IT MAY be kitsch, and it is most definitely camp, but the Eurovision Song contest, being hosted tonight in Dusseldorf, is the biggest entertainment show on the planet.
And, according to our own winners and losers, the experience is “amazing.”
Brian Kennedy, who represented Ireland in 2006 with Every Song is A Cry for Love says nothing could prepare him for the contest. He had never worked so hard, or had so much fun.
“The thing that struck me immediately was I was no longer Brian Kennedy, I was Ireland,” he recalls. “Wherever I went, people would say ‘Oh Ireland is here, welcome Ireland.’ You were representing your country at a very high level, it is the campest thing on the planet, but it is also something that people take very, very seriously.”
The pressure to reach the final also surprised Kennedy. He says he had been “well-warned” that there was no way he could win the competition because of the text-voting and certain countries loyally voting for their neighbours.
“I was so relieved to get out of that semi-final, I remember texting my then manager at the time and all I said was two words ‘Thank fuck!’, he laughs. “Honestly, we gave it our best shot, but it was very clear the competition had changed before our eyes. But I had the best fun ever, and will never say never about doing it again.’
Although Niamh Kavanagh has experienced the highs of winning the competition in 1993 with In Your Eyes, and then the lows of coming 23rd last year in Oslo with It’s for You she says she wouldn’t have changed a thing and that she loved and believed in both songs.
“Of course, it would have been fantastic to win again. We would have been delirious, I might even have been able to go for the Presidency,” she jokes.
“The first time was pretty wild, I was the first person to win on home ground so it was pretty special. It’s kind of like being at the centre of a storm, you are completely elated, it was wonderful to see the emotion of everybody around you. It was such a magnificent feeling and experience, I can’t really find the words to describe it,” she says.
“It felt like not just our win, but like the whole’s country’s win.’
Kavanagh is convinced Ireland can win again. The secret is to ‘seize the imagination,’ believe in the song and use the three minutes on stage to sell it.
According to Simon Fine, who co-wrote Dustin’s song Irelande Douze Points in 2008, the turkey’s flippant attitude did not go down well with certain Eurovision chiefs or fans.
“They snubbed us quite a bit, they just didn’t get it,” he recalls. “I didn’t expect them to, either, but I wasn’t expecting the degree of snobbery — like we were insulting the holy sanctity of the Eurovision Song Contest by taking the piss out of it. I still think it was worth doing because it had become a bit of a joke.”
Fine also believes Ireland can win again in the future, suggesting that the song choice is crucial.
“You can’t beat a good song, but it is also a mix of things, a good singer who looks current. You can’t count for 200 million people’s tastes.
Linda Martin, who won with Why Me? in 1992, believes she will never experience such intense pride and emotion again, but could not also believe how nervous she was before going on stage.
“My mind just went blank, I swear to God, as I walked on I didn’t even know the first line of the song,’ she recalls. I was trying to stay calm, then it just kicked in, all my years on stage helped and you can’t learn that overnight.’
Joe McCaul couldn’t agree more. He was just 17 when he was selected to represent Ireland with his sister Donna in 2005 with Love? But they were the first Irish act that had to qualify for the contest.
“I was so nervous,” he explains. “The Eurovision Song Contest is huge. People don’t understand how big it is in other countries. I know Ireland has won it a lot of times, but they don’t realise how much it means to so many countries. It is just so precious to them.’
Unfortunately, the brother and sister duet finished 14th in their semi-final and failed to qualify. But today McCaul insists he has no regrets.
“Of course it was a real anti-climax not getting to the final,” he says. “From being on such a high to going to such a low in the space of an hour. But it was such a huge experience, one that I will treasure for the rest of my life, and not many people can say that.”
For Paul Harrington, who won in 1994 with Charlie McGettigan and their song Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, it was the roar of the crowd that was simply unforgettable.
“Gerry Ryan said to me ‘Harro, I watched the dress rehearsal and that was fantastic, just give it the edge on the night,” he explains.
“It’s an electric feeling — you are nervous but you know everybody is right there behind you. It is almost as if you can feel it. The crowd were fantastic and the roar after our performance was just amazing. It was worth it for that alone.”
Despite being the first Eurovision group to win with over 200 points, Harrington admits he still doesn’t know what the secret to winning is. “It is a bit elusive, like the elixir of life. I don’t know what it is.
“To win was brilliant, it is an extraordinary flash in the pan, it was a great experience and I wish I had a penny for every person who came up to me over the years saying they knew I was going to win,” says Kavanagh.
Despite the many changes over the years, all of Ireland’s winners hope that the Eurovision Song Contest continues long into the future.
“I think when I am 90 I would like to say to my grandchildren, look there is the Eurovision Song Contest, I won that, and for them to know what it is, rather than it meaning nothing to them and have no relevance at all,” explains Kavanagh.
Hooked since ‘Hold Me Now’ in 1987
Gerard Corless and his friend Jennifer in Oslo last year: they have attended the last three finals.
THERE’S nothing quite like a Eurovision final to bring out a sense of madness in some people. Gerard Corless has been a Eurovision fanatic since he watched Johnny Logan win with Hold Me Now in 1987, aged 10. “It was all so colourful and I think it was the first time I was aware of Ireland on an international stage,” he recalls. “A lot of my friends were into football — but for me it was the Eurovision.” He has been much hooked since then. “Those three years in the mid-90s when we won three-in-a-row was really when it all took off — I was in college and everyone would pile into my bedsit dressed up in flags and badges from their favourite countries and it was a time to be proud to be Irish.”
He has even roped his friend Jennifer into attending the last three Eurovisions with him, making the trips to Belgrade, Moscow and Oslo together. The trips provide special quality time for the two buddies. They book tickets online and make the ‘pilgrimage’ to hook up with people they have met through the Irish Eurovision Fan Club. “Jennifer has become known as my Eurovision wife,” laughs Gerard, adding that as Jennifer is moving house this weekend their viewing will probably be at her home in Limerick.
His friend Martin Baker is also a major Euro-groupie. This will be his sixth year in a row at the show, and last year was a real test of his loyalty. When his visit to Norway was threatened by the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland, he jumped on a boat from Dublin to Holyhead, got a bus to London, took the Channel Tunnel to Belgium, on to the Netherlands, through Germany, onwards by bus and boat to Sweden and finally to Oslo, taking him a mammoth five days’ journeying.
“I knew there would have been tears if I hadn’t made it,” he says, speaking from Dusseldorf this week, “and even with our bus breaking down in Copenhagen, it was all worth it.”
* Words by Siobhan Cronin