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Strictly Come Dancing contestant Daniel O'Donnell: We profile the Donegal singer

By Andrew Johnston

Published 26/09/2015

Daniel O'Donnell
Daniel O'Donnell

He may be parodied for his babyfaced looks and easy-listening country-lite but, as Daniel O'Donnell takes to the BBC1 show's dancefloor tonight, it is the Donegal crooner who is having the last laugh.

When Daniel O'Donnell steps out onto the Strictly Come Dancing dancefloor for the first time tonight, it will be to the sounds of Belfast-born singer Ruby Murray. The 1950s superstar may have set multiple chart records, but 'Wee Daniel', as his fans know him, has proven just as much a singing sensation over the past three decades.

And pairing up with Kristina Rihanoff to dance the waltz to Murray's When Irish Eyes Are Smiling is the latest, sublime masterstroke in a career that has balanced canny ambition with sheer, crowd-pleasing cheese.

Daniel Francis Noel O'Donnell was born on December 12, 1961, in the village of Kincasslagh in the Rosses region of Co Donegal. He grew up the youngest child of farmhand Francis and housewife Julia O'Donnell, with siblings John, Margaret, Kathleen and James.

The family's tranquil, rural upbringing was interrupted by Francis suffering a fatal heart attack when Daniel was just six, but the singer remembers his youth being an otherwise mostly happy time.

As a youngster, O'Donnell was a member of the local choir, before developing an interest in banking during his school years. Both passions have steered him well throughout his professional life.

In 1980, he briefly studied business in Galway, but abandoned academia for the thrills of performing in sister Margo's band.

The group format proved too constraining for the talented lead vocalist and, in 1983, he used £1,200 of his own money to cut a solo recording of Johnny McCauley's My Donegal Shore, selling all the copies himself.

The single was a local success, but it wasn't until 1985 and a joining of forces with manager Sean Reilly - who oversees O'Donnell's activities to this day - that things really started to take off for 'The Boy from Donegal', as his debut album would be titled.

Musically, O'Donnell has rarely strayed from his soft, country-pop style, give or take the odd dabbling in rock 'n' roll, or gospel, but it has been a winning formula.

Albums such as 1988's From the Heart, the following year's Thoughts of Home and The Last Waltz (1990) sold strongly and, by the early-1990s, O'Donnell was selling out venues across Ireland and the UK. The rise to fame came with a price, however, and in January 1992, O'Donnell was forced to take some time off, suffering from exhaustion.

He soon bounced back, though, scoring his first British chart hit later that year with a cover of John Prine's I Just Want to Dance with You. The song reached number 20 and even led to O'Donnell performing on Top of the Pops.

Since then, he has seen 15 of his 47 albums hit the UK top 10, one of which - 2011's Moon over Ireland - made the star the first to have had a release on the British charts for 24 consecutive weeks.

An even more impressive statistic is that in 2012, O'Donnell became the only artist to have had a different album in the UK charts each year for 25 consecutive years. He has since added 2013 and 2014 to that tally, and has three more months to ensure the phenomenal streak goes unbroken.

In 2001, O'Donnell was awarded an honorary MBE by the Queen for his services to the music industry and he today counts many of his formative influences as friends, notably Sir Cliff Richard.

"I had always been a fan of Cliff and, when my career took off in the UK, I met him at various TV shows," O'Donnell recalled in a 2013 interview with RSVP magazine.

"I would go to his shows as a fan and go backstage to see him. I think it intrigued Cliff that I was a singer myself - and yet I still went to his shows and bought my own ticket.

"Then he came to my home area of Kincasslagh, as a surprise celebrity guest for me at our local festival the year after I got married. That really solidified our friendship, because he stayed with us in our home.

"After that, Cliff invited us to visit him at home and that was how it progressed. We've been to his homes in Portugal and Barbados and he came out to Tenerife to us for a few days this year. It's always a lovely, relaxing time." O'Donnell has also experienced significant success in the US, where the Irish favourite has filmed seven public television concert specials and charted 18 albums in the Billboard world music rundown. In total, he has sold 10 million records around the globe.

But if he's popular abroad, in Ireland, he is a veritable national treasure. For years, O'Donnell hosted a massive tea-party for his diehard followers outside his childhood home - until it was put up for sale in 2013 - and the affable entertainer generally holds a meet-and-greet session after every gig.

Meanwhile, in 2012, the Daniel O'Donnell Visitor Centre opened in Dungloe, near where he was brought up. The custom-designed museum tells the story of O'Donnell's life through displays, videos and memorabilia, including gold discs, stage outfits and even the singer's wedding suit.

O'Donnell was 40 when he married 41-year-old Tipperary businesswoman Majella McLennan in November 2002. The pair had met on holiday in Tenerife three years previously and now divide their time between a home there and their main residence in Meenbanad, Co Donegal.

O'Donnell is the proud stepfather to Majella's two children from a previous marriage, Siobhan and Michael. In August, Siobhan gave birth to daughter Olivia, making Daniel and Majella grandparents.

Away from the stage, O'Donnell is a keen golfer, is proficient in Gaelic and has championed the Romanian Challenge Appeal, a charity for that country's orphans.

He has also supported his wife in her battle with depression. "There are times when Majella does get down, but in our case, it's very important to leave her alone," he told UTV's Pat Kenny in June. "And I don't mean go away from her, but I found that even to ask her does she want tea, she can't even answer that question. A simple thing like that is difficult.

"I mean, I don't understand depression, because I don't suffer from depression. All I can do is try and figure out what way you should be with somebody and that's to be there and not to be bothersome."

He has also had to develop a thick skin. The clean-cut crooner has been parodied in numerous sitcoms and sketch shows, most famously in Father Ted, as the spoilt, baby-faced country singer Eoin McLove, and in Chewin' the Fat, as the more obviously named Donald O'Daniel.

BBC DJ Chris Moyles has also taken the mickey out of him on air, while the radio comedy series Gift Grub frequently goads him for singing about his "mammy".

But there's only so much mocking you can do of a man who has uniquely won awards for being both the most popular Irish singer and most popular British singer of the year, not to mention racking up a host of other accolades and celebrity appearances.

And he is topping it all off with a role in the latest series of Strictly. "Earlier this year, I decided to take a short break from touring and told myself that I would only consider doing something if it was both different and exciting," O'Donnell gushed to the Daily Telegraph earlier this month.

"Well, what could be more exciting than Strictly Come Dancing? I love to dance, and boy, am I looking forward to getting started and being the best that I can be."

And he was being coy about whether his devoted fanbase would keep him in the competition - no matter what. "I hope they'll keep me a while anyway, but I think the dancing wins in the end," he said.

"Even though you've had people that have been fun and people like them for their personalities, as the weeks go on, the standard of the dancing rises so much."

As for his all-important moves, O'Donnell employed a typically corny and self-deprecating analogy.

"You know that race when you put ducks into water and they float away?" he smiled. "My duck just stuck."

A life so far

  • He was born in Kincasslagh, Co Donegal, in 1961
  • He recorded his first single, My Donegal Shore, with £1,200 of his own money
  • He has sold more than 10 million records since 1983
  • In 2001, he was awarded an honorary MBE for his services to the music industry
  • He married Majella McLennan in 2002, becoming stepfather to her two children
  • He has had a different album in the UK charts each year for 27 consecutive years

Belfast Telegraph

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