his personal life until he met Majella. "I probably just ignored it," he says of the speculation. "I was very career-driven too and that was a big focus for me. I really loved what I did and I still do."
So when he finally revealed Majella as the great love of his life, it would be fair to say that a divorced, mother-of-two wasn't the type of person Catholic Ireland of that time expected our Wee Daniel to marry. "She wasn't the type of person I would have expected either," Daniel admits, over lunch in Chapter One. He also believes that he wouldn't have the happy, fulfilled life he enjoys now, if he hadn't managed to overcome the misgivings that saw him breaking up with the bubbly, warm Thurles woman six months into their relationship.
The pair met in September 1999 in Tenerife, where Daniel had a holiday apartment. He frequented the bar and restaurant owned by Majella's parents, Marion and the late Tom Roche, who had first moved there while in their 50s. Majella, then 40, had spent the previous years raising her children, following splitting from her husband when her children were aged five and three. She combined this with a busy management job at a five-star hotel in Edinburgh, so when the children went off to boarding school, she decided the time was right to take a year or two out to help her parents.
One night, Daniel came in with friends for dinner, and Majella's mum asked her to sing to provide a bit of atmosphere. Most people would feel the pressure with a famous singer in attendance, but not our Majella. "Ah sure, I'm very bold, and when I have a couple of drinks in me, it would be no bother," she laughs, adding that she sang She Moved Through the Fair and I Will Love You. "I knew who Daniel was, but I wouldn't have been a follower of country music."
Daniel enjoyed Majella's singing and the conversation flowed between them, so he invited her to join himself and two friends the following night. They ended up in a nightclub called Bobby's. "I couldn't believe Daniel O'Donnell was in this place with loud, booming music," says Majella. "We were dancing and then he leaned forward and kissed me and I thought, 'Wow!' My perception of him had been that he was very boring and didn't drink, but we had a great night and I was very pleasantly surprised."
They began dating and Daniel loved Majella's personality. When asked what he liked about her physically, she interjects that she "had a fine figure back then". "You still have a fine figure," Daniel protests. "I must have liked what I saw, and I still like what I see. I thought almost immediately that we could be together a lot and not be fed up with one another, and that has carried through to this day. We're kind of opposites, as I'm very calm and observant of what's going on, whereas Majella says what she feels and then thinks afterwards."
Majella says she irritates Daniel at times because, unlike him, she's "very forward" and wears her heart on her sleeve. "He has never asked me to rein it in or not to do something and I find that very attractive," she says.
After the initial excitement and headiness that comes with the fun of a new relationship, doubts Daniel were harbouring overcame him and he ended the relationship after six months. "I suppose it was a religious thing," he says, referencing divorce being frowned upon in Catholicism.
"I wasn't surprised but I was heartbroken, although I didn't let on," says Majella. "I love the person I know now for 17 years from the bottom of my heart, but I can't deny that after six months together, I wasn't thinking, 'I have two children, my marriage is over, and this lovely man, who has no luggage and is wealthy, is interested in me'. I was disappointed, of course, because he would have been a fantastic catch, but that wasn't the reason I fell for him. Daniel has a great sense of humour and he's very funny, considerate and thoughtful. I'd had a really explosive marriage during which my husband had several affairs, and I felt I could breathe and relax and be myself around Daniel."
Over the next few months, Daniel and Majella remained good friends, just without that "private aspect to their relationship", as she puts it. As time passed, Daniel began to doubt his decision and had a moment of clarity while he was watching Mamma Mia! in the West End on his own. "I found myself thinking that Majella would have loved it, and began to wonder why I wasn't going with what I was feeling?" he says. "I felt that if it's the same God that we're led to believe in, he wouldn't want me not to be happy. So I decided that whatever was to be, will be, and Majella and I began again."
"Weren't you lucky she took you back?" I say. "Very lucky, but sure I was loaded," Daniel laughs, giving a flash of that famous dry wit. They got back together in September 2000, and managed to keep the relationship out of the spotlight until December 2001. Then Daniel decided to introduce "the lady I hope one day will be the future Mrs O'Donnell" to the 500-strong audience of surprised relatives and friends at a charity ball for his 40th birthday party in Birmingham.
Majella thought she'd be sitting at a table with friends, but Daniel told her in the bedroom beforehand that he was going to introduce her. "I was thinking, 'Oh Jesus Christ'," she says. "I was wearing this lovely blue velvet dress with long sleeves, but it came down in the front and there was plenty of the old cleavage there. I'd never have worn it if I'd realised that this was the night he'd introduce me."
Naturally, the announcement generated headlines like, 'Daniel to marry divorcee', but the coverage was fine in general. What about the fans though, many of whom would have had their hopes dashed when Daniel and Majella tied the knot in 2002? "Some didn't appear at concerts after that," Majella smiles. "The majority were great and were happy that Daniel had someone in his life, because they knew he went home alone at night."
What about his late mum Julia in Kincasslagh? Daniel (56) is the youngest of her five children, and his dad Francis died aged 49, when he was six. Was she concerned when he met Majella, although the women went on to have a good relationship? "I suppose she was a bit," says Daniel, "but I think she saw in the end that I was happy. At the same time, whoever came along probably wouldn't have been good enough for her anyway".
It was different for Majella (57) as her parents knew Daniel before she did and already liked him. "My mum would throw me out of the house before him if something happened between us, even if it was his fault," she laughs. "My dad was strict so I went to London straight after the Leaving Cert in 1978 because I wanted freedom and to get away, plus my boyfriend at the time had already moved over." That relationship ended, but Majella stayed in London for eight years and made her career in events and banqueting. She then moved to Scotland and met her former husband there. Their daughter Siobhan (30) is mum to Olivia and Archie, while son Michael (27) has just moved to Australia, where his girlfriend is from. "I got on tremendously well with Siobhan and Michael from the word go, and have been a big part of their lives," says Daniel.
The singer is delighted with the arrival of the grandchildren, and it has been a real joy for him to have them in his life. While baby Archie Daniel is only two weeks old, Olivia, at two and a half, has unquestionably stolen "Gaga's" heart. Her photos adorn his phone cover and screensaver, and he calls every day to talk to her and Skypes when he is away.
"Daniel is a wonderful grandfather," says Majella. "It makes me so happy that he has the love right from the start with the little ones. We tried - well we didn't not try - to have children ourselves, but I was 42 and it didn't happen. After my marriage ended, I never thought I'd trust a man again, but I've never worried about Daniel going off with another woman on tour. I thought I'd die when my first husband left me, and it took me a good four years to get over it but I'm much stronger in myself now. I'd absolutely hate if Daniel left me tomorrow, but I'd survive."
Daniel was a great support to Majella when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and later got the all-clear, and also around her hearing loss. Majella wears two hearing aids as she has 70pc loss in one ear and 30pc in the other, a legacy of repeated childhood infections that ended in a perforated eardrum. She and Daniel are fronting Ireland's 'Campaign for Better Hearing', a global movement focused on the power of sound to enrich lives. Backed in Ireland by Hidden Hearing, the campaign encourages the 50s to test their hearing. With early detection, the impacts of hearing loss can be mitigated, and the lives of those affected greatly improved. Daniel's mum Julia also had hearing problems, which were greatly helped by a hearing aid from Hidden Hearing. "You can be very isolated when you can't hear," he points out.
Daniel and Majella still enjoy going to Tenerife and the grandchildren are a big focus. Still opposites, they are clearly mad about one another. "Daniel eats because he has to and he doesn't drink, whereas I love my food and wine," says Majella. "I enjoy having my own life when he's away, but equally when he comes home, I love being with him. He always has something funny to say or a silly remark. Our relationship shouldn't work, I suppose, but it just does."
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