Cathal Dunne was in the RTÉ green room surrounded by well-wishers when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“We were having a celebration when suddenly the suits pulled me away. It was Jack Lynch on the phone. Speaking in Irish he said, 'fair play to ya boy'.”
Lynch was ringing to congratulate Dunne, the son of the Taoiseach’s sister, Rena, after his first place finish in the 1979 National Song Contest. Eight weeks later 29-year-old Dunne was on stage at the International Convention Centre in Jerusalem representing Ireland at Eurovision with his entry, Happy Man.
“I had a brandy before I went on,” recalls the Cork City native, speaking from Pittsburgh where he lives having emigrated to the US in 1983. “I was totally nervous to be honest with you. I knew I was there on behalf of Ireland. If I made a balls of it, I’d have had to join the Israeli army.
He placed fifth, having been in third position for most of the evening. “I was disappointed,” he says. “I was hoping to come closer. I do remember coming home with all the RTÉ posse. Around 100 people were waiting to greet us. That was beautiful.”
Dunne was born in 1951 and grew up in Douglas on Cork’s southside. He attended the Model School at Anglesea Street where a teacher recognised his musical talent.
“She was playing on a little keyboard and hit the wrong note. It bugged the heck out of me so I corrected her. She said, ‘I want to see your parents’.” I thought I was in trouble. She actually told them I had an ear for music. So I started learning piano around the corner at the Cork School of Music.” Coming from a renowned sporting family, it was hoped that Dunne might excel at hurling or football. Music was not held in quite the same esteem.
“For a boy to take piano class in the Sixties – it was maybe one step above ballet,” he says. “I don’t think it went down very well with Jack [Lynch]. He and Máirín never had any children. His sisters and brothers had loads of kids. Apart from a sister of mine who played camogie, none of us were any good at sport.”
Dunne studied at UCC, where he was tutored by the great Seán Ó Riada. In 1974 he won the Castlebar Song Contest with Shalom, a downtempo piano ballad that called to mind Elton John fronting Dr Hook. Two years later, in 1976, he entered the National Song Contest with Danny, which he feels is a stronger composition than Happy Man.
“Red Hurley won that year with a song written by Brendan Graham, who would go on to write You Raise Me Up. On the night, I received eight points from voters in Dublin. And virtually nothing from around the country. I knew I had to write a simpler song to get a bigger spread of votes.
”He had by then moved from Cork to Dun Laoghaire. One evening, taking a train into central Dublin, the melody for Happy Man sprang fully-formed into his head.
“Somehow the rhythm of the train got me into the rhythm of the tune,” he says. “I went home and started banging it out on piano. I told myself that I would write a song for the contest. And that if I didn’t win it, I would emigrate.”
The disputed city of Jerusalem was under virtual lockdown on Eurovision night.
“The security was incredibly tight. That was the week President Carter, Menachem Begin and Sadat signed the peace treaty at Camp David. Israel was competing with the peace song 'Hallelujah' [performed by Milk and Honey]. How do you compete?”
Dunne’s performance can be viewed on YouTube. He seems remarkably relaxed, as do his backing singers Cathy Nugent, Caitriona Walsh and Mary Clifford.
“I had two brandies, actually,” says Dunne. “Everyone there felt the tension. There was just one TV channel in every country. It was a big deal.”
As he says, all of Ireland was watching. Among those tuning in were his parents Jerry and Rena, taking in the excitement at the Metropole Hotel.
“We will be guests at a wedding party,” Jerry Dunne had told the Cork Examiner the week of the contest. “We’ll slip out from the late night reception just to hear our son’s song and then return to the reception. Later, we will slip out again to watch the board giving the results. We don’t want to upset anybody’s enjoyment.”
'Happy Man' may not have won. However, the single, released on green vinyl, became a hit in Ireland. The recording was at Abbey Road Studios, where Dunne worked with producer Nicky Graham (who played keyboards in David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust touring band and later produced Ant and Dec’s Let’s Get Ready To Rumble– this is called covering all the bases).
“I was on EMI. They wanted to do it in London with their London producer.” There was also a memorable video shot around Cork City. Dunne croons on the steps of the Church of St Anne in Shandon, under one of the sheltered areas at Fitzgerald Park and in the quad at UCC.
It’s a bit cheesy, sure. Yet the melody is irrepressible, the chorus is as catchy as ever, and Dunne has a lightly-worn charisma and fantastic Seventies hair. There are, in addition, trace amounts of the quirkiness that would become a trademark of later generations of Cork musicians. The journey from 'Happy Man' to the Frank and Walters' 'Happy Busman' is perhaps not as long as you might expect.
Dunne, surprisingly, has mixed feelings. “I was always a melody guy,” he says. “At that time in Ireland there weren’t any bona fide lyric writers. I was around at the same time as Jimmy McCarthy. I regret we didn’t get together and maybe isolate for a month and see what we could come up with. At that time, in fairness to Jimmy, he would have felt he didn’t need me to write melodies.”
The economy was already teetering when Dunne appeared at Eurovision. “By the time I had my 15 minutes of fame, the showbands were dying,” says Dunne. “People simply didn’t have the money. I had two choices – go back teaching and do the music part time. Or leave.”
In Ireland being related to Jack Lynch was a novelty. In Irish-America, he quickly discovered, it was a black mark.
“There was a lot of hostility towards him there. He had been the leader of a party that in their eyes was doing nothing. They were, if I may say, armchair terrorists - it was easy to sing 'Kevin Barry' in America.”
This in the long run proved a blessing as he had to adapt and perform outside of the Irish-American circuit. He built a career as a singer and raconteur, blending popular favourites, Irish-American staples such as 'Danny Boy' and some of his own tunes.
He has started to write, too. His first book, 2013’s Put Yer Rosary Beads Away Ma. was a fictionalised account of his experiences in music growing up in Cork.
And he has just published a new romantic novel, Athenry, set against the backdrop of the Famine and blurbed with a rave review from Phil Coulter (it is available from his website or can be downloaded for the Kindle). He has since the Eighties also arranged annual package tours back to Ireland, though that is obviously now on hold.
“There’s no lockdown, though we’re possibly on the verge of it in New York,” he says. “In Pittsburgh they’re way too blasé.” He is living through the aftermath of the American Presidential Election, where Pennsylvania was a key battleground state.
“There’s relief obviously on Biden’s side,” he says. “Friends of mine, Republicans, still believe the election was stolen, fixed, everything. Sadly I’ve lost some good friends simply because I’m Democrat and they’re Republican. We’re living in two alternative realities.”