On May 20th, 2008, in Belgrade during the first semifinal of the Eurovision Song Contest, the Irish entry was booed off the stage. At the end of the evening Ireland failed to qualify for the final. It was the nadir of Ireland's participation in a contest it had once dominated.
At the same time the Irish economy, the wonder of the economic world since 1997, went into freefall as access to capital dried up, the overheated property market came to a standstill and unemployment rose on a steep curve. By September 2008 Ireland had officially entered a recession; by 2010 it needed an EU-ECB-IMF bailout; and by 2011 its credit rating had been declared junk.
To compound the media assault on its economic reputation, the pejorative acronym Pigs, formerly reserved for the depressed economies of the Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, became Piigs, with a second “i”, for Ireland. It was wholly appropriate, then, for Ireland’s Eurovision entry in 2008 – its worst achievement in the contest’s history – to have been performed by a turkey puppet in a shopping trolley.
How could Ireland’s Eurovision reputation so quickly have descended to junk status after the record-breaking success of previous decades?
Ireland came comparatively late to the song contest, in 1965, even four years after Yugoslavia made its debut. The first contestants came from Ireland's showband culture, in which semiprofessional bands toured the country's dance and parish halls, largely performing cover versions of chart hits. To a wider European audience, the contribution seemed outdated: the first of many slow ballads that would become Ireland's hallmark.
Unexpectedly, however, Ireland won in 1970, with All Kinds of Everything , sung by Dana, an 18-year-old girl from the Bogside, in Derry, the location of some of the worst violence and social unrest in 20th-century Ireland.
This seminal Eurovision moment was one of cultural transcendence over political strife that heralded many similar moments in the future, after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Dana’s Eurovision win – a cultural triumph – captured the spirit of the age of embattlement against the colonial oppressor. Here was Ireland’s first use of the song contest as a cultural marker for a wider political battle.
Dana also appeared to be outside history; although she wore a dress of emblematic Celtic embroidery, marking her as national, she sang a simple song of a world of only beauty, transcending national borders.
Ireland won the Eurovision at a time when the Republic had entered negotiations to join the European Economic Community. Learning the performance language of Europeanness ran alongside joining Europe politico-economically.
Ireland joined the EEC in 1973; throughout the 1970s it always ended up in the top half of the scoreboard. Economically also, Ireland benefited from accession, becoming a dutiful though peripheral servant of the European economic centre. With its nonmanufacturing economy, it had little but its culture on which to base its international reputation.
Ireland’s music had echoes from Spain to Norway and was firmly located within the realm of the popular. From Horslips (in the 1970s) to U2 (in the 1980s and beyond), Irish cultural sounds intersected with international pop and rock music, and achieved a degree of international centrality that helped to earn the country a musical reputation.
On Eurovision stages, however, success eventually came when a recognisably Irish sound was abandoned in favour of internationally appealing light ballads. In 1980 Johnny Logan took the country to a second victory, performing Shay Healy's slow ballad What's Another Year? But he was a temporary success in a decade of failure. In the early 1980s the country fared badly, and in 1983 it did not even take part in the contest, because of a financial crisis at RTÉ, the national broadcaster.
It was only in 1987, when Logan returned to represent the country with his self-written Hold Me Now , that fortunes were revived and national pride restored. And his relationship with Eurovision became indelible when he wrote a third winning Irish entry, Why Me? , for Linda Martin in 1992.
There were three successive wins for Ireland from 1992 to 1994, another in 1996 and a recognisable claim to a win in 1995, as half of the group Secret Garden, which won for Norway with the instrumental piece Nocturne , was Irish.
What is more, Riverdance , the hugely popular interval act of the 1994 contest, went on to become a global touring phenomenon and created for Ireland a popular cultural status on the international stage of mythic proportions. These two nonwins arguably contributed most to Ireland's international cultural reputation.
The Irish public’s love of Eurovision would endure in terms of television-audience figures for the next two decades, but from 1997 the performance of the economy proved to be a new national narrative. The country’s future cultural self-promotion would be tied to its Celtic Tiger economy.
Its economic restoration and reputation drove it to international prominence alongside the Celticisation of music, theatre and dance. Ireland as a successful national economy had no further direct need to invest in a European contest in which all but one of the entrants ultimately fail.
Nor did viewers still need to look to the national broadcaster for entertainment. The proliferation of alternative light-entertainment opportunities left Eurovision in its shadow.
The contest had to respond, and by the time Ireland hosted its final contest, in 1997, five of the competing nations had introduced televoting, an attempt by the European Broadcasting Union to involve viewers. Artists were also permitted to use prerecorded backing tracks, signalling the demise of the live orchestra – a feature that Ireland had exploited in its power ballads – two years later.
Like the Celtic Tiger economy, Ireland’s Eurovision performance in the mid 1990s had been a Euro bubble created by a jury system of voting, like the foreign direct investment that had fuelled the Republic’s apparent economic success.
But Ireland as a nation altered dramatically during the boom years. The economy made it an attractive place for migrants, either for work or for refuge. The east-to-west and south-to-north trajectories of migration brought with them large communities of Poles, Lithuanians, Chinese and Nigerians.
Similar patterns were apparent across Europe; for European migrants in particular, Eurovision offered a moment of connection to their home country. Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, Ireland’s national televote consistently placed Poland and Lithuania in top positions. It seems plausible that inward migration played a large part in this voting pattern.
Irish emigration, on the other hand, beyond that to the UK, could rarely contribute to voting for its own nation.
Ireland's ballad entries began to slide down the scoreboards. The contest was won and hosted by countries in the eastern half of Europe for eight successive years.
Meanwhile, the impact of Terry Wogan’s BBC commentary damaged the Irish national commentary as well. As Wogan was Irish, and his wit made Eurovision entertaining, RTÉ had to compete for viewers with the readily available British channel.
Dustin the Turkey represented Ireland in 2008, shamelessly reciting the names of many countries to secure for the song its eponymous 12 points – the entry was called Irelande Douze Pointe
– making jibes at Wogan and recycling Ireland’s former Eurovision glory. No one was impressed outside the country. The viewers of Europe remained impassive while many fans in the Belgrade arena vented their opprobrium. Four months later the Republic entered the recession, the economy went into freefall and unemployment rose inexorably.
So what happened to Ireland's Eurovision entries thereafter? An uptempo song, Et Cetera , in 2009 failed to qualify for the final for the second year in a row. In 2010, 1993's winner, Niamh Kavanagh, won the national contest and represented Ireland in Oslo, but she was too old for the new voting public's taste, and her retroballad, It's For You , was insufficiently modern.
She only scraped into the final, then finished in 23rd place. Nostalgia had no place in a modern Eurovision. It appealed only to a fan group and to an age group who were not the most avid text voters.
In 2011 RTÉ decided to keep the same national-contest formula but this time invited leading music-industry promoters to find songs and match them to singers. Caroline Downey Desmond, arguably Ireland's most successful music promoter, matched the teenage twins Jedward – John and Edward Grimes – with the energetic song Lipstick .
In Düsseldorf, where the 2011 final was held, Jedward worked the assembled 2,000 journalists with ease. Their good looks, trademark pineapple-shaped hair and crazed screen personalities had wide European appeal, and they were much sought for photo opportunities and television appearances. On stage during rehearsals, they surprised everyone, and suddenly became contenders.
Throughout the week, as the European media had warmed to the song and the singers, the Irish national mood as depicted in the media was lifted from the morass of banking corruption, bailouts, austerity and joblessness.
Eventually, Jedward came eighth in the final – Ireland's second-highest ranking since it hosted the 1997 contest. But Lipstick topped the Irish charts and charted well in Germany, Denmark and Sweden, cementing the twins' position as a Eurovision act that could transcend the song contest in the music industry, unlike previous winners.
With Jedward, Ireland shook off its light-ballad legacy from its successful 1990s entries and bought into the Eurovision an upbeat pop formula with a narrative of youthful optimism, much in the formula of ABBA of old. Though they fell foul of the jury voting system in their return appearance in 2012 in Azerbaijan, Jedward’s sound was placed within an international youth culture and therein lies the possibility of a redemptive approach to the contest for Ireland and the restoration of a reputation.
Ireland’s 2011 entry was the first to be a truly commercial success, and one that was reported to have turned a small profit for RTÉ. Now that Ireland’s national reputation has declined economically, it has reverted to its former size – a size that makes it possible once again to use the Eurovision for gentle political purposes in terms of redefining a country’s image.
This year's Eurovision semi-finals are on RTÉ Two on Tuesday and Thursday, at 8pm; the final is next Saturday. Karen Fricker will report from Malmo for The Irish Times .
Brian Singleton is Samuel Beckett Professor of Drama and Theatre and Academic Director of The Lir - National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin. This article is adapted from his chapter in Performing the 'New' Europe: Identities, Feelings, and Politics in the Eurovision Song Contest , edited by Karen Fricker and Milija Gluhovic and published this month by Palgrave Macmillan.