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Daniel O'Donnell on sunny days with Majella and facing darker times

The Donegal superstar opens up about how he was emotionally unaffected by the death of his father when he was just six years old, his faith in God and people... and his love for Majella

By Barry Egan

Published 02/12/2015

All smiles: Daniel O’Donnell at his and wife Majella’s luxurious retreat in sun-kissed Tenerife
All smiles: Daniel O’Donnell at his and wife Majella’s luxurious retreat in sun-kissed Tenerife
Loving bond: Majella with granddaughter Olivia
Daniel with Majella

Daniel O'Donnell is not going gentle on the accelerator into the good night. He is speedily driving up a mountain in Tenerife in the pitch darkness. From up here, all you can see flashing by is the lights of the seaside resort in the valley below: Playa de las Americas on a weekend night.

His thoughts are almost as dark as the night outside. He talks of the death of his mother Julia in May of 2014 and how he had her hair and make-up done specially for her funeral; what a wonderful woman she was; what a great life she lived to die at 94 years of age.

His conversation then turns to his father Francis, who died when he was a child. Daniel speaks beautifully about it all. It's hard not to be moved by the emotion of the man.

The power and the depth of his words seem to sink in that little bit deeper because the car was enveloped in complete darkness except for the light on Daniel's dashboard and the light beaming off the stars up above us in the Spanish night sky.

It was the kind of conversation about faith, life, death and the eternal verities that I never imagined I'd have with Daniel O'Donnell. And yet, after spending five hours with the great man last Friday night in Tenerife, I wondered why I hadn't had this kind of conversation with Daniel O'Donnell years earlier. He is as charismatic a speaker as Bono, albeit far funnier in that laconic, dry, Donegal manner of his.

At one point when the singer opened up about his religious faith, I asked him would he ever ask God to make one of his songs a hit single. Or is it only the really important things he prays for?

"Ah, well, now. I wouldn't mind. If He saw fit for that to happen, it would be fine, too." Daniel hoots.

Forty-five minutes earlier, the tanned superstar, wearing a check shirt, slacks and sandals, was waiting at the arrivals gate as I came through from the plane from Dublin.

"How was your flight? Are you hungry? Majella has cooked something. We can get something to eat at the house."

The house, as it transpires, is a thing of post-modern glass-and-steel majesty, with a swimming pool and aura of a residence like something you'd see in an art-house film director's abode in Los Angeles.

Very sleek. Very cutting edge.

Very ... not the kind of house you'd expect Daniel to be living high on the hog in out here off west Africa. Be that as it may, Daniel O'Donnell is an iconoclast on many levels.

When we arrive at the plush residence, Majella is sitting out on the veranda with her bare feet tucked up under on the designer couch. Her daughter Siobhan and Siobhan's husband Gavin are sitting next to Maj.

Daniel pours me a glass of red wine. Majella lifts some dinner up for Daniel and myself - chicken wrapped in bacon and tomato and mozzarella cheese - from the exceedingly sleek kitchen. Siobhan's and Gavin's three-month-old baby Olivia is asleep in her cot in one of the house's many bedrooms. Daniel goes off to check on his grandchild.

Majella says that she and Daniel are thinking of selling the house because it is so child-unfriendly. Not that they seem to spend that much time here - despite meeting in Tenerife 14 years ago in Majella's parents' bar. (Majella told me in an interview last year of their fateful first meeting: "We were on that dance floor. And as we were dancing, he leaned over and he kissed me.")

Eating a bowl of ice cream later, Daniel says that he and Majella are jetting off in the New Year on a four-month cruise around the world, taking in New Zealand and Japan.

It was far from Tenerife and round-the-globe voyages that Daniel Francis Noel O'Donnell was reared, of course - in a house with no toilet in the Donegal fishing village of Kincasslagh.

Having retired to the living room area in Tenerife tonight, Daniel is soon lost in his early childhood and his love of singing.

"I can't remember not singing," he smiles, "from my earliest memory, you know, of going to the local concerts in the local hall.

"I'm sure I was singing in concerts when I was eight or nine. Getting up and singing. Like the priest would have concerts in the hall to raise money for whatever ..." Almost automatically, anywhere Daniel went - he sang. "If there was a party in the house or if visitors came, I would sing for them. Just like that." He remembers hearing the music of Jim Reeves and Charley Pride, plus the Irish ballads, like The Isle Of Inisfree.

"That kind of stuff. Strange for a child to be singing," Daniel says, meaning lyrics about the pain of being away from your native country like those in The Isle Of Inisfree ("And precious things are dreams unto an exile") and the heart-break found in old country songs.

"I don't think you realise what you're singing. I mean, what would I have sung?" he asks.

"Little cabin home on the hill," Daniel half-sings for an audience of one: me - "and I'm alone without you, my dear ..."

"So it's a love song but you're not actually in love at eight years of age. You're just singing it."

Two years earlier in 1967, when wee Daniel was six, he might as well have been singing a country ballad about grief for all that he knew - or understood - about death at that age.

"I don't think my father's death really affected me at the time and I don't know whether it affected me later, because I was too young.

"The others," he says, meaning his siblings John, Margaret (known as Margo), Kathleen and James, "were all affected by it. I mean, at the time I cried because everybody was crying.

"But I can't go back now in my head and think what that feeling was like. You know the way you can go back and think on things and what you felt? Like when my mother died I knew what it felt. My mother was nearly 95."

It is almost bizarre that Daniel's father died so young and his mother lived so long, I say.

"On her headstone, which is amazing, he was 49 and she was 94. The opposite numbers. She was nearly 46 years a widow."

Any advice his mother might have passed on to Daniel was, he says, essentially: "Do the best in life that you can and be as good to people and for people and for yourself as you can be."

"She wanted everybody to do well," he says. "She was very encouraging to all of us - not just me. Margaret started (singing) in 1964. So, my mother was involved in music all the way through. She loved the whole razzmatazz of it and going places. She went loads of places. My mother was very outgoing."

Asked if he inherited his sense of humour from his mother, Daniel says: "My mother was very comical. I think a lot of us got it, all the family. My father was a very quiet man, I think. He was a very holy man, too. And, I believe, a very good person. From what people say about him - people always talk good about the dead, but I think he was extraordinary when it came to people.

"My father was a labourer. He used to go to Scotland like a lot of people in Donegal and the west coast - Mayo and that area. He would go away in the winter time and he would go work on farms."

You go away for periods for work, I say.

"It's different," Daniel smiles. "I never worked as hard as he worked. Then he would come home for other periods and do turf and set potatoes and all that kind of thing," Daniel says, adding that in relation to his mother's joie de vivre: "I suppose, there is a great sense of fun in the people of Donegal. The people have a quick comment at home that would be so the right comment for the moment and it would be so funny and comical but you'd need to be in the moment to get it.".

By accident, Daniel provides an example of his particular sense of playfulness and wit when he notices that a few buttons on his shirt are open, revealing ample chest hair.

"It will be a Tom Jones picture in the paper," he smiles (he had his picture taken out by the pool earlier.)

With the moon peeping over the mountain down on his swimming pool tonight, Daniel can remember vividly the moment he realised he wanted to sing. He would have been 15 and he got up to sing The Boys From Armagh by Bridie Gallagher in a local hotel in Donegal. It was like an out-of-body experience for the teenager - a Daniel epiphany.

"I was looking at the people," he begins. "They were all dancing. They were singing along with it. I could see a smile, a happiness. I thought, 'I'm really happy doing this. Wouldn't it be great to do this all the time?'

"Even though maybe I hadn't thought about it before, or maybe I thought I wouldn't do it, because Margaret (his sister) was doing it. So it was kind of a strange thing for two people in a family to be successful at. You know if you want to be a doctor and you have the ability and education, you can have 10 doctors in the house," he says.

"But in the music business you need to be lucky. So I went on to Galway to the regional college, doing business, and I knew when I was there that I would always wonder what would it have been like. I left there and I travelled with Margaret for two years."

In February 1983, Daniel stopped wondering. He recorded his first single, My Donegal Shore. "I started a group and that stayed for a year and then I got another band and that was for a year-and-a-half, but I was going nowhere," he says.

"But then all of a sudden," - he clicks his fingers - "in 1986 ..." Daniel can recall playing the Millford Inn in Donegal in March 1986.

"I could hear people chanting my name. I was nearly frightened to come out. One of the band looked out and said to me, 'Daniel, there's people everywhere.' Stuffed. And from then on, that was how it was," he says.

After that concert, anonymity was pretty much over forever for Daniel O'Donnell.

Not that long before, on New Year's Eve 1985, Daniel had played in the Farnham Arms Hotel in Cavan - "and we took the money that was on the door. We got 163 punt. Count that up." He does the maths on his fingers.

"There were only 40 people at the most on New Year's Eve,"he says.

"The following year, I played to 1,400. It was quite amazing. I had thought about giving up before that, before it started to happen for me."

What was it about Daniel's music that resonated with people so?

"I don't know. I think the fact when I go back to that thing of getting the opportunity to sing. It wasn't just that I wanted to sing. I wanted to sing what I wanted to sing."

There is a pause. I can hear the night birds outside in the courtyard as Daniel thinks back on it all. "I needed to sing what I loved." He adds: "And then when I was trying to get going, people in the music business at every turn told me I was wasting my time. Everywhere. Managers. Radio people. Everybody. That was between 1983 and 1986.

"I always encourage young people now. I do think that the one thing that I would have liked when I was starting was encouragement from people who were established."

I ask him where he got the inner strength not to listen to the people who told him he was wasting his time.

"I just believed."

Where did that belief come from?

"Maybe I was cracked or something at the time. I just had a tunnel vision. I must be determined but I don't come across as a very determined individual. I'm very calm and relaxed. I suppose I had that determination. I loved the music. And I couldn't believe that the people who liked country music in the Seventies ... they didn't all die by 1980, you know?" he muses.

"The thing about it is," he says, taking a mouthful of fizzy water, "I'm doing - and have done all my life - what I wanted to do, literally. I didn't have to alter it that much to make it successful."

Is that why it was successful? The authenticity?

"Maybe. Maybe. I was what I was."

They never put you in a cowboy hat, I say, and big-heel rhinestone boots.

"Well," he laughs. "I did have a cowboy hat when I went to Nashville, but I only had it on for two ticks. I haven't the head for a hat," he hoots.

"I've been very lucky. But then people say you make your own luck. I do think, 'It will not last forever.' But it has lasted an awful long time and hopefully it will go on for another bit.

"But I do think there will come a time when it will be time to say stop, whether it is my voice or the audience goes first. I don't know which." (Retirement is distinctly unlikely; he is returning to the stage in Ireland next August for five shows in the INEC Killarney.) "You'll stop when you're dead," I say to him.

"My last breath won't be a song," he smiles.

Would he ever do an album with Majella?

"I did a few duets with her. But Majella hasn't really the interest in singing. The other thing about it is that it is difficult sometimes for a man and a woman to sing together, to get the arrangements right.

"Mary Duff is the best I've come across for me to sing with because our range is not too far apart.

"We can find a common ground. Now when Majella and I sing together," he says, "there is a lot of work."

It is impossible not to hear Majella laughing and joking out by the pool in the moonlight

What's the chemistry like between Daniel and Majella?

"Majella will speak before she thinks," he says. "And I will think before I speak. That's the difference in us. She has it out, whether it is right or wrong. And then I have to correct it most of the time," he laughs.

Daniel adds that the things he thought "you couldn't compromise on in a relationship don't feel important. Now I can't say what they are - because I don't know what they were," he laughs. "But then all of a sudden, it's easy. It's like the walls are almost cardboard. They bend without any bother."

The what?

"It's just if I was with somebody, 'Oh, I wouldn't be able to compromise on that.' And then all of a sudden, it doesn't even matter. So I think when you meet the right person, it is the right person."

Who does the cooking?

"I don't cook. She would do all the cooking."

Can he cook?

"I won't starve. But it won't be French cuisine. I wouldn't cook as a rule. I never cooked as a younger fella. The few times I lived on my own I would cook just for myself; I would have something to eat. But I have no desire to cook and it is not on my list of things to do," he laughs.

His bowl of ice-cream long since demolished, Daniel seems a man apart from the music industry, a 53-year-old full of sincerity, the owner of a heart without malice, the soul of a poet - a character with a quirky tongue on him and a way about him to match.

Later, when he dropped me back down the mountain to my hotel, he drove up on the path area in front of the establishment with a thud before jumping out to give me a hug and wave me goodbye and ask did I get enough food and to say that the hotel had laid on a meal in my room in case I was still hungry (it was in the fridge when I looked.) Daniel texted me on Monday, thanking me for making the trip.

The maestro from Kincasslagh is a total gentleman.

"The biggest trauma" in his life, Daniel said earlier that night as he was giving me the tour of the house on the hill, was when Majella was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.

"It was an uncertain time, because even though you're assured - or as much they can - that everything will be okay, you're just not sure. Majella was very strong. Incredibly inspirational, really - how she went through the cancer, you know?

"I suppose then you look at my mother. My mother had lived her life. Even though she was a huge part of my life and I adored her, when her time came, we were broken-hearted that she was dead, but you know, you wouldn't want her to live if she wasn't going to be well."

Did he take strength from his faith in those difficult times?

He nods his head. "When difficult times come, your faith is much stronger than when the sail is at full flight. You do really rely on religion a lot when something is not great."

Dancing on Strictly Come Dancing in October with Siberian siren and professional hoofer Kristina Rihanoff took "more courage than I had," he hoots.

"It took me by surprise, because I knew I would be nervous but I didn't know I was going to be terrified. I was literally terrified. I was never as nervous.

"Now the last night I was on," he says, "I felt I was beginning to get to terms with it. I remember saying to Kristina, 'If I'm here next week, I'm going to go mad on the floor. Let it go.' The next thing, we were tally-ho," he says meaning voted off the BBC show.

Did he have nightmares about tripping up during the routines?

"I dreamt about it. I was dreaming about dancing. Even yet, I'm sometimes dreaming about dancing. Isn't that unbelievable?"

O'Donnell will play a short season of 'welcome back' shows at Killarney's INEC next August 9, 10, 12, 13, 14. Tickets are available from 9am today from www.inec.ie or Ticketmaster agents nationwide www.ticketmaster.ie are coach & hotel packages, with concert tickets available from galeventman@eircom.net

Belfast Telegraph

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