So long, The X Factor. These top Irish contestants will always remind us of you

Simon Cowell’s talent show changed the world of pop music. Any maybe Ireland too

The X Factor: the first series featured Simon Cowell, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh as the judges. Photograph: Talkback Thames/PA

The X Factor: the first series featured Simon Cowell, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh as the judges. Photograph: Talkback Thames/PA

 

Amid the amusement, bemusement and schadenfreude that have greeted the news that the plug has been pulled on The X Factor, it’s easy to overlook the many ways in which Simon Cowell’s talent show changed the world. It has certainly made its presence felt in Ireland. Without The X Factor, John and Edward Grimes wouldn’t have soared to stardom, represented Ireland at Eurovision, become panto mainstays or made “’Sup, Saaanta?” a key national question.

But if Jedward represented a high point – or at least some sort of point – of Irish involvement in The X Factor, they were not alone in flying the flag. (By flying the flag we of course mean waggling their enormous quiffs.) And as we come to terms with the cold reality of life without Big Band Week, Hollywood Week or Halloween Week, here’s a countdown of The X Factor’s most memorable Irish contestants. Apologies in advance for any PTSD triggered.

The X Factor: Tabby O’Callaghan with Sharon Osbourne, his mentor. Photograph: JMEnternational/Redferns via Getty
The X Factor: Tabby O’Callaghan with Sharon Osbourne, his mentor. Photograph: JMEnternational/Redferns via Getty

5. Tabby O’Callaghan

Tabby O’Who? The career of the Co Sligo goth-popster did not soar after his appearance on The X Factor. But he was there right at the start, reaching the final of the first series, in 2004, where he finished third, behind Steve Brookstein and G4.

His route to the grand decider was unconventional, to say the least. The judging trio of Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and Sharon Osbourne (his mentor) had initially rejected his band, DC5. But they were impressed by O’Callaghan, straight from Central Casting’s small-town-metalhead department, and asked him to audition as a solo artist, which he did, singing Bon Jovi’s Keep the Faith.

The X Factor was an unknown quantity at the time. But 12 months later there was still enough interest in O’Callaghan for ITV to commission a documentary, What Tabby Did Next.

Coinciding with the film was the release of his debut single, Number One. It didn’t quite live up to its title, although it did reach number seven in Ireland. Later, it emerged that The X Factor had advised him to drop the “O’” from his name, to broaden his international appeal and “sound less Irish”. He is still making music, and has performed with the Young Voices Choir at the O2 in London.

Simon said: “That was just brilliant.”

The X Factor: Eoghan Quigg. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
The X Factor: Eoghan Quigg. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

4. Eoghan Quigg

The Co Derry native was a mere 16 when he finished third, behind JLS and Alexandra Burke, in The X Factor’s fifth season, in 2008. During his time on the series he sang Imagine, Ben (on Michael Jackson Week) and Nat King Cole’s L-O-V-E, for which he received a standing ovation.

Although he reached the last hurdle, his future was not all that glittering. Cowell had initially planned to work with Quigg via his SyCo label, but then he had second thoughts, and the singer later signed with RCA. His debut album, Eoghan Quigg, was an Irish number one and went in at 14 in the UK. Reviews were brutal, however. “It’s an objectively bad album,” said the Guardian. “So bad that it would count as a new low for popular culture were it possible to class as either culture ... or popular.”

Simon said: “I’m amazed you managed to sing that song” – he was referring to John Lennon’s Imagine – “so well, and I’m very, very proud of you.”

The X Factor: Mary Byrne at the Tesco in Ballyfermot in Dublin, where she used to work. Photograph: Alan Betson
The X Factor: Mary Byrne at the Tesco in Ballyfermot in Dublin, where she used to work. Photograph: Alan Betson

3. Mary Byrne

Mary Byrne was working at a supermarket in Dublin when she went on The X Factor in 2010 and floored the judges with her take on torch songs such as It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World. She finished fifth, not reaching the final. Of course, competition was tough: this was peak X Factor,with Matt Cardle winning ahead of One Direction. The finale that year drew 17 million viewers in the UK, a record for The X Factor and the highest TV ratings of 2010.

Byrne would later open for Neil Diamond at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, sign with Sony Music Ireland and top the Ireland and UK singles chats as part of The X Factor Finalists and their charity cover of David Bowie’s Heroes.

She has gone on to have a career in television, featuring on Celebrity Bainisteoir and on Virgin Media.

Simon said: “You have the best voice out of the everyone who has auditioned tonight.”

The X Factor: Jedward
The X Factor: Jedward

2. Jedward

“Twins John and Edward from Ireland bound onto the stage with incredible confidence – but have they got the voices?” This is how The X Factor’s YouTube channel captioned John and Edward’s first audition, in 2009.

“Guys, you’re from Ireland … be Irish … You don’t need to be American,” Simon Cowell said, having apparently never before encountered a south Dublin accent in the wild.

Jedward weren’t having it, though. “That’s how we talk,” they said before jumping into a cover of Backstreet Boys’ As Long as You Love Me.

Thus began Jedward’s ascent. They didn’t win The X Factor – this was to be Joe McElderry’s year. But they made it to the live shows and were credited with fuelling ticket sales for the subsequent X Factor Live tour.

The tension with Cowell clearly isn’t water under the bridge, however. “Xfactor has been axed,” they tweeted this week. “Mission Complete.”

Simon said: “Not very good and incredibly annoying.” (He was talking about Jedward rather than The X Factor.)

The X Factor: Niall Horan (right) with his fellow One Direction stars Louis Tomlinson, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Harry Styles. Photograph: Fox via Getty
The X Factor: Niall Horan (right) with his fellow One Direction stars Louis Tomlinson, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Harry Styles. Photograph: Fox via Getty

1. Niall Horan

“I’m Niall Horan, I’m 16, I’m from Mullingar, in the Midlands of Ireland. I want to be like the big names … Justin Bieber is a perfect example. I’ve been compared to him a few times.”

With those words Niall Horan introduced himself to the world. Or at least to anyone watching The X Factor on a random Saturday in 2010.

He looked closer to 12 than to 16. Nonetheless, the judges were impressed by his version of So Sick by Ne-Yo. Or at least some of the judges were. Louis Walsh was all for sending Horan through to the next round. Katy Perry, guest judge at the Convention Centre Dublin auditions, and Cheryl Cole both said no. They told him he was too young and raw and needed time to develop. The casting vote went to Cowell, who waved Horan though – a Sliding Doors moment after which his entire life changed.

The exit sign once again loomed for Horan at X Factor boot camp. Then Nicole Scherzinger, another guest judge, had an idea: why not have Niall join with four other unsuccessful hopefuls, named Harry, Liam, Louis and Zayn? Despite his misgivings, Cowell went on to sign the band – they were called One Direction – to a £2 million record deal. One of the biggest phenomenons in recent pop history was up and running.

Simon said: “I think you’re unprepared. I think you came with the wrong song. You’re not as good as you thought you were. But I still like you.”

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