The original Derry girl: 50 years since Dana won the Eurovision

The original Derry girl: 50 years since Dana won the Eurovision

It’s been 50 years since Dana won the Eurovision for Ireland. Pat Fitzpatrick caught up with her to ask about life as a singer, mother, politician and a very famous interview with Vincent Browne.

‘One way or another, I’m going to get ya’. Dana is singing a Blondie song to me over WhatsApp from Australia. She breaks into it during a story about a time in the 1970s when she was recording in Los Angeles, and the record company people asked her along to see a new band they were launching.

The original Derry girl: 50 years since Dana won the Eurovision

“So we went into this pokey little venue, I don’t know what is called but it was nothing special, and that band was Blondie,” she tells me from Canberra, where she and her husband Damien have been marooned indefinitely because of the coronavirus.

The original Derry girl: 50 years since Dana won the Eurovision
Dana weds her husband Damien surround by friends and family

I tell her I read Debbie Harry’s biography last year. “I never read it. Did she say I was in the audience?” Dana shoots back with a giggle.

It illustrates a few things about Dana Rosemary Scallon. She’s funny. While some people might see her as a divisive politician, she remains, first and foremost, a musician. And for a while there in the 1970s, she was really huge.

It’s all there in a new one-hour documentary, Dana — The Original Derry Girl, which is about to air on RTÉ One. Her life seems to hinge on three minutes in Amsterdam, where she represented Ireland in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest, singing ‘All Kinds Of Everything’.

Dana won against the odds and an 18-year-old Derry girl who had recently started playing the folk-scene in Dublin was suddenly in demand across Europe.

“I was in such shock, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. When we left Dublin, we were waved off by a porter and two cleaning ladies. When I came back there must have been 5,000 people at Dublin Airport. Who’d ever seen an aeroplane with your name on the side of it?”

The original Derry girl: 50 years since Dana won the Eurovision
Dana revisits Amsterdam. Her life seems to hinge on three minutes in the city, where she represented Ireland in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest, singing ‘All Kinds Of Everything’.

I’m struck by one image in the documentary, where she is hugged by a nun on arrival back in Northern Ireland. She’s known for her staunch Catholic views now — did she have a strong faith then?

“I went to a convent school. I couldn’t say I was deeply religious, but I wasn’t not religious. I went to mass every Sunday. When I went to Eurovision, I was questioning everything. It was later, in my mid-20s, I suppose, I felt such a peace in my belief.”

Dana had a string of hits, hosted a TV show in the UK and appeared regularly on Top of the Pops. She must have seen some things contrary to her religious beliefs.

“I was working non-stop!” she replied with a laugh. “I worked seven days a week, normally two or three times a day. Immediately after Eurovision, I was in four countries in one day. You’re really not taking stock of who’s decadent and who’s not.”

Did she drink?

I never drank. My grandfather was an alcoholic, my mother had a real fear of it.

When I came into business I got double-booked at a charity event with a very, very famous singer whose name I won’t tell ya, she had a fairly big drinking problem at that time. The two of us were sitting looking at each other in a make-shift dressing room, waiting to go on and she said, ‘Don’t you ever let this happen to you.’

“There was so much drink around in the 70s. At rehearsal there was drink, there would have been a bottle of champagne every night for me coming off stage. I just thought, I’m going to have a lot of things to cope with, drink isn’t going to be one of them.”

The documentary suggests that problems with her vocal chords, leading to surgery, hindered her career in the late 1970s.

“When I’d sing a note, two would come out. I was like a human bagpipe. I kept getting relapse after relapse. My father had a heart attack three weeks before I had my operation, and I was the breadwinner in the family, it was not an easy time.”

Did this impact on her faith?

“I used to think — is there anybody there at all? I sat down at the table and said, if there is anybody there, help me. And I had an immediate thought to call my voice consultant and ask for the name of a teacher.”

He put her in touch with the delightfully titled Madame Florence Wiese Norberg, who put her back on track. But life on the road was taking its toll, keeping her away from her four kids under 10 at the time. “It was excruciating being away from them really. By the time I’d get to three or four days away, I was depressed.”

By now she was married to Damien Scallon, a hotelier from Newry. They first met in 1972 and were married in 1978. It’s clear he’s been a big influence in her life. Her profile photo on WhatsApp is of the two of them, I can hear him in the background during our call, gently reminding Dana it’s nearly time for a Zoom call with the BBC. (The Beeb have plans for a Eurovision replacement show, apparently.)

And it was Damien’s career that took them to Birmingham, Alabama in 1991, when he was hired to run the retreat centre for a TV network focused on Catholic teachings. Dana describes it as a relief, allowing her to put her career aside for a while so she could raise her kids. So what made her come back to Ireland and run for President in 1997?

I knew there was something wrong if the people could only choose whoever the political parties nominated to run. I thought that was wrong. I knew, from living in the North, what it was like to be part of a minority without a voice.

Dana was no ordinary candidate. She put her Catholic beliefs front and centre during the campaign, telling Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show that she would have trouble signing a bill that allows abortion on demand. There was a backlash in a mid-90s Ireland that felt it no longer had to be run from the pulpit, which culminated in a famous radio appearance with Vincent Browne, where the host didn’t hide his disagreement with some of her answers.

“I honest to God thought he was sick. He didn’t know what to do with me when I said, ‘Can I get you a drink of water, are you feeling alright?’ He didn’t listen to my answers. In the end, I said to him, I have answered your questions, but they’re not the answers you wanted.” Browne apologised later. Did they ever meet again?

We met by accident in the Montrose Hotel. I said, ‘Vincent, will we kiss and make up?’ He laughed, and I laughed too. I have a lot of time for Vincent. I respect him as a broadcaster and I like him.

Dana came third in the race with a respectable 13% of the vote and two years later was elected MEP for Connacht-Ulster.

She has experienced a share of family-related troubles since then. A business disagreement with her sister Susan over who owned the copyright to Dana’s recordings, ended up in court. Did this spoil their relationship?

“Unfortunately, yes.” she says, her voice a bit quieter.

When she ran for President again in 2011, Dana stunned viewers on Prime Time when she made a statement referencing unfounded allegations against a member of her family. The allegation was she covered up instances of sexual abuse by her brother John. None of this was true. John Brown was found not guilty of all charges in 2014, there was nothing to cover up.

The original Derry girl: 50 years since Dana won the Eurovision
Dana: "I went to a convent school. I couldn’t say I was deeply religious, but I wasn’t not religious.”

When our chat is over, Dana emails me a transcript from a Marian Finucane Show in 2014, after the not guilty verdict was returned. In it, Marian discusses the pain of the whole ordeal for Dana and her brother. I get the feeling this means a lot to her — that someone like Marian Finucane, whom she admired, would bear witness to the damage the incident did to her and her brother.

In 2018, Dana returned to a studio in Rome to record a new album, her first in 11 years. (Its release has been delayed by the coronavirus.) It sounds like it was some kind of homecoming.

“The musicians were stars in their own right and have worked with incredibly successful groups. I was really scared going in — did you ever go through times when you think that they’re going to find out now that I’m total rubbish,” says Dana, the joy back in her voice.

“But I’ve always been surrounded by musicians - my first instrument is piano, not voice. So I have an immediate affinity - and sure we were just musicians in a room.”

Dana - The Original Derry Girl airs on RTÉ One, Monday May 11 at 9:35pm.

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