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Desperately seeking Daniel: Ivan Little visits the Daniel O'Donnell Visitor Centre

The visitor centre in honour of the Irish country star has attracted 40,000 people in a few years. Our reporter goes along to find a slick set-up

Published 18/07/2015

Ivan Little at the museum
Ivan Little at the museum
In tune: Harold Doherty, assistant manager of the Daniel O’Donnell Visitor Centreoutfits
Daniel’s big red book from This Is Your Life
Harold Doherty and Michelle Gallagher, staff at the Daniel O’Donnell Visitor Centre

The anticipation and excitement levels hovered between nil and negligible as I searched high and Dungloe for Donegal's newest tourist attraction, featuring the favourite son of the county, who just happens to be the father figure of country music in Ireland.

In the end, at the end of Dungloe's Main - and some would say only - Street, the massive poster of a grinning, but strangely orange-looking, Daniel O'Donnell on the wall of the old National Irish Bank building was clearer than any road sign that I'd found the visitor centre developed in his honour.

And, straight off, let me declare a (dis)interest. For I am no fan of Dan the Man. It was journalistic curiosity that drew me in to try to discern precisely what Daniel has got to lure 40,000 people in just a few years to tour this unusual museum piece.

And, before going into the Lion's Dan, I checked that no one I knew could see where I was heading. But, sure enough, Sod's Law dictated that a cheery northerner I'd met the night before at a rock band's concert in a pub appeared out of nowhere to give me a wave and a wink that said my street cred was shot to hell.

Undeterred, however, I was half expecting to join a lengthy queue in front of the centre's reception desk, but I was surprised to see there was no one behind it, either.

Until, on what was obviously a quiet day for the museum, a young waitress came out from the Bank Bistro nearby to take our five euro admission fees, giving us ticket stubs as souvenirs of a visit which I was sure I wouldn't forget. No matter how hard I tried.

The girl ushered us upstairs into a video room with such earnest enthusiasm that I didn't have the heart to tell her that I wasn't a disciple of the Donegal deity that is Daniel O'Donnell. She immediately switched on a video and the welcome to the world of O'Donnell came from a breathless Sir Cliff Richard, who was, of course, last year supported by Daniel and his wife, Majella, after a police investigation into sex abuse allegations against the English star.

Sir Cliff said Daniel was a warm, talented and genuine singer, who was totally committed to his fans.

And then, to the inevitable strains of Danny Boy, it was over to the man himself to guide us through his life story, starting with his kith and Kincasslagh, the tiny village 10 minutes from Dungloe where he showed us his first concert venue, his old homestead, the shop where he used to work and onwards and upwards to his successes at the likes of the London Palladium. The video lasted 12 minutes. It seemed longer.

And it was only after the doors opened up into the exhibition proper that it suddenly dawned on me that visitor centres are normally the preserve of celebrities, or historical figures, who are long since dead and gone, apart from maybe Dollywood in Tennessee.

But O'Donnell is very much alive and kicking the norms and, while his Dannywood isn't quite on the same scale as Parton's big asset, tourism bosses in Donegal are singing from the same hymn-sheet about the Daniel boon for visitor numbers, with tour buses descending on Dungloe day and daily, bringing a lucrative spin-off for the town.

Harold Doherty, who is the assistant manager of the visitor centre and restaurant/bar complex, says: "The museum has captured people's imaginations. We have fans from all over the world coming here. We think it's a wonderful tribute to Daniel and everything he has done for Donegal."

The overwhelming majority of the visitors are women, but, Harold says: "Their husbands do come, too. And they seem to enjoy themselves."

Friends say Daniel had to be coaxed by his wife, Majella, into co-operating with the museum organisers, but he certainly seems to have eventually embraced the idea with gusto and, indeed, he cut the ribbon on the visitor centre at its opening in front of more than 1,000 fans.

Daniel has given organisers all the memorabilia which was outgrowing his home, from his early exercise books and his first school bag to his favourite stage outfits, including the one he wore on Top of the Pops after his cover of a John Prine song, I Just Want to Dance with You, entered the British charts.

In a video, Daniel relates how he flew back from Singapore to appear on the show and, referring to himself in the third person, says: "Daniel O'Donnell was going to be on Top of the Pops with all the boyos with the rings in their noses and the Mohican haircuts and the works."

The museum is wall-to-wall Daniel, with hundreds and hundreds of photographs capturing his every step up the ladder of stardom and the place is also positively groaning under the weight of all the gold and platinum discs and awards he has won down the years, including his "cherished" Donegal Person of the Year gong in 1989.

And what's really noticeable in the massive collection of pictures is that nowhere is there a hair out of place on Daniel's perfectly-coiffed head and his trademark smile is never far from his lips.

Yet, no matter how much the cynic is tempted to join in Ireland's alternative national pastime of Daniel O'Donnell mickey-taking, it has to be said that the museum is a slick and professionally presented visitor experience, thoroughly thorough from start to finish.

And the sceptics don't come any bigger than me, though I've been proved wrong about Daniel before, especially when I covered one of his famous tea parties in Kincasslagh.

Thousands of women were queued round the block and back again for a cup of tea and a meet-and-greet with their idol, who was said to know most of his devotees by name. So, I challenged the singer on camera to identify a group of women in the distance.

He had no notion about which fans my soundman would pick out for him, but Daniel came up with names which, on checking, were unerringly accurate. As were the towns and cities he said the ladies came from.

Footage of one of the tea parties is included in the museum, along with another Daniel-defining moment, which I also reported on - his wedding to Majella McLennan in Kincasslagh in November 2002. The marriage ceremony in St Mary's church over-ran so much that I almost didn't make the satellite feed for the teatime news in Belfast with my late-edit report.

In the museum, Daniel's navy suit from that day and his wife's cream wedding dress are on show in a special corner.

And just for good measure, coverage of the nuptials, which were conducted by Fr Brian D'Arcy, is on a loop.

But another "romantic" video makes for hilarious viewing. It's the first one which Daniel ever made, in 1986, to promote a single I Need You (Honest I Do) and it features an awkward and nervous singer pretending to be on a first date with a glamorous girlfriend.

In a commentary in the museum, it's said it was an embarrassing and traumatic ordeal for Daniel, because he had to give his first screen kiss to a beautiful blonde model called Debbie Bowes. Her reflections on what it was like for her are not recorded for posterity, alas.

Almost as funny is the recording of Daniel's appearance on This Is Your Life in 2000. For, when Michael Aspel produced the big red book and told him it was for him, the shocked singer asked, "Are you sure"?

During the programme, Aspel highlighted O'Donnell's charitable work for Romanian orphans, but the museum doesn't dwell on the £750,000 he raised to help build homes for them.

But Daniel's own family do figure prominently in the visitor centre, especially his mother - his "mammy", as he called Julia O'Donnell - who died last year at the age of 94, half a century after her husband, Francis, who looks almost uncannily like his son in photographs in the exhibition.

A poem which Julia O'Donnell wrote with Daniel about her birthplace on Owey Island, off the west coast of Donegal, also has pride of place in the museum.

Everywhere the visitor goes, there's a musical accompaniment of a Daniel song along with the "gospels" according to O'Donnell, who proclaims that one of his pet hates is making records.

"I would rather see a sea of faces in front of me when I'm singing," he says, adding that he's in and out of a recording studio "quicker than a thief in the night and I'm away like greyhounds after a hare".

But the statistics in the museum point to a singer who has learnt how to live with the loathing of making music, having released dozens of records, which have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

It's also been revealed that Daniel has made history by becoming the first artist to have an album in the UK charts each year for the last 25 years consecutively.

Near the exit of the museum, close to a huge bronze bust of you-know-who, another massive bank of pictures shows Daniel with his celebrity friends on his wall of fame, including singers Charley Pride and Susan Boyle from Britain's Got Talent.

From nearer home are pictures of Daniel with three former UTV presenters - Gloria Hunniford, Eamonn Holmes and Gerry Kelly - but the singer says the biggest thrills of his career were getting to meet his musical heroes, the aforementioned Cliff Richard and American country legend, Loretta Lynn.

In another photo, Daniel is seen with Prince Charles, who presented him with an honorary MBE in Dublin 13 years ago.

As fans leave the museum, passing a shop selling Daniel's records and keepsakes, a visitors' book underlines the singer's remarkable global popularity, with signatories from England, Scotland, America, Sweden, China and Australia, though the majority of his fans seem to be from Northern Ireland.

However, in a final message from the star of the show, Daniel says he's uncomfortable with the term "fans".

"I prefer to think of my audiences as friends," he adds.

From church choir to household name ...

  • Daniel Francis Noel O'Donnell was born in Co Donegal in 1961 and began his singing career in the local church choir
  • In 1980, Daniel went to Galway to study Business Studies, but changed his mind, returning to Donegal and joining his sister Margo's successful band. He recorded his first solo single three years later
  • In 1985, Daniel met his now-manager, Sean Reilly, under whose wing he began to sell out concerts in England. He has since become a household name on both sides of the Irish Sea
  • In 2012, he became the first artist to have a different album in the UK charts every year for the last 25 years. The same year, the Daniel O'Donnell Visitor Centre opened in Dungloe
  • Daniel lives in Donegal with his wife, Majella McLennan, a divorcee with two children. They married in 2002

Belfast Telegraph

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