Dermot O’Leary honoured to compere show for President

Higgins to be guest of honour at special evening in Royal Albert Hall


Broadcaster Dermot O’Leary, the son of Irish immigrants from Wexford, is used to being watched by millions on X Factor but a summons from President Michael D Higgins is one of those moments that will linger long in the memory.

O’Leary has been invited to be master of ceremonies at a cultural evening in the Royal Albert Hall before a 5,000-strong audience on the last evening of the President’s state visit to Britain, the first by an Irish head of state.

“It isn’t daunting, but it is a great honour, a huge privilege,” O’Leary told The Irish Times last night.

“I haven’t told my parents yet, but I am doing so this weekend. I know they are going to be very proud.”

The invitations to O’Leary, and the musicians and performers came from the President. People did not need to be asked twice to take part, producer Philip King said yesterday from Dingle, Co Kerry.

He said the invitations had touched “a remarkable, emotional” nerve.

Titled ceiliúradh (celebration), the night will “showcase the strong artistic and creative links that exist between Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as recognising the significant contribution of the Irish community in Britain”.

Special guests
Special guests for the show include Paul Brady, The Gloaming, Glen Hansard and Imelda May, along with actor Fiona Shaw, broadcaster and journalist Olivia O’Leary and author Joseph O’Connor.

The “house band” could fill a hall on its own and includes Liam Bradley, John Carty, Anthony Drennan, Graham Henderson, Dónal Lunny, Mike McGoldrick, Paul Moore, Caitlín Nic Gabhann, Máirtín O’Connor and Brendan Power.

Some of the 5,000 people in the Royal Albert Hall will be guests of the President and the Irish Government.

The vast majority, however, will have paid a £10 to get in – money that will be used to support future Irish cultural events in Britain.

“I had young Irish emigrants come up to me at the airport the other day looking for tickets.

“I think the Irish community in Britain – the new emigrants, the ones born there and the ones who have been there for years – will connect deeply with this,” King said.

The occasion will be streamed live on the internet by RTÉ and broadcast later that night on RTÉ television, while BBC Four will broadcast it on television the following Sunday.

“They have been really interested in it,” King added.

Twenty years ago, King’s television series Bringing it all Back Home won a Grammy in the US.

“We went out into the world to see what had happened with the Irish music which had travelled in the heads of emigrants,” he added yesterday.

“The music found a new life for itself in different countries, such as Britain and elsewhere.

“Not just our music, but out literature, too, in terms of our cultural influence in Britain and the cultural interweaving that has taken place between our two countries,” he said.

For O’Leary, the invitation “is serendipity at work because when I was 15, or 16 there was no show that I loved more than Bringing it all Back Home .

“I had it taped on video and used to watch it all the time.”

Favourite musicians
However, he had not known King was its creator: “We had a cup of coffee that lasted a couple of hours,” he said, before effortlessly listing favourite musicians from Christy Moore to Luka Bloom to Paul Brady.

Culture, he said, helped to define the Irish in Britain, in the same way that it did for Afro-Caribbeans and other immigrants.

“We were more Irish than the Irish,” he went on.

He cheers for England in the cricket, “but for everything else I cheer for Ireland”.

Too often in the past, says King, the contribution to Irish culture by the Irish born in Britain has not been fully recognised, noting the extraordinary contributions of people such as Andy Irvine, who will perform on the night.

“He will perform My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland . He was born in London, but you can feel his love for Irish music in everything that he does,” said King, who said the identities of other guests cannot be revealed until the day.

Imelda May, the singer born in Dublin’s Liberties, will sing Kentish Town Waltz , which is about her early years living in London.

“A poignant ballad, it is about being Irish in England,” King commented.

Cultural evening

Three years ago Olivia O’Leary was one of the stars of the cultural evening hosted by the British government in the Convention Centre Dublin during the queen’s visit, where she joked “that we were all a little worried about the curtsey”.

Back then, O’Leary was “writing in the moment” with just 48 hours notice.

For now, her contribution is a work in a progress.

“If you were to sum up what I’m talking about, it will be about what we could learn from the Brits, and what they might learn from us,” she said.

Singer-songwriter Paul Brady will remember an earlier, far from happy time in relations between the Irish and British, when he sings Nothing But The Same Old Story , his recollection of arriving in Britain at 19.

Living under suspicion/ Putting up with the hatred and fear in their eyes/You can see that you’re nothing but a murderer/In their eyes, we’re nothing but a bunch of murderers, ” the lyrics recall.

For Dermot O’Leary, the 2007 Ireland versus England rugby match in Croke Park changed everything when God Save The Queen was heard with “utter respect.

“That, for me, was when everything changed, that was the moment when we had put all this behind us.”