We’re a Eurovision flop – and we can’t blame the televoting. Here’s how Ireland can fight back

The contest has changed. But we can change too. Let’s get people excited about our song, for a start

Eurovision Song Contest: Italy’s winning song, Zitti E Buoni, performed by Måneskin, was chosen at Sanremo. Photograph: Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/EPA

Eurovision Song Contest: Italy’s winning song, Zitti E Buoni, performed by Måneskin, was chosen at Sanremo. Photograph: Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/EPA

 

Back in the glory years of the 1980s and 1990s, Ireland won the Eurovision Song Contest six times and finished in the top 10 on nine other occasions. Since 2000, however, Ireland have never finished in the top five and have made the top 10 only three times. Last week we came bottom in our semi-final: Maps, performed by Lesley Roy, was knocked out with 20 points: 16 from the jury vote and only four from the televoters – two from Australia, one each from Malta and Lithuania. (Malta’s entry topped the night, earning 325 points.) So what went wrong, and how can Ireland fight back?

First, let’s not forget that Maps won points from eight national juries last Tuesday – half a country’s score comes from the votes of these professional juries; the other half comes from the televote. So there was some recognition, at least, from the music professionals for the quality of Ireland’s act.

This year was the sixth time out of seven attempts that Ireland have failed to qualify for the Eurovision final since our run of four semi-final qualifications in a row between 2010 and 2013

They didn’t love Maps enough to give it the kind of score that could have helped propel it through to Saturday night, however, with none of them awarding the song more than three points. This made it the sixth time (out of seven attempts) that we have failed to qualify for the final since our run of four semi-final qualifications in a row between 2010 and 2013.

It might be tempting to blame bloc voting or the introduction of televoting, in the late 1990s. Certainly, it would help if we could rely on particular countries to regularly give us douze points, in the way that Greece and Cyprus swap votes, or Azerbaijan’s jury supports the Russian act. But bloc voting does not make or break a Eurovision act, especially given other changes to the Eurovision voting process over the past decade. Countries such as Austria, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland could similarly have claimed to be victims of bloc voting until recent years, but all have achieved some success – indeed, a number of wins – in the past few years.

And if televoting were the deciding factor, we should have seen an improvement in our fortunes over the past decade, after jury voting was reintroduced, but we are no longer the darlings of Eurovision juries (at least not to the same extent as Sweden, Australia or Malta). Indeed, since 2016 we have done slightly better with the televoters than with the professional juries: Irish acts have won an average of 1.74 points from the televote and 1.66 points from the jury vote.

But one change that has had a notable impact on Ireland’s fortunes is the relaxation of the rule that required countries to perform in a national language. Although this year was an exception, with four songs sung in languages other than English finishing in the top five on Saturday, songs in English have tended to do much better over the past three decades. The national-language rule once gave Ireland (and the UK and Malta) a not-insignificant advantage, but the abolition of the requirement, in 1999, meant this dissipated.

Kasey Smith would have qualified for the 2014 final if voting had been based solely on the televote, and Molly Sterling would have comfortably qualified the following year if the result had been based solely on the jury vote

One thing that has united most of the Irish entries that have missed out on Eurovision finals in recent years is sheer bad luck. Kasey Smith would have qualified for the 2014 final if voting had been based solely on the televote, and Molly Sterling would have comfortably qualified the following year if the result had been based solely on the jury vote.

Another factor is the combination of countries drawn to perform and/or vote in Ireland’s semi-final. Ireland has been in the “group of death” for each of the past few years – even in 2018, when Ryan O’Shaughnessy qualified – but even before that Ireland ended up in semi-finals with many countries that do not traditionally offer Irish acts much in the way of Eurovision points.

This year countries such as the United Kingdom, Denmark, Latvia and Iceland could not vote in Ireland’s semi-final. A number crunch I did ahead of the night suggested Ireland were starting with a 47-point disadvantage relative to the number of points we could have expected had we been drawn to perform in the other semi-final.

But perhaps the most significant factor here is the running order. Since 2011 Ireland have consistently made it to the Eurovision final when we’ve drawn a late position in the semi-final running order and consistently missed out on qualification on those occasions when we haven’t. From the moment (way back in January 2020) that Ireland were drawn to perform in the first half of this year’s first semi-final, we were facing an uphill battle.

What can we do to improve our Eurovision record? To some extent we’re already doing some key things – picking good songs and being inventive/taking risks with the staging (even if these risks do not always come off). And there are some things we can’t do, as they’re beyond RTE’s financial resources.

In order to build up interest in our act, why not bring back Ireland’s national selection contest? Stage it before Christmas, well before Dancing with the Stars arrives on TV

One thing we could improve on, however, is hype. Many Eurovision commentators spoke well of Lesley Roy’s entry but in the same breath said they did not expect Maps to qualify for the final – a perception underpinned by the bookmakers’ odds. That doesn’t help. Italy won on Saturday; the level of interest in their national selection contest, at the Sanremo music festival, generally guarantees their selected act a degree of precontest hype, as would also be the case with Sweden.

In order to build up interest in our act, why not bring back Ireland’s national selection contest? But don’t host it in February or early March, when the ordinary Eurovision fan is fixated with Melodifestivalen, the competition to select the Swedish entry. Instead, organise it for sometime around Christmas. Holding their contest just after Christmas works for Albania, which gets a lot of attention from Eurovision fan sites with little else to focus on at that time of year. That schedule wouldn’t work here, given the arrival of Dancing with the Stars on the TV schedule once the new year begins, so we could select our song just before Christmas instead.

An early selection contest would ensure that Eurovision fans focused solely on Ireland for a number of weeks in December, especially if some of the Eurovision commentators and bloggers were invited to join an overseas expert jury, which would – alongside the national jury and, of course, the public vote – have some input in selecting the winning entry.

Also, forget about rules stating that songs can be released only a day or so before the contest. Let them be released as early as possible, to give the public more time to consider whether a potential Eurovision winner is in the mix – and to give the acts a few weeks to enjoy the increased attention they’ll get from Eurovision fans all over the world (a much-needed boost for Irish musicians).

Once the song is selected, continue to drip-feed news about how Ireland’s entry will be staged, but also spend time perfecting our entry. Then release a revamped version in early March, to again ensure Eurovision fans are talking about Ireland.

Other than that, the important thing is not to be afraid to take risks: the past few years’ winning entries have shown there is no longer an obvious “Eurovision entry”. There is no magic bullet here. There may well be years when, no matter how hard we try, our entries are out of tune with Europe. But, if we keep trying to do the right things, then, like countries that have been in similar positions, such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, we will begin to do better again.

Adrian Kavanagh is a lecturer in the geography department at Maynooth Unviersity

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