No wee feat: Daniel back in the charts with new album this Christmas

A national treasure, the Donegal crooner has won the hearts of a new generation of millennials thanks to a mix of reality TV shows and quirky boiler ads, writes Caomhan Keane.

No wee feat: Daniel back in the charts with new album this Christmas

Daniel O’Donnell, or wee Daniel as he is affectionately known, is a national treasure, so firmly woven into our collective consciousness that his sentimental thread count is off the charts.

My generation has grown up with him crooning away in the background. My parents bopped to him — or his sister Margo, legends both of the showband era.

While future generations will rediscover him via Eoin McLove, the Father Ted caricature he claims to have never seen.

What’s curious is, that in spite of being as Irish as a clatter of the wooden spoon, you would be hard pushed to find anyone this side of the bus pass who could name you a single song he’s recorded.

This in spite of the fact that he has amassed record sales in excess of 10m. He had a top 10 album in the UK charts every year for 28 consecutive years — 18 of which have gone top 20 in America.

And, he has just completed a three-week residency in the Welk Theatre in Missouri, where up to 50,000 fans travelled from all over the States to catch this show.

He’s been on Top of the Pops, has his own visitor centre in Dungloe, and is besties with his childhood idols Cliff Richard and Loretta Lynn.

While everyone has heard Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy’, his ‘Coco cabaña’ or ‘Could It be Magic’, where is Daniel’s break-out hit, the kitsch for latter-day audiences to ironically make cool?

Yet when I revealed that I would be speaking to the man himself, it’s not my mother, or my mother’s mother whose socks rolled up and down at the news, but my friends who flooded me with their demands for autographs, selfies and secretly snipped locks of hair.

His appearances on reality TV (Strictly Come Dancing and Daniel and Majella’s B&B Road Trip, his hilarious ads for registered gas boiler installers) plus his fairytale romance with Majella, have helped facilitate a fresh outbreak of “the Daniels” in millennials.

This week Daniel is back in the UK charts, his Christmas album Christmas with Daniel joining luminaries such as Aretha Franklin, Bananarama and Bjork in the top ten.

Another series of Daniel and Majella’s B&B Road Trip has been confirmed, while his home has been torn apart by Dermot Bannon for Celebrity Room to Improve.

But while many of us are dreaming of a white Christmas, Daniel would just as soon go home to Donegal.

“I love Christmas. I love the whole season. We have a house in Tenerife, and last year Majella and I said ‘Sure we’ll try that for Christmas’ and — not that we didn’t enjoy it, but it’s not the same at all. So we were hoping to spend this year in Donegal.”

Building work has frustrated those plans, so instead they are going to stay with Siobhan (his step daughter) and her husband and baby in Bainbridge. But what would Christmas in Donegal have looked like?

“In Donegal my thing would be to go to sing at midnight Mass, and then go to the house where my mother lived, and where my sister Kathleen lives now, and she’d make soup on the bone,” he says wistfully.

“Christmas morning it would be back to Mass to sing again and then I’d go to the hospital to sing one more time, before we would have a huge feed and lie back watching auld films on the telly.”

Singing and hymns have always been a big, big part of Daniel’s Christmas. He revisits a lot of them on the 39-track 2CD and DVD set Christmas With Daniel, including ‘Adeste Videles’, ‘Oh Holy Night’ and ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’.

“There’s a great nostalgia to them,” he says of Christmas songs. “Christmas, above any other time of year, is a time where you reflect. You remember people, people who passed away, and the things you did with them when they were alive. Music, for me, it’s a connection with that past.

“If I’m walking down Grafton Street when I’m out shopping, and I hear a carol coming out of one of the shops, I remember Dublin, long ago, going along Henry Street, or the Ilac centre, and the lovely atmosphere there was at this time of year.

“That’s what we missed last year in Tenerife. The weather not being great, it being colder out and the warmth of the house from the fire when you’d come in from the dark evening outside. The whole combination of things, it just gives you a nice feeling.”

Ask Daniel to pick his favourite song on the album and you’re asking him Sophie’s Choice.

“I love them all. When your singing one you don’t want it to end and then you start the next one and you don’t want that to end either.” Finally he stumps for ‘Christmas 1915’.

“It’s about the ceasefire that happened in the trenches of World War One. And it’s a beautiful, emotive song.

"There’s a line in it, where the singer was 21. And he says ‘I shot the boy that sang in no man’s land.’ Every night I get a feeling of sadness when I say it, thinking, you know, that really happened and God save us.”

Daniel’s mother passed away three years ago. His father-in-law, Thomas Roche, died five months later.

His wife Majella was diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time. Throughout it all, Daniel continued to tour.

Did singing give him any relief from the misery?

“I don’t know if being on the road made her illness any easier on us,” he says, “but she didn’t want to stop the world and let cancer rule what we were doing.

"Music has been very good for me and you have to be mindful in life that, as sad as you can feel, there is always going to be losses and the longer you live, the more people you’re going to loose. But there’s more joy you experience with people as well.

“So much came out of that cancer. The money we raised for charity, the awareness we spread. I’m not saying that’s why she got cancer. But how do we know? It’s not a gift... but as bad as it was, it wasn’t all bad.”

He’s genuinely delighted when I tell him that Top of the Pops might be revived by the BBC. He has fond memories of his appearance on the show.

“I grew up watching it. It wasn’t the music I was singing, but it was still TOTP. So I was delighted when we got the call when we were in Australia that I would get to appear. The Shaman were top of the charts that week, I don’t know if they’re still going but they were the cutting edge then and as far from me as I was from them. It was some experience.”

Considering his continued popularity and his unquestionable success, does it ever bother him that he isn’t given the credit one might say he deserves?

“I’ve done very well and I don’t feel disgruntled about anything. It wasn’t as easy as it could be sometimes, but I believed in what I was doing and I stuck at it. I do think, eventually, people saw — even those who didn’t appreciate it — that there were people who really enjoy what I was doing. And isn’t that good enough?”

Daniel’s only summer concerts in Ireland in 2018 will take place in the INEC in Killarney from August 14-19. Tickets are currently on sale.

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