The Eurovision in Millstreet: Looking back 20 years on

Millstreet hosted the Eurovision 20 years ago, in an equestrian centre, for free. The town relished it, says Richard Fitzpatrick

The Eurovision in Millstreet: Looking back 20 years on

TOMORROW is the 20th anniversary of Millstreet’s hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest. It was an improbable coup for organiser, Noel C Duggan.

Duggan watched on television as Linda Martin won the 1992 Eurovision Song Contest, in Malmo, Sweden, with the Johnny Logan song, ‘Why Me?’ “Why not Millstreet?” Duggan thought, and wrote a letter that night to RTÉ offering the use of his equestrian centre, which was unfinished, for free.

It took two months for the national broadcaster to reply. The joke was that it took that long for people in Dublin to stop laughing at the idea. Journalists who visited Millstreet were sceptical because of unsatisfactory infrastructure. The 1,500 people in the town still used twist-handle telephones, they said.

The visiting BBC journalist, Nicholas Witchell, disparagingly said that Eurovision was being held “in a cowshed in Ireland.” He apologised “profusely” in a two-page letter to Duggan. The decision to go with Millstreet, the smallest venue to host the Eurovision, was a PR stroke of genius.

“Most television studios are like going into the back of a barn anyway,” says Niamh Kavanagh, who sang Ireland’s entry, ‘In Your Eyes’, that year. “The studios can be set up anywhere, usually in some industrial estate. What they did was an enormous logistical operation, down to extending the railway station so it could accommodate longer trains.

“It made it very special for us. Even though it was on home-ground, I felt I went somewhere to do it, if you understand, rather than being swallowed by the city. You lived and breathed the Eurovision down there. There were school tours being bussed in. Everywhere I went, I was swamped, because I was the Irish entry. Everyone was mad for it.”

The people of Millstreet took to it with gusto. The town got a facelift; flowers abounded. Street vendors stocked up on shillelaghs. Each local business adopted one of the 25 entrants. ‘Shalom Israel’ announced a hand-written sign in the window of Pat’s Pound Shop.

One local put up paintings, of the 25 national flags, on his white-washed front wall on Minor Row. Twenty years on, the outdoor exhibition has become known as Matthew Murphy’s Eurovision Wall.

Sonia, a pop star from the Stock, Aitken & Waterman stable in the UK, was the bookie’s favourite to win, with her song, ‘Better The Devil You Know’. According to the Liverpool Echo, she was so confident that she bet £500 on herself. It was the first contest that Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina entered independently. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was raging. The Bosnian team made their plane under a hail of gunfire, apparently, leaving their conductor behind. Ireland’s Eurovision conductor, Noel Kelehan deputised for their song, and led the orchestra for the famous bars that open every Eurovision song contest.

“You come to the night,” says Kavanagh, “and you hear the Eurovision anthem and you get a tingle. That’s a fantastic moment — when you’re sitting in the green room getting ready for the show, and the next thing they play the opening credits, the Eurovision anthem, and a big euphoria sweeps through the whole auditorium, a feeling of, ‘Oh, this is it now’.

“Then, it just goes. Three hours fly by. We were performing in the middle. Sweden was on before us. I remember standing on the side of the stage. People had spotted me. The public was sitting where I was going to walk out from, and they were handing down autograph books, so I was signing autographs as I was running up, going ‘Yahoo!’.”

The voting was tense. The lead passed between Ireland and the UK several times. Ireland gave the UK eight points; the London jury gave Kavanagh 12. “The whole night was fun and joyful, right up until two-thirds of the way through the voting, when it looked like we might win,” she says. “Then, it got dreadful. I didn’t care who won ... I just wanted it to be over. It was very stressful, especially the last two votes. The whole place went mental after the second-last vote, because it looked like we’d won, but there was still a vote to come in from Malta and then there was that climb to the 12 — whoever got the 12 would win.”

Kavanagh got the 12; supporters mobbed her. Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and his wife, Kathleen, led the standing ovation and slow-clap that accompanied Kavanagh’s triumphant march towards the stage for a reprise.

*The first semi-final of Eurovision 2013, from Malmo in Sweden, is at 8pm tonight; the second is at 8pm on Thursday.

Where are they now?

Noel C Duggan:

The entrepreneur — known as Noel C locally, and Mr Millstreet nationally — is still involved in his family business, “100%, same as always”, although his son, Thomas, has hold of the reins. The business is in operation in Duggan’s hometown as “general providers” (today as structural engineers and steel fabricators) since 1875. Last August, the old Eurovision venue hosted an international horse show with 1,200 horses.

Fionnuala Sweeney:

The Belfast-born RTÉ television journalist landed the plum job as presenter on the evening in front of a global TV audience of approximately 350m. After the Eurovision, she took up a post with CNN International, based in the company’s American headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is a news anchor and correspondent.

Linda Martin:

Linda Martin performed as the interval act (in big hair) and presented the Waterford Crystal prize to songwriter Jimmy Walsh in 1993. She continues to appear in pantomime, as a judge on talent shows and last year as a mentor to Jedward in the Eurosong. She also provides refuge to stray dogs, up to 20, at her home near Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

Noel Kelehan:

Noel Kelehan continued to conduct Ireland’s songs in the Eurovision until 1998, overseeing 29 entries since his maiden appearance in 1966. Renowned as an accomplished jazz pianist, and for writing the string arrangements for U2’s album, The Unforgettable Fire, he passed away, aged 76, in February 2012.

Millstreet Memories: Time on your side

Noel C Duggan and his band of locals charmed the world’s media, says Ray Ryan

THE man from Time magazine was not the only person intrigued with the prospect of a small place in rural Ireland hosting the Eurovision Song Contest.

RTÉ’s decision to stage the event at the Green Glens equestrian centre in Millstreet brought Jonathan Margolis to the town.

He was one of 400 journalists and broadcasters who arrived in Noel C Duggan’s complex during the build-up.

Margolis, whose report from Millstreet filled a full page in the global magazine, caught the mood in his introduction.

“Eat your heart out Jacques Delors. The institution that unites Europeans has nothing to do with the Maastricht Treaty.

“It’s the Eurovision Song Contest, an outlandish ritual that began in 1956, a year before the Common Market.”

The story of how Noel C Duggan got RTÉ to stage the contest in Millstreet is now part of rural folk history.

He began scribbling ideas on an old envelope while watching the live telecast of Linda Martin winning the 1992 contest for Ireland in Malmo, Sweden, with Johnny Logan’s song ‘Why Me?’.

Within 24 hours he had written to RTÉ and began a lobbying campaign that involved him making 50 phone calls in one day. The community backed the move and formed a Eurovision steering committee, headed by Dr Michael Feely, chairman, and Ken Brennan, secretary, which provided a wide range of support services.

Millstreet met the challenge of hosting the contest with the firm belief that small places can rise to big occasions.

But it also knew it was up to itself to make the event memorable for the foreign visitors and a source of pride to the country, and rural Ireland in particular. It did so with courtesy and good humour. One day a politician drove into town and asked a man where was Carnegie Hall.

“The last I heard, it was still in New York,” the local replied with a winning smile before directing the visitor to the local hall with the same name.

RTÉ’s 180-strong production team staged a spectacular show on the night with a structure of technology that would have done justice to a NASA space mission.

Anita Notaro was the first woman to direct the contest, with a live audience of 3,000 looking on. The show created huge public interest, with 100,000 people applying for 1,000 free seats in a National Lottery draw.

RTÉ turned Green Glens into a huge television studio, with 102 kilometres of cabling and circuits, 100 microphones, 11 cameras, 40 commentary boxes, elaborate lighting and enough electric power to light 1,700 average size houses — a record for the time, when the 25 countries competing in the contest drew a TV audience of 300m.

Little wonder RTÉ director general Joe Barry, Noel C Duggan and the people of Millstreet wore infectious smiles as the credits rolled on Niamh Kavanagh’s triumph with Jimmy Walsh’s song ‘In Your Eyes’.

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