Daniel O’Donnell at 60: ‘I could have made a lot more money if I was more ruthless’

The singer reflects on his career, marriage, business nous and family alcoholism

Country crooner and guilt-free crush of legions of women over a certain age, Daniel O’Donnell will turn 60 on December 12th. I ask him for his thoughts about the impending birthday. Despite naming his new album 60 – it went straight into the UK album charts at number 4 – he doesn’t have much to say about reaching this age. No major philosophical revelations.

"I don't feel a bit different than I did at any other age," he says. "You know I did something during the week that I never did before – I got the flu jab, that's the only thing I've done," he says in that softly lilting and – if you're from Ireland – unmistakeable Donegal voice.

“I suppose it is a milestone age, 50 wasn’t a big deal, when you are in your sixties you are in your sixties and that’s it. You’ve less time left than you have lived. I am not going to live until I’m 120.”

That revelation is delivered on Skype, O'Donnell's preferred platform for interviews. He is talking on his mobile phone from Branson, Missouri, the Las Vegas of country music. He's been going there since 1997 when it was more of a struggle to fill rooms. Now he's delighted to be back preparing for 13 sold out dates in the US, in venues such as Mystic Lake Casino and Fargo Theatre.

I remember one night standing up there and thinking how much I enjoyed it. I looked out and saw people singing and smiling along and I thought wouldn't this be a great way to spend my life

I ask him about one of the songs on 60 – Down at the Lah de Dah. The first single from the new album was released with a video that had social media buzzing. Think Club Tropicana mixed with Fantasy Island and a sprinkling of Bed Knobs & Broomsticks and you are only part of the way there. Making the video was "great fun" he says. He is full of praise for the creative team Re-Act Productions who came up with the concept. The song itself – written by Jimmy Buffett, Paul Brady and Ralph Murphy – is a jaunty middle of the road jape of a song for anyone who dreamt of an escape during the pandemic.

"It's not like it has a big, big message, like You Raise Me Up, this one just makes people happy. It's a wee bit different …" O'Donnell says. "The two guys who made it live three miles from me, award winning illustrator Kim Sharkey who did the art is another three miles the other way, the mermaids are from Dungloe and Burtonport and the barman was drafted in at great expense from Belfast. The effort was incredible and I am hoping it brings great attention to them as well."

The video begins with our clean-cut hero watching a travel programme in some neatly pressed pyjamas heading off to bed whereupon he falls into a dream Down at The La De Dah, a tropical paradise. O’Donnell is surfing and wearing a grass skirt with floral garland, larking about with seagulls and a couple of comely looking mermaids. At the end of the video, we see Daniel daydreaming in an office, back at his boring 9-5 job, still dreaming of a life sipping cocktails at the La De Dah. The scene makes me wonder about if O’Donnell never made it in music and had a 9-5 job, what would it be?

He says he’d probably have been a teacher. “I was no genius at school, but I loved accountancy and economics and maths.” He doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t singing though. His late mother Julia was always encouraging. “She’d say ‘get up there and sing.’” He remembers the exact moment as a young boy performing for grown ups in a hotel in Dungloe one Saturday where he knew he wanted to be a singer. “I remember one night in particular standing up there and thinking how much I enjoyed it. I looked out and saw people singing and smiling along and I thought wouldn’t this be a great way to spend my life?”

O'Donnell was still a schoolboy at the time. He enjoyed classes but wasn't "an exam person". He went to study business in Galway Regional College, hoping to transfer to a degree course later. "I only stayed three months." He didn't feel he fit in and longed to be perform.

His older sister Margaret – known by her professional name Margo – had been singing for years and over the Christmas of 1980, she invited her younger brother to be part of her band. “I joined her in January 1981. That was the beginning.”

After quitting college in Galway to spend two years on the road with Margo, he went solo in 1983. He played his first solo gigs in Glasgow venues, toiling away in Scotland as his father had before him. Francis O'Donnell was a labourer who travelled to Scotland for work and who died of a heart attack aged 49 when Daniel was only 6. In previous interviews he talked about those post-Margo years trying to make it, doing gigs to almost empty rooms, at The Squirrel bar in the Barras, the Claddagh Club and the Irish Centre. O'Donnell gently mocked himself about the names of his early bands. "Country Fever, that never caught, and The Grassroot, that never grew," he said. Several respected music promoters told him there was no audience for his kind of musical offering, He should have quit but he couldn't. He wouldn't.

“They were the very difficult years,” he says now from Branson, the difficult years long behind him. His output and success since then has been astonishing. Over the past 40 years O’Donnell has recorded more than 50 albums and sold more than 15 million records. He has had UK Top 40 albums and more than 20 albums in the US Billboard Top 20. He has won multiple awards and 20 years ago received an honorary MBE. Even if you can’t name any other Daniel O’Donnell song you’ll be cognisant of I Just Want To Dance With You and O’Donnell’s appearance on Top of the Pops which brought him a whole new audience.

If you look at his set list now, it hasn’t changed much. You’ll hear all the songs that have become O’Donnell classics from his first hit Donegal Shore to Need Me, “It’s not changed too much, I still sing the songs I love, but I am maybe more confident now.”

His audience is one of almost cult-like devotion. Researching this interview I found a video of O’Donnell singing while on either side, two middle aged women, twin sisters, hug him and he reaches over to plant chaste kisses on them from time to time. He knows immediately who I am talking about. He knows the gig was in Tenerife where he first met and lives part of the year with his wife of nearly 20 years Majella. He tells me the name of the women and that one of them is recovering from cancer. “I do know a lot of people who come to the shows. I would have a good grasp of them. Especially the people who are coming a long time.” He missed the connection with his fans during the pandemic. “It goes beyond just the music.”

The music might not always be to their taste but it gives them a good feeling. And then maybe the mother or the grandmother will pass away and they will still come

There are a lot of women who are madly in love with you, I say. “I don’t know that they are in love, in the case of a lustful love.” I tell him I don’t know about that, I’ve seen a lustful twinkle in my partner’s mother Queenie’s eyes whenever she mentions O’Donnell’s name – which is often. “I don’t know now, I am getting to 60,” he says laughing and then coughing, he has a small cold in his chest which he says is getting better. “They would need to settle.”

He reckons a lot of people came to the shows over the years, with their mother or grandmother thinking, "God, how are we going to sit through this? The music might not always be to their taste but it gives them a good feeling. And then maybe the mother or the grandmother will pass away and they will still come … maybe there's a comfort, or you feel close to someone. There are lots of reasons but if I go to see Cliff [Richard] or Loretta [Lynn] I just love the music, for most people they love the music."

But you do get knickers thrown at you? "A very odd time," he says laughing remembering a story about one of the original members of his band, Ronnie Kennedy, who died recently. Kennedy joined O'Donnell's band in 1984 and was with him until 2016 when ill health with cancer meant he had to step back from performing. They'd always joke on stage and one time a woman threw up "a big pair of bloomers and I joked, will we go camping in them Ronnie?"

More recently, he noticed one woman rushing towards him at a gig about to throw a very skimpy pair of underwear. “I was glad they didn’t actually get to the stage in the end because I thought 'gee, how would I lift that in the Covid times?'” he says chuckling. “But that doesn’t happen too much now.”

Daniel O’Donnell has never been fashionable but then he’s never tried to be. His beloved Irish ballads, his country music, his twee dance moves, natty suits and innocent flirting was always about pleasing himself and his audience. He’s not under any illusions about his public image. “I don’t think the division is so great now. People used to say, ‘oh I hate him’. I don’t think they mean they hate me, I think they don’t enjoy the music … there is music I don’t enjoy, I can’t appreciate it. So I understand. I don’t feel I have to prove anything. I do it for the people who enjoy it and that’s enough.”

He doesn’t read negative press. His friends know not to tell him about it either. “It would annoy you. If you see something hateful of course it will annoy you. Everybody wants to be liked … you want people to be happy in your company. I don’t need that negativity.”

He mentions the late Love Island presenter Caroline Flack and other celebrities who have been impacted by social media bullying or negative commentary. "If somebody is running you down, what good is that going to do you to look at it? But I do think it's less and less these days. Years ago people would have written certain things about me in the paper. I am very fortunate that a lot of people like what I do … It's hard to figure it out and I don't try. I am just glad I've got to do what I've done and have enjoyed it."

While his sister Margo has been open about her struggle with alcohol, O’Donnell does not drink. He has a brother and a sister who are teetotallers, the brother has been a pioneer for 60 years. “I have taken a drink,” he clarifies. “If there was something going on and they put out champagne, I would sip it and then find someone to give it away to. Alcohol doesn’t make me any better or any freer, I don’t feel I need it. When we go to Tenerife I can sit all night and enjoy it really well without taking alcohol.”

“My mother was always very strongly against alcohol … I don’t know if that was an influence. I wouldn’t have liked to have become dependent on drink. I remember growing up seeing some of my uncles drinking and I thought that it did nothing for them if they took a lot of drink.”

I ask about the sadness of watching a sibling struggle with alcohol problems. Margo has been open about her issues. He’s open about it too. “What you learn is that you cannot change somebody who has become dependent on drink. They have to change themselves. And thank god she did in the end triumph over it, but it must be terrible … for the joy that it brings many, it’s a curse to a few. The curse outweighs the joy.”

“My mother always tried to make her [Margo] better, and you can’t. But it’s great her life is so much better because of where she is now. Just terrific.”

I want to ask him about financial success and business nous – he studied it for three months after all. The 59-year-old’s income from live gigs was impacted since March of last year due to Covid-19 restrictions. He spent the pandemic entertaining cocooning residents of care homes in Co Donegal with a series of open-air, free performances during the lockdowns. Even so the latest financial figures for O’Donnells’ company DOD Promotions show his accumulated profits have risen healthily almost €690,000 to €4.33 million.

When I started everybody told me there was no point. All those who knew the business told me I shouldn't bother. I didn't listen

Is he business savvy? He doesn’t think so. “I could have made a lot more money if I was more ruthless, but I wasn’t,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I am not very comfortable, but I suppose I could have done things differently but listen I’m very, very, very lucky to be here.”

So, not ruthless but “very determined”.

“I must have been very determined to get where I am now,” he muses. “Because when I started everybody told me there was no point. All those who knew the business told me I shouldn’t bother. I didn’t listen. There is a book called The Secret and you know a lot of the things in The Secret I was doing anyway without knowing what they were. I just believed. That’s all I can say. I believed I could do it … so I don’t think I am ruthless, I didn’t need to be but I must have been determined and I knew what I wanted to do.”

He says he might have inherited his determination from his mother who was very strict “it was her way”.

“She must have been determined herself to be able to manage. She was widowed young. You have to be strong to overcome that and to go forward. My mother was the strongest one, my father seemed to be quieter.”

He has only faint memories of his father, one in a bread van, perhaps giving him a lift on the way to a bus stop on the way to a job. “That’s the only real thing I remember of my father, isn’t that strange? I must have been very small and it was a great thing, getting away in a van somewhere.”

I ask about Margo again, and the persistent rumour people still whisper, that Margo is not O’Donnell’s sister but his mother. The fact that there is only 10 years between her and Daniel does not seem to have quashed this peculiar Donegal myth.

“Ridiculous,” he says of the rumours. Margo was ten when he was born so “If it were true we’d not be singing at all we’d be in the circus. I never really addressed it because it was so ridiculous there was no point.”

When I told friends I was interviewing O’Donnell, they all wondered in different ways about the “real” Daniel. The general consensus was that there must be some dark secrets he’s keeping. Nobody could be that wholesome. Is there anything he wants to tell me?

"I've had that before," he says. "It's very hard. Do you make something up? I hope maybe in recent times people saw a different side of me and got to know me better." He's talking about the RTÉ show Daniel & Majella's B&B road trip. And the Room to Improve episode where Dermot Bannon came to do up their house.

“In the B&B series people saw fun in me they maybe hadn’t seen before and they saw my annoyance in Room to Improve. I had only one spark of annoyance when we got the first budget from Dermot. I was absolutely raging and I could have just told them to bugger off. I do enjoy fun …. I think people that came to the shows know I like fun but the people who weren’t fans or who don’t come and will never come, I think a lot of them became aware of a different perspective of me on the B&B show.”

I ask him about meeting Majella, the fact that he was 40 before he got married in 2002. Did he have many relationships before her? “I did have a few but I was really career driven,” he says. “I’ve said to the younger singers, don’t leave it all to career because there is more to it than that.” Having said that “it was the right time for me and Majella was the right one for me. I was ready, she’d been married before. I contributed a lot to her and she contributed a lot to me. We were good for each other. It’s worked perfectly.”

At first, the fact that she had been married before was an issue for the man who is a devout Catholic and had a song on one of his first albums called Married by the Bible, Divorced By the Law. Sample lyric: “Divorces by the thousands, Is the human race insane? I always thought that marriage should be a sacred thing.” He came to his senses eventually, realising that he should treasure and deepen his relationship with Majella. “If something is so good and if God is so good he wouldn’t put people in our path to make difficulties, you just have to accept things the way they are.” Was Majella annoyed by his prevaricating? “Majella had done a lot of work on herself, when her marriage broke down, so she would be a lot more together in that respect. She just felt if it’s to be, it will be.”

There is a great video doing the rounds which shows their different characters, Majella, a cancer survivor who takes no nonsense, is giving a gloriously snippy retort on a zoom call to a fan who admonished her for singing too much with O’Donnell. (Majella often sings with him and they do a duet of Something Stupid on the latest album.) “You won’t wonder what she’s thinking. That’s the difference between me and Majella,” explains O’Donnell.

The key to a happy marriage? “Respect somebody’s differences. Accept people for who they are. We do things separately and we do things together. I am here now and Majella is in Tenerife with her mother. Her mother lives with us. We spend time away but when we’re at home we are together full time. We don’t tire of one another. And that’s the difference for me. In the past, I would tire of people, but I don’t tire of Majella.”

Has he any regrets in life? “No,” he says firmly. “I think that in life everything happens to get us to the next stage whatever that is and when I think about Majella, when she got cancer, I think the cancer, whereas you wouldn’t choose to have it, I think it allowed Majella to help so many people.”

I've asked him a lot of questions. I know he loves Cliff Richard and Coronation Street and quiz shows like The Chase and the Eurovision but I still haven't uncovered a Daniel O'Donnell secret. I've only a couple of minutes left so I ask how come his skin is so fresh looking and unlined when he's pushing 60.

Before I even have time to inquire about Botox or other cosmetic interventions he is up off the couch and bringing his phone into the bathroom. “Wait till I show you this,” he says brandishing a bottle of Silcock’s Base at the camera. “I wash my face with it and then I put it on when I finish. And I drink lots of water. I don’t drink tea or coffee and I don’t drink or smoke. My mother, when she died at 94, she had great skin so I think it’s genetic.”

So there you have it. The First Secret of Daniel O’Donnell is … Silcock’s Base, clean living and impeccable genes. Maybe we’ll find out the rest when he turns 70.

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times columnist, feature writer and coproducer of the Irish Times Women's Podcast