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The Road to Riverdance by Bill Whelan: lively account of seismic changes in Irish society

A colourful testament to an extraordinary life that helped shape and soundtrack it

The Road to Riverdance
The Road to Riverdance
Author: Bill Whelan
ISBN-13: 9781843518525
Publisher: Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €25

Back when Ireland was the Real Madrid of the Eurovision Song Contest and people bought cassette singles for their Sony Walkmans, the charts threw up some fascinating glimpses into the national mindset.

For five weeks during March and April 1994, Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen went to number one. It was displaced by Ireland’s official World Cup ‘94 single, which might have had a longer run at the top if it wasn’t for the sudden arrival of Riverdance by Bill Whelan, which occupied the chart summit for 18 consecutive weeks.

In The Road to Riverdance, its composer reveals that the single would not have been released at all if it wasn’t for the sponsorship of Church and General Insurance, as every record label Bill Whelan had approached considered a seven-minute piece of instrumental music not attached to any obvious star to be out of the question.

Jackie’s Army, U2 and Riverdance are often cited as cultural booster shots for our national self-esteem during the early ‘90s. As the title indicates, Whelan documents his personal journey to Grammy-winning success and expands on some notable milestones along the way. His Limerick background and loving parents, Dave Whelan and Irene Lawlor, are touchingly captured in its early chapters. Both fostered a deep appreciation for music and culture in the family home, even though they would’ve much preferred if their son pursued a more conventional career path into law.


It felt like Riverdance crash-landed out of nowhere, as if Michael Flatley and Jean Butler fell to earth directly onto the Point stage, but it was ambitious projects such as Whelan’s Seville Suite, inspired by Aodh Rua Ó Dónaill’s flight from Kinsale to Spain, and Mayo 5000 in the National Concert Hall that incrementally fine-tuned Whelan’s musical vision. He offers a glimpse behind the curtain in a delightfully lively and richly anecdotal style.

John McGahern once reflected that several generations of social change often occur within the space of one in this country. Bill Whelan’s memoir is an entertaining account of the seismic changes in Irish society during the second half of the 20th century and a colourful testament to an extraordinary life that helped shape and soundtrack it.

Éamon Sweeney

Éamon Sweeney, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about music and culture