Daniel O’Donnell: ‘I’m cleverer than people think’
Patrick Freyne meets the singer and the fans who would ‘smother their mother’ for him
I am in the Mullingar Park Hotel watching 55-year-old Daniel O’Donnell dancing with a broom. It’s midway through a three-hour gig and he’s gadding about, legs akimbo.
“There’s nothing wrong with the cartilage in those knees,” says Sandra Crerand who’s sitting beside me.
I have come to the Mullingar Park Hotel to try to understand the Irish country singer, reality television star and national treasure Daniel O’Donnell, by talking to his fans.
Before the gig, in the lobby of the hotel, a woman asks me to take a picture of her with her four sisters. They’re celebrating the 63rd birthday of Ger McGarry, the oldest sister and a grandmother of 17. Ger is a carer for her disabled daughter and doesn’t get to go to gigs that often. “Daniel’s the sacred heart of country music,” she says. “He’s the king, next to Elvis.” She pauses. “He’s next to God really.”
I’d do more than kiss him,” says Ger. “I’d let him scatter crisps on my bed.”
Their younger sister, Linda Byrne, is not convinced. “He’s too nice,” she whispers. “He pretends to be nice.”
The other sisters round on her. “He’s not pretending!”
Cora Malone, another sister, once sat beside him at a wedding. “She rang me to let me hear him,” says Ger. “The cheek of her. Then she said to me, ‘He’s sitting beside me.’ The bitch.”
“His wife is very nice,” says Cora, who won’t let it go.
“If he’d have met me before he met Majella he’d have married me,” says Ger dreamily. “I’d have sang, She Moves Through the Fair for him.”
“She wants a birthday kiss from Daniel,” says Cora.
“I’d do more than kiss him,” says Ger. “I’d let him scatter crisps on my bed.”
Daniel O’Donnell remembers the moment he knew he wanted to sing for a living. It was 40 years ago. He got up for a song at a hotel in Dungloe, saw everyone smiling along and thought “Wouldn’t this be a great way to spend your life?”
Music was always in his family, he says. His sister, Margo, also a country music legend, was singing professionally at the age of 12. His father sang too, but Daniel doesn’t really remember him. He died when Daniel was five.
Subsequently people have told him his father had healing powers. “He was a seventh son and I met this woman in the Albert Hall who said, ‘your father healed me and he was only a wee boy’.”
Might Daniel be a sort of healer? “I suppose people get great solace from singers. You see this in the paper, ‘such and such took someone out of a coma’.”
He’s never done that? He smiles. “No”
How did his father’s death affect him? “My mother always had a tear in her eye when she’d speak about him even years later . . . I think maybe she went to pieces initially and then she seemed to straighten up and go for it . . . But I don’t remember a trauma attached to it.”
It really didn’t affect him? “No,” he says firmly. “Maybe later in school you’d be round at fellas’ houses and you’d see [their fathers] and think ‘I wonder what that’d be like.’ . . . But I wasn’t the first or the last to experience that.”
The show opens with a video montage of Daniel – at the Royal Albert Hall, on the Late Late Show, his own wedding, Strictly Come Dancing – then the eight-piece band strikes up, and suddenly we’re watching the real Daniel in action. He’s doing a little jig with the accordion player. He’s pretending to waltz. He’s bantering with latecomers. “Were you making hay?”
He often ends each song with a little fist-punching dance. He takes to a stool for some slow numbers. He tells jokes (“Did you hear about the time Paddy and Mary went to the Holy Land?”) and whenever he does something energetic like a high-kicking jig or a broom dance, he pretends to be worn out. He’s only messing. He isn’t worn out at all.
The audience clap and sing along. Sandra, who is sitting to my right, gets up and dances. “Will you have a turn with me?” she asks.
I must look frightened. “I’m only acting the eejit with you,” she says, then recalls an earlier encounter with Daniel. “He came into the Tullamore Court one night and I nearly lost the power of my legs.”
On stage Daniel introduces his long-time collaborator Mary Duff for a few songs. “I always thought he was going to marry Mary Duff,” says the woman to my left, wistfully.
A few fans were disgruntled when Daniel married Majella in 2002. Had he ever thought he’d marry? “I didn’t know if I’d meet anyone I could be with for the rest of my life . . . I was very comfortable with her. She’s very easy to be with it. And we’re good together and we’re good apart . . . Maybe she was on her own too, for a while, so she became independent.”
Was the fact Majella was previously married an issue for any of his fans? “It was a bit of a problem for me, for a period, and we did split up. I’m still very much part of the church and we would have had to be married outside the church.” But then he missed her, he says, and thought “If God is the God we think he is, he wouldn’t want you to miss out on happiness, and we got back together.”
With Majella he got a whole family – his stepchildren Siobhan and Michael. “Majella sometimes thinks I missed out not having children but I never needed that . . . When Siobhan got married last year, Raymond [Majella’s ex-husband] came to me in the morning and says, ‘Now, when I walk Siobhan up I want you to meet us half-way.’ . . . Which was a lovely thing to do. Now Siobhan has a wee girl, Olivia, and she won’t know any different. She’ll just think she has three granddads.”
It’s okay Mary, you don’t have to defend Daniel, Patrick’s not an assassin,” says Lorraine. “You’re not are you? You’re not here to kill Daniel?”
At the interval, people grab drinks. Lynn Martin is kissing a life-size Daniel poster. She’s not really a fan, she confesses, but her friend Lorraine McLaughlin has been obsessed since she was 16. “Myself and my friend Susan, our parents paid for us to go to his hotel [Daniel once had a hotel] after passing our junior cert,” she says. “It was the best night of our lives.”
“She’s had three children and got married since,” says Lynn, “but that’s still the best night of her life.”
“So it was just us and all these older ladies,” Lorraine continues. “The next day they’d robbed the hotel blind – cuttings from his trees, anything in the bathroom, mayonnaise buckets . . . all robbed.”
“You robbed them?” I say, mishearing her.
“What would I want with a mayonnaise bucket?” says Lorraine. “No. The older ladies. Two of them had a big fight . . . ‘Daniel likes me more!’”
Another friend interjects angrily. “I’ve been pissed off for years at people saying they don’t like him,” she says.
“It’s okay Mary, you don’t have to defend Daniel, Patrick’s not an assassin,” says Lorraine. “You’re not are you? You’re not here to kill Daniel?”
“Ah, you can mock it,” says Lynn. “But it’s so friendly here. Look around and everyone is happy.”
I look around. Everyone is happy.
In Mullingar people tell story after story of small acts of kindness Daniel has performed. When I talk to him he downplays this. “When I go into a group of people I relinquish myself. I go with the flow. I suppose you would know that people had illnesses or troubles. You’d be aware of things in their lives. Sometimes people tell you things you wouldn’t expect – personal things or sad things.”
Does having an older female audience give him any particular insights into life in Ireland country?
“How old do you think the audience was?” he asks.
“In their 50s and 60s?”
“And you think that’s old? Sometimes we need not to generalise. You have to respect all the people who were there – there were some in their 30s and 40s.”
He doesn’t like when journalists come with preconceptions. He recalls an interview for which he had just pulled on an old jumper and wasn’t shaven. “And her first line was ‘I met him and there wasn’t a hair out of place and he was clean-shaven.’”
Does that frustrate him? “I just think about the other people [at the gig] . . . I don’t know what led me on to that – what were you asking me?”
Has he got any particular insights into the lives of women in Ireland? “There are men there too!” he says. “I just think of the men there thinking ‘Did nobody see me?’”
Do you know, I didn’t see the Father Ted thing at all. I need to watch it sometime. Loads of people ask me about it . . . I was amazed really [thinking]‘Imagine I’m that well known.’”
Does media perception bother him? The mammy’s boy tag perplexed him for a while, he says. “I would imagine that the majority of people would have an affection for their mother.” Sometimes you’d think ‘God have they not given up on this?’ But I never did things for the media.”
Has he seen the Father Ted episode with the character based on him? “Do you know, I didn’t see the Father Ted thing at all. I need to watch it sometime. Loads of people ask me about it . . . I was amazed really [thinking]‘Imagine I’m that well known.’”
After the break, the music starts, the lights go up and Daniel is in the audience! Polite chaos ensues as he sings Any Dream Will Do. Women surround him, hugging him .
He makes it to the stage without leaving one person on route unhugged, and clutching, inexplicably, a huge pair of women’s pants. “I hope there are no nuns in tonight!” he says.
The second half includes a tribute to his mother and a duet with American country star Charley Pride, who appears on the big television screen before singing with him. “It’s pre-recorded,” says Daniel’s manager Kieran Cavanagh. “I think the audience usually think it’s live.” The whole gig is over three hours long.
Staring at cars
While Majella has spoken very publicly about her depression and cancer, Daniel always seems more guarded. He says he just has no issues to discuss. But they had a difficult time a few years ago. Majella was treated for cancer. Her father Tom died in an accident and then Daniel’s mother died. “Majella and I were just talking about it,” he says. “Things are never as bad when you’re in the middle of them as they appear to people looking in . . . If you were told six months before that all this was going to happen you’d probably have caved in, but then it happens and one day deals with this and one day deals with that.”
Does he never get angry? “You would get annoyed sometimes, but I’m not the kind that accidentally breaks a cup and then dances round shouting and roaring. I just pick it up.”
When we go on holidays, I can just sit for hours doing nothing. Majella asks sometimes ‘What are you thinking?’ and I say ‘nothing.’”
How does he stay so calm? “I don’t know,” he says. He thinks for a moment. “When we go on holidays, I can just sit for hours doing nothing. Majella asks sometimes ‘What are you thinking?’ and I say ‘nothing.’”
Really? “Nothing,” he says. “And I’m not meditating – I don’t know what I’d be thinking about. I might have my eyes closed or I might just sit there looking at the cars passing on the road.”
Outside a queue has formed. After every gig, Daniel does a meet-and-greet with fans. I meet Lorraine and her friends again at a merchandising stand stocked with key rings, fridge magnets, gig programmes, mugs, CDs, DVDs, books, T-shirts with soft-focus pictures of Daniel on them and teddy bears wearing Daniel T-shirts.
“Buy us a teddy,” says Susan. I explain The Irish Times’ tenuous financial situation. “What about a mug?”
Ger is in the queue with her sisters. “At half-time I collared Daniel and asked him where his leather gear was. I love the leather gear. He said it was in the freezer. That it got overheated.”
Lynn says she wants to introduce me to Delores Hewett. There are a number of people here with special needs and they have priority in the queue. Delores has Down syndrome. “She goes to all his shows,” says Lynn.
“I love him,” says Delores. Her favourite song is I Just Want to Dance with You. She’s been driven here by her brother, Cyril, who isn’t quite as big a fan, but is touchingly happy to see Delores happy.
Hedonism and temptation
It’s a week after the gig, and I’m watching Daniel in the Late Late Show studio rehearsing a song along with the other luminaries of Irish country music. (“If they bombed this place,” someone jokes, “that’d be the end of country music in Ireland.”)
In his dressing room, I ask Daniel if he has ever been tempted by music industry hedonism. He looks perplexed. “Not at all.”
A lot of fans say they fancy him. “Well, they’re very reserved when they come to me.”
They weren’t reserved with me. He laughs. “Ah, they just joke around,” he says.
He’s widened his remit a bit, in recent years, with reality television. Strictly Come Dancing, he says, “was terrifying. I enjoyed it looking back on it, but I couldn’t remember the steps . . . They wouldn’t understand the broom dancing there.”
Maybe people don’t think that I’m as cute as I am – and I don’t mean cute to look at, I mean cute up here.” He taps his head.
He enjoyed the Daniel and Majella’s B&B Road Show more. It was their own idea “and we met some great characters, but I think we’ve done as much as we can do”.
His heart lies with music. “I think whether somebody likes my music or not they look up and say, ‘Well, that fecker up there is having a ball.’”
What’s the biggest misconception people have about him? “Maybe people don’t think that I’m as cute as I am – and I don’t mean cute to look at, I mean cute up here.” He taps his head. “[I’m] cleverer than people give me credit for.”
The photographer arrives. “I hope you have a young camera,” he says.
What does a young camera do? “Well it doesn’t make you look too old,” says Daniel. He shakes my hand. “If you could give the one man and the 30-year-old in the audience a mention, I’d appreciate it,” he says.
Acts of kindness
At the Mullingar meet-and-greet, everyone gets a warm hug and a photo. Outside some women are getting some air. One of them, Marie, is demonstrating a line dance. “None of them have seen The Slosh,” she says to me in disbelief.
She gets me to do The Slosh with her. She sings as she does so. Why do they like Daniel so much? “I think he’s ferocious honest,” says Marie.
They talk about a friend of theirs who died and how kind Daniel was to her in her final days. “He’d sit down with her and put his arm around her and ask her all about her treatments,” says Marie.
Ann Conroy, Mary Keogh and Nancy Chambers all met at Daniel O’Donnell gigs. Ex-nurse Ann remembers him from dances in Dublin. Ann’s daughter Aoife is also a fan. She is disabled and in respite care this evening. “When Charley Pride was on, I got my mobile phone out so she could see.”
Mary is also a carer for disabled daughters. “Daniel has brought joy to our lives,” says Ann. “He keeps me going. I have a 31-year-old handicapped daughter in a wheelchair. Only for him I wouldn’t be here.”
I see Ger, who’s been to see Daniel and is examining the photo on her phone. “You know, he hasn’t aged one bit,” she says. “Unless he got the botox.” She zooms in to examine his face in the picture. “No,” she concludes. “Ah, wouldn’t you smother your mother for him?”